Barcelona’s District of Discord and Catalan Modernisme

“Whats with the huge crowd over there?” I pointed, “the place looks really fancy.”

It was already 10pm at night, and we were tired, but the crowd in the opposite side of the road showed no signs of decreasing in size.

“I heard there’s a Gaudi building with a bar on tne top floor could this be it?”

“Hmm,” I squinted my eyes as I looked up at the brightly-lit roof of the building, “looks like it, I think I see people there.”

Barcelona is an atypical city, there is no city that I know of which comes close to the surprising architectural touches randomly poping up around the city: Singapore is a modern city built on rigid hardwork that looks beautiful and planned, Berlin is a poor city turned cool and therefore wears a complicated and garish mishmash of buildings, Copenhagen is this city that has always been relevant and well off, an possess an elegant and cool soul. Not Barcelona, this city is whimsical in a showy way but coming from a time long gone.

Barcelona is whimsical in a very satisfying way.

And no where is this more evident than at the very ironically named the District of Discord because, in my view, the disharmony in design creates a harmony of whimsicality and enlivens the whole street with personality. The District of Discord was originally a normal and rather boring street but was refreshed because of two things: one, a new art movement called Catalan Modernism and two, rich people wanting to out-compete each other.

Most cities that have gone through a period of economic boom are usually defined by the period of their economic boom, not Catalan Modernism. Barcelona as a city had a two periods of architectural flourishing, the first being during the Renaissance when the city was rich and was a base from which Spanish conquistadors and the Spanish colonial enterprise was heavily supported. This period that is memorialised in the Catalan Gothic architecture of the Basilicas around the old town.

The second period occurred at the turn of the 20th century, and emerged as an expression of identity. Spain at the end of the 1900s had just come out of a century of political turmoil, there was War with Napoleonic France, the loss of Empire, a messy initial flirtation with Republicanism and later on a Restoration of Monarchy.

While the restoration of the monarchy under Afonso XII and XIII brought significantly more stability to Spain it was done through fraud by way of turnismo, rigging elections so that a rotation of Liberal and Conservative parties would take turns to run the country. All other smaller parties were left out of the decision making process, among the political blocs left out were the Catalans (Basque nationalists, Republicans, Carlist and Socialist groups also). It was at this time that Western artistic norms had taken on the concept of Modernism, the movement was imbued with more than artistic tastes and fashion but also a form of identity formation, modernism became an expression and rediscovery of Catalan identity.

Modernism is called also known more popularly as Art Noveau and was a rebellion from the traditional form of art (known as academic art), and called for inspiration from nature and the natural world around them. This movement was something that engulfed all the literati of the day, from poets to artists, academics to architects.

And the city was a canvass on which these people could paint, because it was at this time that Barcelona had begun to outgrow the old town and a whole extension was required – the Eixample district. The rich moved over to the neat, modern and planned district. Being caught up in the spirit of the times, and wanting to display their taste and be in step with the latest fashion, these individuals employed the leading architects of the day to redo their houses.

The most lavish ones were at La Manzana de la Discordia, the district of discord. It began first with the Lleo Morera‘s who commissioned architect-politician Lluis Domenech i Montaner to redesign their house.

The Casa Lleo Morera won awards and was the talk of town.And their architect went on to other amazing projects including the Hospital de Sant Pau and Palau de la Música Catalana (all UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and rightly so). Yes, hospitals need not be sterile and aseptic, they could be colourful and beautiful.

Soon their neighbours at the Casa Mulleras, Casa Bonet, Casa Amatler and Casa Batllo engaged architects to redesign their houses.

Not all architects are equally renowned (even if they all have massive amounts of talent) and Montaner had one person who was a contemporary and certainly an architectural equal. Few people have left a larger physical imprint on Barcelona today than Antoni Gaudi, a local boy whose vision of Catalan Modernisme is so amazing, UNESCO has recognised his buildings as world heritage sites.

There was Casa Batllo, and the nearby Casa Mila,

not to mention the Park Guell, orginally meant to be a state-of-the-art upper class housing estate but instead turned into a popular public park.

But perhaps Gaudi’s crowning glory, and the structure that defines Catalan Modernisme (though it is still yet to be finished) is a Church, the tallest man-made building in the city, the Sagrada Familia.

It’s worth it to go to Barcelona just to catch a glimpse of all these Catalan Modernism architecture.

ON THE MAP (La Manzana de la Discordia)

ON THE MAP (Casa Mila)

ON THE MAP (Sagrada Familia)

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