Barcelona and Modernism

Towards the end of the 19th century, Barcelona was looking towards Europe. It was transforming and expanding, embracing the changes driven by the Industrial Revolution and moving towards a modern society. In terms of culture, many movements in literature, music and art were also being experienced. It was a time of great action, and a marked cultural transformation was taking place. This was especially noticeable in the revival of Catalan values in the movement known as the Renaixença (Rebirth).

The new situation which was being experienced in Barcelona, which was becoming one of the European cities with the greatest potential, was largely due to the organisation of the First International Exhibition in Spain in 1888. Driven by this great event, Barcelona experienced a significant push in terms of the construction of buildings and other urban developments, consequently boosting its economic growth.

Also contributing to this growth, to a very great extent, were los indianos – Spaniards who had settled in Latin America – who werereturning home to Spain as a result of the “disaster of ‘98” (the Spanish-American War), and the loss of the last colonies. They arrived, bringing their fortunes with them, shrouded in an air of modernity and eager to bring about changes. They invested heavily in culture, and their legacy can still be seen today in politics, music, literature and, not least, architecture.

Barcelona was living at a different pace to the rest of Spain, and this was evident in the economic prosperity which grew out of the subsequent rise of the bourgeoisie. Passeig de Gràcia, the former road between Ciutat Vella and the old town of Gràcia, nowadays a district of Barcelona, became, at the beginning of the 20th century, a highly fashionable and prestigious avenue. The inhabitants of Barcelona used to enjoy strolling along Passeig de Gràcia, in which all the most luxurious shops could be found, and it became a desirable area on which this social class set their sights. The Catalan middle class, and in particular the wealthiest businessmen, wanted to build their houses there, and that is exactly what the textile industrialist, Josep Batlló, did; and not only did he pick the most distinguished location, but he also chose the most prominent architect: the brilliant Antoni Gaudí.

To realise his plan, Josep Batlló bought a sober building, with the intention of turning it into something spectacular. In the same block, Casa Amatller had already been built by Puig i Cadafalch, and Casa Lleó Morera by Domènech i Montaner. The result was three unique modernist buildings designed by the most famous architects of the modernist movement, all competing for the accolade of most beautiful building. They are known affectionately, in reference to Greek mythology, by the nickname “la Manzana de la Discordia” – a play on words, as it means both the Apple of Discord, and the Block of Discord.

It was the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. It was the age of Modernism, which also contributed greatly to the transformation of Barcelona.

Modernism was a cultural movement which impacted on all manifestations of art and thinking; however it was in architecture that reached its true pinnacle. This movement was very well received in Catalonia, with such representatives in the field of architecture as Domènech i Montaner, Puig i Cadafalch and Antoni Gaudí. Various modernist painters used to meet in the literary cafe “Els Quatre gats”, which was housed in a building designed by Puig i Cadafalch, and which would later become a frequent haunt of Picasso, Rusiñol and Casas, among others.

Modernism as a style is characterised, among other things, by the predominance of curved lines, asymmetry, a dynamism of forms, the use of plant motifs, and the merging of the functional and the aesthetic. It represents a break with everything that came before it, a search for modernity in all aspects of life, and it possesses a certain optimism which reflects the good times it was living through. In a period of industrial predominance, modernism combined the use of new materials with a profound reappraisal of trades and traditional elements.

Domènech i Montaner played a key role in the definition of “Architectural Modernism” through an article in which he set out the key points necessary for architecture to reflect the Catalan national character. His works are characterised, among other things, by curving shapes and ornamental features inspired by Hispano-Moorish architecture, which can be seen in his 1908 work, the Palau de la Música Catalana.

Puig i Cadafalch, a student of Domènech i Montaner, is the mastermind behind Casa Amatller, built in 1900. It is a mixture of Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque and various other styles. The crown of the facade, in fact, is reminiscent of houses in the Netherlands.

Antonio Gaudí became one of the main exponents of this movement.

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