The Barcelona of Art Nouveau


Art Nouveau

Who has heard of Antoni Gaudi? Who has heard of Lluís Domènech i Montaner? The former is obviously very famous but personally I never heard of the latter until my recent visit to Barcelona. It actually turns out that Lluís Domènech i Montaner is Barcelona’s “other” famous architect . Lluís Domènech i Montaner was born in 1850 in the center of Barcelona and after studying in both Barcelona and Madrid, Domènech returned to Catalunya to teach at the newly opened Escola d’Arquitectura (School of Architecture) in 1875. He became the Director of the School in 1900, and over his 45-year tenure he taught several notable modernist architects such as Antoni Gaudí, Josep Puig i Cadafalch, and Josep Maria Jujol. In addition, Domènech was a brilliant architect and was responsible for several of Barcelona’s architectural gems; his most famous buildings being the Palau de la Musica Catalana and the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau. Both of these have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. 

Palau de la Musica Catalana

Often overlooked in favour of the most popular attractions in town, this majestic concert hall is a jewel of Catalan Art Noveau architecture. In 1891 two young musicians called Lluis Millet and Amadeu Vives founded the Orfeo Catala, a choral society that sought to fuse music with the ideals of conservative Catalanism, which was gathering force at that time. The choir started gaining significant success within the music scene.

In 1904 the board of the choir decided that it was time for the Orfeó to have its own auditorium. The project was assigned to the talented architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner who, in collaboration with the board of the choral society,  designed a very striking and original concert hall. The building is designed around a central metal structure covered in glass, which exploits natural light and transforms Domènech’s masterpiece into a magical music box. The Palau de la Musica Catalana  is the only European concert hall that is entirely illuminated by natural light during the daytime. This is possible thanks to the pioneering use of glass stained walls surrounding the concert hall, and the spectacular skylight above it. Both the interior and exterior decoration runs riot with its combination of  decorative arts: sculpture, mosaic, stained glass, and ironwork.

Palau de la Musica Catalana
The skylight in the Palau de la Musica Catalana

The Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau is probably the most beautiful hospital (well former hospital) that I have ever visited. The original name of the hospital was Hospital de la Santa Creu (Hospital of the Holy Cross) when it was founded in 1401. The name “Sant Pau” was added  later after Mr. Pau Gil, a millionaire banker who was born in Barcelona, donated money to build the new buildings and complex between 1901 and 1930.  Hence the full name of the former hospital: Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, known in English as Hospital of the Holy Cross and Saint Paul. The original Hospital de la Santa Creu,  resulting from the merger of six small medieval hospitals, can be found in the centre of Barcelona, now house an art school (Escola Massana) and the Biblioteca de Catalunya  (National Library of Catalonia). Over time, the old quarter of the hospital grew and became obsolete, and in the 19th century Barcelona required a new hospital. Thanks to de donation of the banker Paul Gil, the city council announced the competition for the right to design and construct the new hospital, which was won by non other than Lluis Domenech i Montaner. Unfortunately, the Catalan modernist architect died seven years before the works were completed, so he had to be replaced by his son, also architect Pere Domènech i Roura. Out of the planned 48 highly decorated pavillions only 27 were actually constructed. By designing this hospital complex around a quiet courtyard, Montaner’s primary aim was to create a special environment to cheer up the recovered patients. 

I honestly do not know how this guy ended up less famous than Antoni Gaudi – his buildings are definitely stunning.


Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau
Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau

The Basilica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia, or just simply the Sagrada Familia is undoubtedly Barcelona’s top attraction (I would hate to visit during the high-season) as well as Barcelona’s longest-lasted buidling site.

Construction of the Sagrada Família began in 1882 under the architect Francisco de Paula del Villar. When he resigned in 1883, Gaudí took over as chief architect, transforming the project with his architectural and engineering style, combining both gothic and Art Nouveau forms. Gaudí devoted the remainder of his life to the project, and he is buried in the church’s crypt. At the time of his death in 1926, less than a quarter of the project was complete. I believe that the Sagrada Familia is slated for completion in 2026,  just in time for the centenary of Gaudi’s death. 

Gaudi developed a multitude of new building techniques and structural forms. The Sagrada Familia is, for example,  propped up by huge columns of basalt and red porphyry. These are crafted in the shape of tree trunks, branching out to give an illusion of palm trees as they work their way up to the ceiling. Have a look at Designing Buildings and the Blog of the Sagrada Familia for more information about these novel techniques, as this is really fascinating.  You can also see them explained in a small exhibition inside the Sagrada Familia.

It is the combination of these funky new building techniques and the amazing stained-glass windows which make the Sagrada Familia such a beautiful space to explore (if only there were less people lol)

In retrospect, the fact that the architect del Villar resigned was probably a good thing as the neo-gothic church that he had in mind was nowhere near as stunning as Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia.

Sagrada Familia
Francisco de Paula del Villar's design of the Sagrada familia.
Inside the Sagrada Familia

In addition to the Sagrada Familia, my partner and I also visited La Pedrera (Casa Mila), Casa Batlo, Palau Guell and the Parc Guell. The latter I (unfortunately) thought was a bit of a tourist trap, but that is only my opinion. 

La Pedrera, also known as the “Stone Quarry”, was developed between 1906 and 1912 and is another amazing example of modernist architecture. As in all the other Gaudi properties, you can’t but wonder at  the decorations magicked out of glass, tiles, metal and mosaics. The attic, designed like the ribcage of a whale is full of supportive and spacious arches. At some stage it contained several apartments but they have been removed, allowing you to gain an insight in Gaudi’s building techniques. The roof, full of highly decorative chimneys, is definitely worth a visit as well.  

From the Pedrera we headed to the Casa Batlo via a small, quiet cafe for lunch. Out of the three buildings above, this is the one with the most stunning Art Nouveau interior, as well as the largest number of people. As the number of photos I take tends to be inversely proportional to the number of people around I did not take many pictures here. Sorry about that. But I promise you the building is just absolutely gorgeous both inside and outside.

The Palau Guell, is probably the least well known of the three buildings by Gaudi. Its interior is also the most gothic looking one, but it is gothic in an Art Nouveau style. 

The only disadvantage of visiting these architectural gems is that it will set you back a fair whack. The entrance fee for the Sagrada Familia was 35 Euros while a ticket for the Casa Batlo cost you 25 Euros.

Casa Batlo

If after visiting the Gothic Quarter and the fantastic buildings by Domenech and Gaudi, you think you have seen Barcelona, you have something else coming. There is so much more to see – no rest for the wicked. Click here to see what else lies in store.

La Pedrera
La Pedrera
La Pedrera's Attic
Palau Guell
Palau Guell
Parc Guell