Modernista Walk, part one

From Plaça de Catalunya to Carrer de Girona

Tower on the Cases Rocamora

When bourgeois Barcelona spread into the Eixample in the late 19th century, it did so with style and plenty of do-re-mi, converting Cerdà’s formal grid (in spite of its original egalitarian intentions) into a glittering showcase for the era’s greatest Modernista architects and craftsmen. They made the Eixample into a colourful allsorts of a quarter, where mansions prickle with pointy towers or rest on waves of froth like giant cream cakes.

The successful entrepreneurs who commissioned the houses saw them as monuments to their personal occupations and preoccupations, with a charming bravura that only the most fey post-Modernist architects attempt today. In those less discreet times, wives and daughters would sit in the elegant glassed-in tribunas provided by the architects to show off the latest fashions to the passing crowds and offer the ladies of the house ring-side seats to watch the comings and goings in the street.

Today fashion has returned with a vengeance: the elegant avenues of the Eixample hold the city’s greatest concentration of designer shops, fancy restaurants and swish hotels. Although the fabled works by Gaudí, Montaner and company hog the limelight, this walk will help you find some lesser-known Modernista confections. Most are by unsung architects, who, like certain pop bands, had one or two hits before fading into obscurity. Yet all together they demonstrate how, for a couple of decades, the air in Barcelona crackled with creative energy.

Pere Falqués' Passeig de Gràcia streetlamps

The Eixample owes much of its delight to the Modernistas’ attention to detail, beginning in the elegant Passeig de Gràcia and its quirky-elegant street furniture: Pere Falqués’ ironwork street lamps topped with bats spring halfway over the street from white trencadi-clad bases, while sidewalk is paved with sea-green hexagonal blocks decorated with the same octopi, starfish and nautilus shell motifs that Gaudí designed for the courtyard of the Casa Batlló.

Heading up from Plaça de Catalunya, the Casa Pascual i Pons at Passeig de Gràcia 2–4, is a preview of coming attractions: built in 1891 by lukewarm Modernista Enric Sagnier, its fat towers with conical roofs are a good example of the solutions architects were forced to devise for the corners and angles of Cerdà’s cropped cornered squares, or xamfrans.

Towers in all shapes and sizes were a favourite, and inspiration could come from any place or time; one of the finest examples is the fancy French Gothic Cases Rocamora (1917), by Joaquim and Bonaventura Bassegoda at Passeig de Gràcia 6–14.

Casa Llorenç Camprubí

Turn right at C/ de Casp: at No. 22, the Casa Llorenç Camprubí (1901), decorated with floral motifs, fantastic animals and a charming cornice, is Adolf Ruiz i Casamijana’s excursion into the Modernista neo-Gothic. Opposite, the Teatre Tivoli (1917) is the heir of an 18th-century wooden playhouse: you may be able to peek in at the lavish interior larded in gilt plaster.

A rare Art Deco building, the Casal de Sant Jordi (1929) at C/Casp 24, is guarded by a statue of St George, that was in place even before the building became the ministry of justice of Catalonia. The building is a landmark in another way, too; its architect, Francesc Folguera i Grassi, was the first to reverse the floors, putting the owner’s apartment on the more private top floor instead of on the first ‘noble’ floor, where they had been since the Middle Ages: by 1929 a now familiar nuisance — the noise of automobile traffic — was just starting to become obnoxious. At C/ de Casp 48 is Gaudí’s first apartment building, Casa Calvet (1898–1900), now home to a fine restaurant.

Backtrack on C/de Casp to the junction with C/ de Roger de Lluria and turn right. Where it meets the Gran Vía de les Corts Catalanes, one of Cerdà’s three major boulevards, the monumental Hotel Ritz (1919), now the recently refurbished El Palace Hotel, holds forth, long bailiwick of the rich and famous.

Heading west (left) along the Gran Vía, you’ll pass at No.658 the Casa Oller (1900) by Pau Salvat, wreathed in Modernista ironwork; note the peculiar capitals by the door, carved with an owl, bat and lizards, the floral details around the tribuna and an equally lavish vestibule. Enric Sagnier’s Casa Camil Mulleras (1904) at No.654 is more subtle: don't miss the lovely vestibule.

At the corner of the Gran Vía and Passeig de Gràcia, the elegant streamlined stone and glass block facade of the Joieria Roca (1934), by Josep Lluís Sert, is a minor jewel of International Modernism amid a raging sea of froufrous. Its minimalist lines provoked anguished cries of aesthetic pain from the bourgeoisie when it was built.

A more recent intruder is Josep Granyer’s bronze Meditació (1972), a bull sitting in the same pose as Rodin’s Thinker. Cross the Passeig de Gràcia and the Rambla de Catalunya, and you can’t miss the wonderfully flatulent Cine Coliseum, a fat Beaux Arts palace of 1923 that showed the first talkie in Spain in 1929 (Ernst Lubitsch’s Love Parade).

Back on the Rambla de Catalunya, the eclectic Casa Pia Batlló (1891–6) at No.17 is by Josep Vilaseca, and has handsome wrought-iron decoration. His solution of framing a façade on a xamfrà with polygonal tribunas would be much copied throughout the Eixample.

Next door at No.19, the Casa Heribert Pons (1909; now the Generalitat’s department of finance) is a Viennese Seccessionist-style building unusual for Barcelona. It has balconies decorated with allegories of the arts by Eusebi Arnau, who also sculpted the goddess Diana in the ornate vestibule.

Turn left onto C/ de Diputació: the Catalan Encyclopedia Foundation is housed at Eric Sagnier’s Casa Garrigues i Nogués (1904) at No.250, with corbels depicting the ages of life and a sumptuous lobby. Two doors down, at No.246, there’s the lavish, recently restored Casa Casimir Clapés (1907), built by Joaquim and Bonaventura Bassegoda for a textile magnate, who made sure posterity would remember him by the reliefs on the façade.

Return to the Passeig de Gràcia to see the kind of commercial building Barcelona's middle class preferred — the Unión y el Fénix Español at No.21, or architecture with enough heft to lift even a mundane business like insurance into the realm of heroes and gods.

At No.27, Joaquim Codina’s charming Casa Malagrida (1905; now a bank), topped by a French dome and elaborate dragon weathervane, was built for an indiano (Catalans who went to the New World were called indianos or americanos) who made his pile in the textile trade in Argentina; note the eagle (Spain) and condor (Argentina) by the door and the original iron lamps in the vestibule.

Turn right onto C/ del Consell de Cent, where the oldest buildings in the Eixample are gathered. Where this street, now full of art galleries, joins C/ de Roger de Llúria, two blocks east, stands the simple neoclassical Casas Cerdà (1862–4), built by Antoni Valls on land owned by Josep Cerdà (no relation to the planner). Originally the plot occupied all four xamfrans of the intersection, but two houses were demolished and one disfigured during the Franco years, leaving only the one at C/ Consell de Cent 340.

Turn right on to C/ Roger de Llúria for the entrance to the Passatge de Permanyer, a lane of charming terraced houses from 1864, built in defiance of Cerdà’s plan to have only gardens in the blocks. Now it’s some of the priciest real estate in Barcelona.

Opposite, a dim, narrow passage at Roger de Llúria 56 leads to Josep Oriol Mestres’ neo-Romanesque Torre de les Aigües (1879), a water tower built to supply the first houses on the Eixample. Restored in 1987, it provides a focal point for a delightful garden of the kind Cerdà intended for each block and a favourite of local teenagers.

Forn Sarret

Retrace your steps back to the C/ Consell de Cent, and turn right. Two blocks farther along, at the corner of C/ de Girona (No.73), is the Modernista bakery Forn Sarret (1906), its façade laced with sinuous woodwork.

For the second part of the walk, click here.

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