One Street and Three Architects: Barcelona’s “Block of Discord”
Close by our apartment in Barcelona’s Eixample District was the boulevard Passeig de Gràcia, filled with tourists, many of them gawking (like us) or lined up awaiting their entry at one or another of the landmark structures. Among all the significant buildings however, is one block with addresses at numbers 35, 41 and 43 Passeig de Gracia, that generates considerable interest and lots of camera clicking. Between the years 1898 and 1906 three of the era’s most important modernist architects took existing buildings on the block and refurbished them in such dissimilar visions and contrasting styles that the street is often referred to as “The Block of Discord.”
We bought tickets online for an English speaking tour given each Sunday morning and joined a surprisingly small group of four other people to visit Casa Lleo Morera, Passeig de Gràcia 35. The original structure was built in 1864 and in 1902 Francesca Morera, a widow of considerable wealth, hired the renowned architect, Lluís Domènech i Montaner to refurbish the entire building as well as design a private residence on the second floor for the Morera family.
Morera translates to mulberry tree in English and representations of the tree are found throughout the house. The home is an astonishing collaboration by leading artists and craftsmen of the day and each room seemed to outdo the one before it by upping the WOW factor with stained glass creations, sculptures, original parquet floors with the mulberry motifs, woodwork and cabinetry, sculptures, mosaics and on and on. Everywhere we looked was another detail to draw our interest away from the preceding attention grabber. It was a huge stimulus overload of art, design, color, textures. Sculptures by Eusebi Arnau tell the tale of Saint George and the dragon while elsewhere his sculptures show several objects relating to the notable technological advances of the time such as the lightbulb, gramophone and phonograph, camera and telephone. In the dining room, surprisingly small because families of the era did not dine with guests at home, are seven mosaic panels on the walls by Lluís Bru and Mario Maragliano representing country scenes with porcelain additions of faces, hands and feet by a noted ceramist. We questioned one panel with a large patch of blue tile and where told that the mosaic was custom-made around a piece of the original furniture which was removed at a later time.
After sticking our heads into the open ground floor door of the foyer of 41 Passeig de Gràcia (admission free for the first floor only) we bought tickets for a tour the following day for the second floor. Originally constructed in 1875 it’s called the Casa Amatller after the family who commissioned the prominent modernist Catalan architect, Joseph Puig i Cadafalch, in 1898 to refurbish both the inside and outside. The outside façade was inspired by the style of Netherlands houses with its fanciful stepped gabled roofline and the inside is a rather gloomy but fascinating combination of gothic and neo-gothic styles.
For our tour we climbed up the spectacular curving, marble staircase, donned cloth booties to protect the floors which had just been restored and stepped back in time to the previous century. We wandered among rooms furnished with early 20th century period pieces. The motto here seemed to be, “Let no surface go undecorated.” Everywhere we looked – floors, walls, windows and ceilings – were adorned.
It was a visual assault of colors, patterns, textures and light and the very definition of extravagant opulence. Here, as in the Casa Lleo Morera house, the architect had collaborated with some of the finest modernist artists and craftsmen in Barcelona, all who appeared to be in competition to show us their best, and we admired stained glass windows, mosaic walls and floors, surfaces of marble and elaborately carved wooden ceilings.
The sculptors Eusebi Arnau and Alfons Jujol, displayed their talents with an astonishing assortment of dragons and knights, damsels and classically beautiful faces as well as fanciful creatures cavorting among vines and animals.
Next door to Casa Amatller is Number 43 Passeig de Gràcia and the iconic Casa Batlló, one of the most photographed buildings in Barcelona and one of the nine structures in Barcelona declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We had admired its extraordinarily over-the-top exterior on our previous strolls around the neighborhood and whenever we had walked by, there was usually a long, long line in front of it waiting for admittance. One day, with a few hours of time on our hands and without much planning, we joined the line, bought tickets (they can also be bought online to avoid the wait) and donned headsets for an audio tour.
Built between 1875 and 1877 the structure was bought by Josep Battló i Casanovas who wanted the prestigious address and a home extraordinaire. He engaged Barcelona’s favorite son, Antoni Gaudi, the renowned modernist architect who set about the task of renovating the building, both inside and out, bottom to roofline, between 1904 and 1906. Gaudi redesigned the façade of the house with walls of stone that undulate. These were plastered and covered with trencadis, a style of mosaic used in Catalan modernism created from broken tile fragments and glass.
Often referred to as the “House of Yawns” because of its enormous, irregularly shaped windows on the lower floors resembling gaping mouths, it’s also referred to as “The House of Bones” because of the decorative bonelike pillars. Salvador Dali, after seeing the house said, “Gaudí has built a house of sea shapes, representing the waves on a stormy day.” The sinuous lines and the feeling of gliding through waves continued in the interior space of the house as straight lines and right angles were avoided by Gaudi whenever possible. This created rooms that totally delighted us with their originality, watery colors and reflected and filtered use of light.
Surrounding himself with the master artisans and craftsmen of the day the beautifully proportioned rooms are a synthesis of stained glass, burnished woodwork and floors of tile and parquet. The house is crowned by a roof terrace every bit as extravagant and dramatic as the rest of the building. Said to resemble a dragon’s back, the iridescent tiles catch your eye as the spine wends its way around chimneys and a tower topped with the cross of Saint George, the patron saint of Barcelona.
The “Block of Discord” showcases three magnificent houses designed by three men with totally diverse visions. It’s a step back to an era where all things seemed possible, new discoveries abounded and modernism symbolized wild extravagance, innovation and creativity, artistry and astonishing genius.
By Anita and Richard