Madrid is undeniably a city of culture and art par excellence. The capital of Catalonia although likewise graced with scores of museums and artistic centres does not transmit a feeling of enlightenment or artistic enrichment that is so manifestly evident in Madrid. Coming to Barcelona from Madrid is a culture shock. Whereas Madrid is endowed with historical buildings of tradition that reflect the potency and wealth of imperial Spain, Barcelona is more unrestrained and open to change. Although the Catalan capital has likewise a fair share of rich medieval heritage (maybe modest in quantity but perhaps more exquisite with regards to aesthetic beauty), the latter is a hidden asset, not a predominant feature as in Madrid. Barcelona’s attitude to open-mindedness and its ability to accept innovation and contemporaneity while preserving traditions and customs have produced a city that is as diverse as New York or Tokyo. Barcelona’s diversity and contrasting points of view have no limit.
One must necessarily consider first of all the avant-garde mentality of its heterogeneous population. A stroll along La Rambla (Barcelona’s most popular tree-lined promenade) from Placa de Catalunya to the Monument a Colom is enough to give one an insight into the character of its inhabitants. Carefree but hardworking beyond a forty-hour week, multilingual and yet they speak a peculiar language that is unlike Castilian Spanish, noisy and over-enthusiastic about festivities, religious celebrations, fireworks and football (Barcelona FC has its clubhouse on La Rambla) but still good-mannered and cultured, the people of Barcelona constitute a multicultural society that is constantly setting its sights on something new. Be it a dish of traditional Catalan fare seasoned with an unfamiliar creation of herbal concoctions, be it an artistic setup composed of beer cans and strands of wire, be it a vague imitation of a Picasso oil twisted and distorted so as to seem original, everything in Barcelona bespeaks creativity and suggests departure from convention.
Walk along La Rambla and you will discover how unemployed Catalan youths succeed through necessity in becoming mothers of invention. With a lot of ingenuity but only one basic cutting tool, a teenager was shaping ashtrays out of beer cans. His creative ability and nimble hands drew crowds as large as the ‘montaditos’ kiosk next door. He seemed to be making good money, selling each handmade article as fast as production could allow. A short distance further down and only a stone’s throw from Barcelona’s colourful Boqueria market, (an obvious vantage point for business) another teenager was engaged in the handmade production of wicker baskets. His girlfriend sitting nearby was contributing to the business through the creation of embroidered Barcelona souvenirs (yellow-and-red Barcelona emblems, miniature replicas of Gaudi’s architectural ripples and stained-glass windows, the words ‘Park Guell’ or ‘Sagrada Familia’ – all hand-embroidered on linen). Customers were allowed to choose a preferred piece of wickerwork and a matching patch of embroidery from the display. With the embroidered patch skilfully stitched on to the wicker basket in a couple of minutes, an exclusive souvenir of Barcelona, completely handmade and impossible to get elsewhere was ready to be handed to the client. Isn’t this inventive skill at its best and resourcefulness beyond imagination?
This feeling of ground-breaking ingenuity and inventiveness is experienced everywhere throughout Barcelona. Be it the regeneration of the Barceloneta coastline, be it the Rambla de Mar wave-shaped footbridge, be it the monumental Cascada in the Parc de la Ciutadella, be it the collection of exhibits in the Museu d’Art Contemporani, every attraction hints at innovation and creative ability. There are as well several spots within the city where innovation is so enthusiastic that it becomes an out-of-the-ordinary spectacle, curious to explore and freakish to look at.
Responsible for this bizarre style of artistry was a generation of artists and designers who for forty odd years between 1880 and 1920 through their queer architectural conceptions and achievements succeeded in changing the physical face of Barcelona. Known as the Modernista Movement and inspired by a diversity of architectural styles, this group of aficionados set out on an adventure of surrealism that eliminated straight lines, sharp corners and conventional rectangular window frameworks from structural designs and introduced instead smooth-flowing lines, curvilinear openings and ripple creations that flowed, bulged and retracted rhythmically.
The most prominent Modernista architect whose glorious achievements are to this day outstandingly apparent and unmistakably conspicuous is none other than Antoni Gaudi. Several buildings scattered around the city particularly in the district of L’Eixample give testimony to his extraordinary ability for giving life to architectural concepts that are not only innovative but strikingly peculiar. Midway on Passeig de Gracia is one of his monumental archetypes: Casa Batllo. Using sandstone as the fundamental material of construction, he incorporated in the design oval windows, bone-like stone pillars, ceramic discs, fragmented tiles, coloured glass and a spectacular roof (covered with overlapping scales) that looks like a dragon’s back. The interior is equally fascinating. Rooms are not rectangular and do not have straight edges or sharp corners. Their curvaceous shapes are as unique as the arches that support the weight of their roofs. The rows of pointed arches (a creative mix of distorted Gothic and contorted Art Nouveau) in the main salon are from an engineering point of view the work of a real master.
Further north on Passeig de Gracia, only a short distance away from Avinguda Diagonal is another Gaudi magnum opus. Not as colourful or eye-catching as Casa Batllo, La Pedrera is nonetheless equally amazing. The most striking external feature is the wave-shaped stone design that incorporates large sinuous balconies lined with wrought-iron decorative work. Crowning the complex is a bizarre rooftop adorned with queer-looking chimneys and dozens of equally queer-looking sculptures. The anomalous decorations and furnishings one sees inside are all Gaudi conceptions as controversial as the external undulating design. The avant-garde aspect of the interior is a sure sign of Gaudi’s ability to depart from convention and focus on contemporary styles. Even by present-day standards, La Pedrera’s century-old interior still appears as modern as any twenty-first century showplace of innovation.
A long distance north of the centre but easily reachable by Bus 24 from Placa de Catalunya is another Gaudi attraction. Gaudi tried his hand at anything provided his appointees for the job allowed him to exercise his talents without restriction. On this occasion, his magnum opus was Park Guell, an unusual landscaped garden which he completed with roads, walkways, steps, artificial rock formations, mosaic-tiled benches and an open roofed space supported on…well, columns. Gaudi’s innovative curiosities are undeniably a source of inquiry for those visitors who want to give credit to Gaudi’s work with more than a passing glance. What is, for example the reason for using both upright and leaning columns to support the roof of the Sala Hipostila? Is the purpose functional or is it perhaps an eye-catching detail thrown in to grab attention? Is the mosaic dragon watching over the steps a symbol of strength and courage or is it put in simply for reasons of embellishment and ornamentation? What is the reason for inserting a serpentine row of mosaic-tiled benches rather than a normal straight row? Is it only for the sake of pioneering the design?
Whatever the answers to these questions, Park Guell is beautiful and its appealing beauty emanates first and foremost from its unexpected and at times quasi-absurd attractions. It is easy to criticise Gaudi for his lack of non-functionality in most of the works he executed but… the crowds who visit Barcelona simply to see Gaudi’s works face to face are more concerned with his shocking designs rather than with their practical application. His works may be non-functional but never dull, lifeless or unimaginative.
The culmination of Gaudi’s colourful career was reached in the awe-inspiring church of the Sagrada Familia. As one exits the metro station right opposite the church, one is faced with a behemoth of stone so massive that it is impossible not to stop for breath in front of this colossal symbol of extravaganza. Looking from this vantage point at the majestic height and eccentricity of the eight needle-like spires that have been completed by now (ten more are supposed to be completed by 2026) is enough to realize why the church is still unfinished after more than a century. It is easy to get disoriented on approaching this sacred monster because as you go around, you will encounter three main entrances and not one. The grandest is the Nativity entrance, a triple doorway highly decorated with plaster casts of animals, scenes from nature and needless to say, Christ’s manger amidst shepherds and more animals.
Going inside is a feast for the eyes… or some think, a confusion for the mind. The forest of double-twisted pilasters that supports the weight of the roof unfolds into tree-like branches that are unquestionably amazing to look at. Going up the spires on the side of the Nativity doorway by a combination of lifts and stairs is unsuitable for acrophobes.