Like most first time tourists in Barcelona we put some time into reading online recommendations of sights to see, blog posts and, of course, our hero Rick Steves, who blitzes into an area, does a kamikaze run and finds amazing places and highpoints to mention to the masses and then moves on to his next big find. Surprisingly, our destination, Sant Pau Recinte Modernista wasn’t mentioned in the guidebook we had and received scant, if any, attention in our other sources. In fact, we found this UNESCO World Heritage Site by accident when we spread our tourist map on the table and started googling the sights. On our map the Sant Pau Site takes up something like nine square Barcelona-size blocks, a vast amount of space and stands out on that fact alone. Located just a fifteen minute walk from the iconic La Sagrada Familia it’s overshadowed by Barcelona’s multitude of tourist offerings but, the more we read about this place, the more intrigued we became. And hey, we liked the fact that we didn’t have to stand in a long line and the cost was 8 Euros, a bargain by any standard.
We approached the gate to this amazing complex along a side wall and were allowed tantalizing glimpses of the buildings within through several ten foot high iron gates. The original location of The Hospital de la Santa Creu (the Hospital of the Holy Cross) dates from 1401 when the Council of One Hundred, the forerunner of the municipal council, and the Cathedral Chapter agreed to merge the six existing hospitals in the city of Barcelona. Located in the center of the city, it served the city’s residents for several centuries. However, by the late nineteenth century, due to the rapid growth of Barcelona’s population and advances in medicine, the hospital became outdated and was unable to provide for its citizens’ needs; it was decided to construct a new facility.
Enter Pau Gil, a Catalan banker who left a philanthropic bequest for a new hospital which would bring together the latest innovations in technology, architecture and medicine and whose name would grace the completed complex, the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau. An architect of European renown, one of the outstanding figures of Catalan Modernisme, was commissioned to design the new facility. And here’s where architecture and art merge. Lluís Domènech i Montaner put an ingenious twist on the traditional concept of memorializing the medieval hospital’s history, religious and cultural values. He envisioned an area in the form of a cross (obvious symbolism here) as a “city within a city” sitting 45 degrees off from the urban grid where each building was assigned a different medical specialty. And what buildings they were!
Unlike any previous hospital these edifices lifted the very spirits of all who entered by combining natural lighting and ventilation with huge splashes of color from stained glass windows, mosaics, paintings, tiled roofs, turrets and arches contrasted against the dignified elegance of red brick and sculptures of disparate figures of angels and gargoyles, flowers and dragons. The gardens were a unique inspiration by Domènech as they were designed to be used by the patients and their families as a cheerful and optimistic setting during the recuperative process. The grounds brought open space, nature’s beauty and life into a total holistic approach to health and well-being.
Domènech began building his Art Nouveau masterwork in 1902 using only materials of the finest quality for its construction and hiring only the most skilled craftsmen who were artists in their own right. Sadly he did not live to see its completion and upon his death in 1923 his son, Pere Domènech i Roura, took charge of his father’s magnum opus. When the hospital was formally opened in 1930 there were a total of twenty-seven buildings, sixteen pavilions of which were built in the modernista style.
Recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997, the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau served Barcelona’s residents for eighty years until the structural wear and tear on the buildings made it increasingly difficult for the old hospital to meet the demands placed on it and maintain the quality of care. In the autumn of 2009, Sant Pau’s healthcare activities were transferred to a new and state-of-the-art modern building located in the northern section of the grounds which was better suited to the needs of present-day medical practices.
And while Lluis Domènech i Montaner’s superb buildings seemed to have reached the end of their working life as a hospital, the modernist complex evolved in a new direction and undertook a new mission. Six of the remaining twelve pavilions have been thoroughly restored by craftsmen with an appreciation for the history and artistry of the original structures and two more are currently undergoing major refurbishments. After four years of intensive restoration the Art nouveau Site officially opened in February 2014 and has reaffirmed the value of Domènech’s work as well as established Sant Pau as a major center for knowledge and a cultural landmark.
Guided tours are offered in several languages throughout the week as well as audio self-guided tours. The complex serves as a fashionable venue for corporate and private meetings and evening musical concerts, ranging from classical to jazz to African and Latin-American music. The Sant Pau Art Nouveau Site has assumed its new role with the same grace, style and dignity for which it was renowned for when it was a functioning hospital in its prior incarnation.
As we walked around the magnificent Administration Pavilion and gaped at the light streaming through the stained glass windows and colors on display in the mosaics we couldn’t help but be glad that we’d selected this site as one of our first places to see in Barcelona. It may be off-the- beaten path for now but it’s a place that’s going to become more and more popular and populated as people discover it. And then the serene gardens through which we strolled, contemplating the beauty and genius surrounding us, won’t feel quite as peaceful.
By Anita and Richard