Residents of Barcelona call the house “La Pedrera” (The Quarry) or “Casa Mila” after its first owners and, when we saw this totally unique abode, it was hard for us to put into words what was in front of our eyes. The building, constructed between 1906 and 1910, was an earthy sinuous form with a undulating exterior adorned with angular, black, wrought iron balconies as a startling contrast. Perhaps because of our particular cultural backgrounds of Saturday morning cartoons we thought at once of “The Flintstones” and a huge “Yabba Dabba Doo” cave-like dwelling rather than a quarry with its crumbled rocks and (Barney) rubble strewn ground. Whatever we thought though, we knew we had to see this most unusual building. Disheartened at first by the long lines waiting for admittance we found another entry with a much shorter line and paid six Euros extra each for the privilege of an expedited entry into the building.
We’d done a bit of homework before our visit and learned that, in keeping with the other affluent Barcelona residents of the day (and no different from now) the original owners, Pera Mila and his wife, Roser Segimon (of whom it was rumored he’d fallen for her purse rather than her charms) hoped to dazzle and impress their fellow neighbors. To that end they engaged one of the premier architects of the 20th century and Barcelona’s favorite son, Antoni Gaudi, to design a trendy apartment building which included their own very spacious apartment. And, whatever their original intentions, it looks like they gave Gaudi free rein. Gaudi was a fascinating man. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were coppersmiths and he grew up with the artisan heritage. In his youth he was greatly influenced by nature and incorporated this theme into his works throughout his life. Upon graduating as an architect in Barcelona in 1878 a professor is reputed to have remarked, “Either we’ve graduated a genius or a madman.” In his early professional life he worked for and on behalf of the proletariat, then moved on to the bourgeoisie and finally became a devout Catholic and remained so until his death working under the auspices of the Church. It was during the middle period, when working with the bourgeoisie, that he accepted the commission to design the Casa Mila. After receiving our tickets for a self-guided tour we were equipped with audio headsets, selected English as our language of choice and were transported via the original elevator to THE ROOF. The nearby roofs were just as expected, unspectacularly cluttered with satellite dishes, TV antennas, air shafts, duct works, AC units, the occasional solar panel and cats. But Casa Mila’s roof was a fantasyland: a kaleidoscopic arrangement of varied elevations with chimneys, ventilation shafts and duct works ornamented by sculptural coverings topped by what might have been mistaken as medieval knights wearing helmets. Some, decorating the ventilation shafts and the exits in particular, were covered with broken ceramic and marble tiles or glass forming colorful mosaics which reflected the sunlight. It wasn’t hard to imagine ourselves playing hide-n-seek in the vast, multi-leveled surface that wrapped around the light well dropping down through the floors. Following a staircase down a few steps we entered into the attic, originally a laundry and storage area, designed so that heat could rise through and out the open exits to keep the attic cool. This was not the typical, cramped and dingy attic of old but a huge space filled with 273 brick parabolic arches of varying heights that corresponded with the topography of the roof for which they provided support. Windows were placed intermittently and allowed light in, lending an airy and expansive feeling to this area. A small museum with models of Gaudi’s other defining works were on display. Dropping down one level we were able to tour the one large apartment on the sixth floor open to the public, a welcoming, gracious and spacious living space. (We were ready right then to beckon for our suitcases!) There were windows on the exterior walls, facing the city, and on the interior walls, facing the central light well so that each room was filled with natural light. No detail escaped Gaudi’s attention and the walls, ceilings, parquet and tiled floors, windows and window frames, doors and door frames, door handles and door pulls were all his creations: graceful, whimsical, beautiful designs that worked together and reflected his genius. And the size of the place – there were, if the count was correct, twelve rooms: a children’s bedroom, nanny’s room, sewing room, kitchen, bathroom, formal sitting and dining rooms, a master bedroom with ensuite bath (a novelty at the time) and more. The apartment was furnished in period pieces reflecting elegance and good taste, posh and plush. Pere Milà died in 1940 and his wife, Roser Segimon, sold the building in 1946. Over the years additional apartments were added and the space housed offices, an academy and even a bingo hall. By the 1980’s Casa Milà was in poor condition and deteriorating while many of Gaudi’s decorative elements were lost forever with each renovation. However, in 1969 Gaudi’s work received official recognition as an Historico-artistic Monument and in 1984 his work was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites for its “uniqueness, artistic and heritage value.” In 1986 the Caixa de Catalunya Foundation bought La Pedrera and urgently needed work began in the following year on the restoration and cleaning of the façade as well as, eventually, all of the locations now open to the public.
It’s not hard to imagine what the residents of Barcelona thought during the construction of La Pedrera, a controversial building totally unique to its time. It was filled with many architectural innovations such as an underground parking structure built to accommodate Senior Milas’s automobile and novelties including an elevator, a rarity at the time. However, we knew what we thought about Casa Mila by the time we reached the lobby in the planta baja (the ground floor) and returned our audio headsets. Taking a last look around the entrance with its sweeping staircase leading to the upper floors we knew that we had truly been gifted by seeing this work of Antoni Gaudi, the talented genius-madman architect. By Richard and Anita