Barcelona had boomed in the 1870s, notably through exporting textiles and wine to Latin America. The population had quadrupled in 60 years. Stock prices had soared during the Febre d'Or 'Gold fever'; the medieval walls had gone down, the Eixample had been laid out, and the first palaces were going up. The Renaixença, with its new found pride in all things Catalan, was in full swing.
But by the early 1880s, the mood in Barcelona had turned glum. Phylloxera had devastated the vineyards, leaving the city and its hinterland without any brandy to sell, sending it into a
depression. Unemployed workers filled Barcelona and no one could see a way out, until the city's exhuberant Mayor Francesc de Paula Ruis i Taulet came up with the perfect solution: why not stage a World's Fair?
He even had the ideal location: the new Parc de la Ciutadella was the perfect spot to strut Barcelona's stuff. Ruis talked Madrid into granting a loan to pay for it. What's more (and well aware the Eiffel Tower was inching its way up in Paris for the 1889 Expostion) he boasted that Barcelona's fair that would 'dazzle the universe' and show that the Catalans were indeed 'the Yankees of Europe'. Furthermore, the big show would be ready by May 1888—in a mere 11 months.
In spite of all the doomsday predictions, the project lurched full speed ahead. Works already under way, such as the Columbus Monument begun in 1881, were rushed through to completion. A triumphal arch was quickly added to the Passeig Lluís Companys, which was lined with bronze statues of Catalan heroes to form a suitable ceremonial entrance. Domènech i Montaner designed the early Modernista Castle of the Three Dragons coffee house, a building that dazzled fairgoers even if it wasn't quite finished on time; Gaudí contributed the Pabellón de la Compañía Trasatlántica. Other structures were more ephemeral, such as the six-foot castle entirely carved out of Manchego cheese.
Equally ephemeral but considerable larger was Domènech i Montaner’s Hotel Internacional. Barcelona at the time had no first-class hotel rooms to house all its expected guests and in a mere 53 days before the opening of the fair, Domènech and his 2,000 workers built a five-floor, steel-frame, brick-clad, 500-room hotel by the sea, using prefabricated models and workdays extended by Passeig de Colom’s brand new electric lights (the first installed in the city). Part of the hotel extended on to a floating platform. Photos show that, as huge as it was, it didn’t stint on design and had a beautiful Modernista courtyard. Remarkably Domènech even kept within his budget. To the regret of many at the time and today (especially anyone who arrives in the city without a reservation), the Internacional was also the world’s first disposable hotel, and was razed the next year.
As World's Fairs go, the Universal Exhibition was a flop. It was scarcely 'universal'. The handful of other countries who did contribute pavilions didn't make much of an effort, saving all their good stuff for Paris. It left the city deeply in debt.
Even so, in hindsight, most city historians believe that Ruis was right, that the Exhibition was a key event that kept Barcelona from sliding irrevocably into provincial backwaters. It boosted morale, and in desperate times it gave employment to thousands. It also gave Barcelona its first recognition as a major 'European' city.
The vast majority of visitors were from Catalonia, and for many it was their first taste of the Renaixença; the Catalan choral societies in particular were a huge hit. It was also their first look at Barcelona's own quirky brand of Art Nouveau, or Modernisme, and they went home enthused; it wasn't long before Modernista works were springing up all across the region.
Besides Modernism, it also gave Barcelona something that would serve it well in the 20th century: a taste for tooting its own horn, as seen in the International Exhibition of 1929 and the Olympics in 1992.
Images by: Public Domain