Antoni Gaudí & Modernisme

Barcelona's architectural gift to the world was Modernisme, a flamboyant Catalan creation that erupted in the late 19th century. Modernisme was personified by the visionary work of Antoni Gaudí, a giant in the world of architecture. Imaginative creations by Gaudí and his contemporaries have filled Barcelona with dozens of masterpieces.

A Blank Canvas

In the 1850s a rapidly growing city fuelled by industrialisation meant notoriously crowded conditions in the narrow streets of the Ciutat Vella, Barcelona's old quarter. It was time to break down the medieval walls and dramatically expand the city. In 1869 the architect Ildefons Cerdà was chosen to design a new district, which would be called L'Eixample (the Expansion).

He drew wide boulevards on a gridlike layout, and envisioned neighbourhoods with plenty of green space – an objective that city planners unfortunately overruled amid the rampant land speculation of the day. With a blank slate before them, and abundant interest from upper-class residents eager to custom design a new home, architects were much in demand. What developers could not have predicted was the calibre of those architects.

Antoni Gaudí

Leading the way was Antoni Gaudí. Born in Reus to a long line of coppersmiths, Gaudí was initially trained in metalwork. In childhood he suffered from poor health, including rheumatism, and became an early adopter of a vegetarian diet. He was not a promising student. In 1878, when he obtained his architecture degree, the school's headmaster is reputed to have said, 'Who knows if we have given a diploma to a nutcase or a genius. Time will tell.'

The Book of Nature

As a young man, what most delighted Gaudí was being outdoors, and he became fascinated by the plants, animals and geology beyond his door. This deep admiration for the natural world would heavily influence his designs. 'This tree is my teacher,' he once said. 'Everything comes from the book of nature.' Throughout his work, Gaudí sought to emulate the harmony he observed in the natural world, eschewing the straight line and favouring curvaceous forms and more organic shapes.

The spiral of a nautilus shell can be seen in staircases and ceiling details, tight buds of flowers in chimney pots and roof ornamentation, while undulating arches evoke a cavern, overlapping roof tiles mimic the scales of an armadillo and flowing walls resemble waves on the sea. Tree branches, spider webs, stalactites, honeycombs, starfish, mushrooms, shimmering beetle wings and many other elements from nature – all were part of the Gaudían vernacular.

Gaudí's Creations

The architect’s work is an earthy appeal to sinewy movement, but often with a dreamlike or surreal quality. The private apartment block Casa Batlló is a fine example in which all appears a riot of the unnaturally natural – or the naturally unnatural. Not only are straight lines eliminated, but the lines between real and unreal, sober and dream-drunk, good sense and play are all blurred. Depending on how you look at the facade, you might see St George (the patron saint of Catalunya) defeating a dragon, a magnificent and shimmering fish (a symbol of Mediterranean peoples) or elements of an effusive Carnaval parade.

Gaudí seems to have particularly enjoyed himself with rooftops. At Palau Güell he created all sorts of fantastical, multicoloured tile figures, as chimney pots resembling oversized budlike trees that seem straight out of Alice in Wonderland – or perhaps Dr Seuss.

La Sagrada Família

Gaudí's masterpiece was La Sagrada Família (begun in 1882), and in it you can see the culminating vision of many ideas developed over the years. Its massive scale evokes the grandeur of Catalonia's Gothic cathedrals, while organic elements foreground its harmony with nature.

The church is rife with symbols that tangibly express Gaudí's Catholic faith through architecture: 18 bell towers symbolise Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the four evangelists and the 12 apostles. Three facades cover Jesus's life, death and resurrection. Even its location is relevant: the Nativity Facade faces east where the sun rises; the Passion Facade depicting Christ's death faces west where the sun sets.

Domènech i Montaner

Although overshadowed by Gaudí, Lluís Domènech i Montaner (1850–1923) was one of the great masters of Modernisme. He was a widely travelled man of prodigious intellect, with knowledge of subjects from mineralogy to medieval heraldry, and he was an architectural professor, a prolific writer and a nationalist politician. The question of Catalan identity and how to create a national architecture consumed Domènech i Montaner, who designed more than a dozen large-scale works in his lifetime.

The exuberant, steel-framed Palau de la Música Catalana is one of his masterpieces. Adorning the facade are elaborate Gothic-style windows, floral designs (Domènech i Montaner also studied botany) and sculptures depicting characters from Catalan folklore and the music world, as well as everyday citizens of Barcelona. Inside, the hall leaves visitors dazzled with delicate floral-covered colonnades, radiant stained-glass walls and ceiling, and a rolling, sculpture-packed proscenium referencing the epics of musical lore.

His other great masterpiece is the Hospital de la Santa Creu i de Sant Pau (now known as the Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau), with sparkling mosaics on the facade and a stained-glass skylight that fills the vestibule with golden light (like Matisse, Domènech i Montaner believed in the therapeutic powers of colour).

Puig i Cadafalch

Like Domènech i Montaner, Josep Puig i Cadafalch (1867–1956) was a polymath; he was an archaeologist, an expert in Romanesque art and one of Catalonia's most prolific architects. As a politician – and later president of the Mancomunitat de Catalunya (Commonwealth of Catalonia) – he was instrumental in shaping the Catalan nationalist movement.

One of his many Modernista gems is the Casa Amatller, a rather dramatic contrast to Gaudí's Casa Batlló next door. Here the straight line is very much in evidence, as is the foreign influence (the gables are borrowed from the Dutch). Blended with playful Gothic-style sculpture, Puig i Cadafalch has designed a house of startling beauty and invention.

Another pivotal work by Puig i Cadafalch was the Casa Martí (better known as Els Quatre Gats), which was one of Barcelona's first Modernista-style buildings (from 1896), with Gothic window details and whimsical wrought-iron sculpture.

Materials & Decorations

Modernista architects relied on artisan skills that have now been all but relegated to history. There were no concrete pours (contrary to what is being done at La Sagrada Família today). Stone, unclad brick, exposed iron and steel frames, and the copious use of stained glass and ceramics in decoration were all features of the new style – and indeed it is in the decor that Modernisme is at its most flamboyant.

The craftspeople required for these tasks were the heirs of the guild masters and had absorbed centuries of know-how about just what could and could not be done with these materials. Forged iron and steel were newcomers to the scene, but the approach to learning how they could be used was not dissimilar to that adopted for more traditional materials. Gaudí, in particular, relied on these old skills and even ran schools in La Sagrada Família workshops to keep them alive.

Feature: Gaudí Off the Beaten Track

Gaudí, as a freelancer, was busy all over town. While his main patron was Eusebi Güell and his big projects were bankrolled by the wealthy bourgeoisie, he also took on smaller jobs. One example is the Casa Vicens, a remarkable home with Moorish and Eastern motifs. Another is the Col·legi de les Teresianes, for which he created an unusual brick facade, topped with merlons crowned with a reproduction of Santa Teresa's biretta (a type of hat worn by certain figures in the Roman Catholic hierarchy). Gaudí fanatics might also want to reach Bellesguard, whose castle-like appearance is reinforced by heavy stonework, generous wrought iron and a tall spire. Gaudí also worked in some characteristically playful mosaic and colourful tiles.

Feature: Key Features of Modernista Buildings

  • Parabolic arches
  • Organic shapes (bones, branches, leaves, nautilus shells)
  • Fanciful chimney pots
  • Colourful, shimmering tiles
  • Budlike cone-shaped towers
  • Mosaic-covered surfaces
  • Sculptural details of flora and fauna
  • Treelike columns
  • Exquisite details (stained glass, wrought iron, ceramics)
  • Playful historical references (dragons for Catalan patron saint, St George; Gothic-style carvings for Barcelona’s medieval past)

Feature: Gaudí: A Catholic & a Catalan

Gaudí was a devout Catholic and a Catalan nationalist. In addition to nature, Catalonia's great medieval churches were a source of inspiration to him. He took pride in utilising the building materials of the countryside: clay, stone and wood.

In contrast to his architecture, Gaudí's life was simple; he was not averse to knocking on doors, literally begging for money to help fund construction of the cathedral. As Gaudí became more adventurous he appeared as a lone wolf. With age he became almost exclusively motivated by stark religious conviction, and he devoted much of the latter part of his life to what remains Barcelona’s call sign – the unfinished La Sagrada Família. He died in 1926, struck down by a tram while taking his daily walk to the Sant Felip Neri church.

Wearing ragged clothes with empty pockets – save for some orange peel – Gaudí was initially taken for a beggar and taken to a nearby hospital where he was left in a pauper's ward; he died two days later. Thousands attended his funeral, forming a half-mile procession to La Sagrada Família, where he was buried in the crypt.

Much like his work in progress, La Sagrada Família, Gaudí’s story is far from over. In March 2000 the Vatican decided to proceed with the case for canonising him, and pilgrims already stop by the crypt to pay homage to him. One of the key sculptors at work on the church, the Japanese Etsuro Sotoo, converted to Catholicism because of his passion for Gaudí.

The Genius of Gaudí

The name Gaudí has become a byword for Barcelona and, through his unique architectural wonders, one of the principal magnets for visitors to the city.

Gaudí's Best

Background

Born in Reus and initially trained in metalwork, Antoni Gaudí i Cornet (1852–1926) personifies, and largely transcends, the Modernisme movement, which brought a thunderclap of innovative greatness to turn-of-the-century Barcelona. Gaudí was a devout Catholic and Catalan nationalist, and his creations were a conscious expression of Catalan identity and, in some cases, of great piety.

Work

Gaudí devoted much of the latter part of his life to what remains Barcelona's call sign: the unfinished Sagrada Família. His inspiration in the first instance was Gothic, but he also sought to emulate the harmony he observed in nature, eschewing the straight line and favouring curvaceous forms.

Gaudí used complex string models weighted with plumb lines to make his calculations. You can see examples in the upstairs minimuseum in La Pedrera.

The architect's work is an earthy appeal to sinewy movement, but often with a dreamlike or surreal quality. The private apartment house Casa Batlló is a fine example in which all appears a riot of the unnaturally natural – or the naturally unnatural. Not only are straight lines eliminated, but the lines between real and unreal, sober and dream-drunk, good sense and play are all blurred. Depending on how you look at the facade, you might see St George defeating a dragon, or a series of fleshless sea monsters straining out of the wall.

He seems to have particularly enjoyed himself with rooftops. At La Pedrera and Palau Güell, in particular, he created all sorts of fantastical, multicoloured tile figures as chimney pots, those at the former looking like Star Wars imperial troopers and those at the latter like Alice in Wonderland mushrooms.

Saint Antoni?

Much like his work in progress, La Sagrada Família, Gaudí's story is far from over. In March 2000 the Vatican decided to proceed with the examination of the case for canonising him, and pilgrims already stop by the crypt to pay him homage. One of the key sculptors at work on the church, the Japanese Etsuro Sotoo, converted to Catholicism because of his passion for Gaudí.

Catalan Culture

The fortunes of Catalonia have risen and fallen over the years, as Barcelona has gone from wealthy mercantile capital to a city of repression under the Franco regime, followed by a growing push for independence in recent years. Despite today's challenges, Catalan culture continues to flourish, with a lively festival calendar and abundant civic pride manifested in aspects from the language spoken on the streets to Barcelona's much-loved football team.

Language

In Barcelona, born-and-bred locals proudly speak Catalan, a Romance language related to French, Spanish (Castilian) and Italian. It was only relatively recently, however, that Catalan was deemed 'legitimate'. Since Barcelona was crushed in the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714, the use of Catalan was repeatedly banned or at least frowned upon. Franco was the last of Spain's rulers to clamp down on its public use. All that changed in 1980, when the first autonomous regional parliament was assembled and adopted new laws towards normalització lingüística (linguistic normalisation).

Today Catalonia's state school system uses Catalan as the language of instruction, though most Catalan speakers end up bilingual, particularly in urban areas. Around town, Catalan is the lingua franca: advertising and road signs are in Catalan, while newspapers, magazines and other publications can be found in both languages (though you'll find about twice as many options in Catalan as in Spanish). You'll also find a mix of Catalan and Spanish programming on radio and TV stations.

Folk Dancing

On weekends year-round, devotees of the folk dance sardana gather in front of La Catedral, while a 10-piece band puts everyone in motion. Catalans of all ages come out for the dance, which takes place in a circle with dancers holding hands. Together they move right, back and then left, hopping, raising their arms and generally building momentum as the tempo picks up. All are welcome to join in, though you’ll have to watch a few rounds to get the hang of it.

Festivals

Catalonia’s best celebrations tend to revolve around religious holidays. Festes dedicated to Nostra Senyora de la Mercè (Our Lady of Mercy) and Santa Eulàlia – Barcelona’s two patron saints – are the city’s biggest bashes. You’ll see plenty of sardana and castell-building there. You’ll also see gegants (huge papier-mâché giants: lords, princesses, sultans, fishers and historic and contemporary figures) and capgrossos (oversized heads worn by costumed actors).

Another feature of these Catalan fests is the correfoc (fire running): horned devils brandishing firework-spouting pitchforks wreak mayhem in the streets. They are sometimes accompanied by firework-spouting dragons, or even wooden carts that are set alight. Full coverings (hats, gloves, goggles) are highly recommended for anyone who wants to get near.

Castells

One of the highlights of a traditional Catalan festival is the building of human castells (castles), a Catalan tradition that dates back to the 18th century. Teams from across the region compete to build human towers up to 10 storeys tall. These usually involve levels of three to five people standing on each other’s shoulders. A crowd of teammates forms a supporting scrum around the thickset lads at the base. To successfully complete the castle, a small child called the enxaneta must reach the top and signal with his or her hand.

FC Barcelona

One of the city's best-loved names is FC Barça, which is deeply associated with Catalans and even Catalan nationalism. The team was long a rallying point for Catalans when other aspects of Catalan culture were suppressed. The club openly supported Catalonia's drive towards autonomy in 1918, and in 1921 the club's statutes were drafted in Catalan. The pro-Catalan leanings of the club and its siding with the republic during the Spanish Civil War earned reprisals from the government. Club president Josep Sunyol was murdered by Franco's soldiers in 1936, and the club building was bombed in 1938.

In 1968 club president Narcís de Carreras uttered the now famous words, El Barça: més que un club ('more than a club'), which became the team's motto – and emphasised its role as an anti-Franco symbol and catalyst for change in the province and beyond. Today FC Barça is one of the world's most admired teams, with membership at around 140,000 in recent years.

Sidebar: Essential Reading

  • Barcelona: The Great Enchantress (Robert Hughes; 2001)
  • Barcelonas (Manuel Vázquez Montalbán; 1992)
  • Barça: A People's Passion (Jimmy Burns; 1992)

Sidebar: Christmas

At Christmas some rather unusual Catalan characters appear. The caganer (crapper) is a chap with dropped pants who balances over his unsightly offering (a symbol of fertility for the coming year). There's also the caga tío (poop log), which on Christmas Day is supposed to cagar (crap) out gifts.

Architecture

Famed for its architectural treasures, Barcelona has striking Gothic cathedrals, fantastical Modernista creations and avant-garde works from more recent days. The city's great building boom first began in the late Middle Ages, when Barcelona was seat of the Catalan empire. The late 19th century was another time of great ferment, when the city began expanding beyond its medieval confines and bold new thinkers transformed the city. The third notable era of design began in the late 1980s and continues today.

The Gothic Period

Barcelona’s first big building boom came at the height of the Middle Ages, when its imposing Gothic churches, mansions and shipyards were raised, together creating what survives to this day as one of the most extensive Gothic quarters in Europe. Most of these architectural treasures lie within the boundaries of the Ciutat Vella, but a few examples can be found beyond, notably the Museu-Monestir de Pedralbes in Pedralbes.

Historical Roots

This soaring style took off in France in the 12th century and spread across Europe. Its emergence coincided with Jaume I’s march into Valencia and the annexation of Mallorca and Ibiza, accompanied by the rise of a trading class and a burgeoning mercantile empire. The enormous cost of building the grand new monuments could thus be covered by the steady increase in the city’s wealth.

Perhaps the single greatest building spurt came under Pere III (1319–87). This is odd in a sense because, as Dickens might have observed, it was not only the best of times, but also the worst. By the mid-14th century, when Pere III was in command, Barcelona had been pushed to the ropes by a series of disasters: famine, repeated plagues and pogroms.

Maybe he didn’t notice. He built, or began to build, much of La Catedral, the Drassanes, the Llotja stock exchange, the Saló del Tinell, the Casa de la Ciutat – which now houses the town hall – and numerous lesser buildings, not to mention part of the city walls. The churches of Santa Maria del Pi and Santa Maria del Mar were completed by the end of the 14th century.

Architectural Features

The style of architecture reflected the development of building techniques. The introduction of buttresses, flying buttresses and ribbed vaulting in ceilings allowed engineers to raise edifices that were loftier and seemingly lighter than ever before. The pointed arch became standard and great rose windows were the source of light inside these enormous spaces.

Think about the hovels that labourers on such projects lived in and the primitive nature of building materials available, and you get an idea of the awe such churches, once completed, must have inspired. They were not built in a day. It took more than 160 years, a fairly typical time frame, to finish La Catedral, although its facade was not erected until the 19th century. Its rival, the Basílica de Santa Maria del Mar, was one for the record books, taking only 54 years to build.

Catalan Gothic

Catalan Gothic did not follow the same course as the style typical of northern Europe. Decoration here tends to be more sparing and the most obvious defining characteristic is the triumph of breadth over height. While northern European cathedrals reach for the sky, Catalan Gothic has a tendency to push to the sides, stretching its vaulting design to the limit.

The Saló del Tinell, with a parade of 15m arches (among the largest ever built without reinforcement) holding up the roof, is a perfect example of Catalan Gothic. Another is the present home of the Museu Marítim, the Drassanes, Barcelona’s medieval shipyards. In their churches, too, the Catalans opted for a more robust shape and lateral space – step into the Basílica de Santa Maria del Mar or the Basílica de Santa Maria del Pi and you’ll soon get the idea.

Another notable departure from what you might have come to expect of Gothic north of the Pyrenees is the lack of spires and pinnacles. Bell towers tend to terminate in a flat or nearly flat roof. Occasional exceptions prove the rule – the main facade of Barcelona’s La Catedral, with its three gnarled and knobbly spires, does vaguely resemble the outline that confronts you in cathedrals in Chartres or Cologne. But then it was a 19th-century addition, admittedly to a medieval design.

Late Gothic

Gothic had a longer use-by date in Barcelona than in many other European centres. By the early 15th century, the Generalitat still didn’t have a home worthy of its name, and architect Marc Safont set to work on the present building on Plaça de Sant Jaume. Even renovations carried out a century later were largely in the Gothic tradition, although some Renaissance elements eventually snuck in – the facade on Plaça de Sant Jaume is a rather disappointing result.

Carrer de Montcada, in La Ribera, was the result of a late-medieval act of town planning. Eventually mansions belonging to the moneyed classes of 15th- and 16th-century Barcelona were erected along it. Many now house museums and art galleries. Although these former mansions appear forbidding on the outside, their interiors often reveal another world of pleasing courtyards and decorated external staircases. They mostly went through a gentle baroque makeover in later years.

Modernisme

Barcelona’s Modernisme buildings arose during the late 19th century, a period of great artistic and political fervour that was deeply connected to Catalan identity, and which transformed early-20th-century Barcelona into a showcase for avant-garde architecture. Aiming to establish a new Catalan archetype, Antoni Gaudí and other visionary architects drew inspiration from the past, using elements from the Spanish vernacular – shapes, details and brickwork reminiscent of Islamic, Gothic and Renaissance designs.

The Modernistas also revived traditional artisan trades, which you can see in the exquisite stonework and stained-glass windows, and in their artful use of wrought iron, ceramics and mosaic tiles. Nature was celebrated and imitated to perfection in Gaudí’s organic forms: leaning treelike columns, walls that undulate like the sea, and the use of native plants as decorative elements. Inside these buildings, the artistry and imaginative design continues.

For many, Modernisme is synonymous with Gaudí (1852–1926), but he was by no means alone. Lluís Domènech i Montaner (1850–1923) and Josep Puig i Cadafalch (1867–1956) left a wealth of remarkable buildings across the city. The Rome-trained sculptor Eusebi Arnau (1864–1934) was one of the most popular figures called upon to decorate Barcelona’s Modernista piles. The appearance of the Hospital de la Santa Creu i de Sant Pau is one of his legacies and he also had a hand in the Palau de la Música Catalana and Casa Amatller.

Olympic & Contemporary Architecture

Barcelona’s latest architectural revolution began in the 1980s. The appointment then of Oriol Bohigas, still regarded as an elder statesman for architecture, as head of urban planning by the ruling Socialist party marked a new beginning. The city set about its biggest phase of renewal since the heady days of L’Eixample.

The Olympic Games Building Boom

The biggest urban makeover in 100 years happened in the run-up to the 1992 Olympics, when more than 150 architects beavered away on almost 300 building and design projects. The city saw dramatic transformations, from the construction of huge arterial highways to the refurbishment of whole neighbourhoods in dire need of repair. In a rather crafty manoeuvre, the city government used national monies to fund urban improvements the capital would never normally have approved. Several kilometres of waterfront wasteland that included Port Vell was beautifully transformed into sparkling new beaches – suddenly Barcelona had prime beachfront real estate. The long road to resurrecting Montjuïc took off with the refurbishment of the Olympic stadium and the creation of landmarks like Santiago Calatrava’s Torre Calatrava.

Post-1992, landmark buildings still went up in strategic spots, usually with the ulterior motive of trying to pull the surrounding area up by its bootstraps. One of the most emblematic of these projects is the gleaming white Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, better known as MACBA, which opened in 1995. The museum was designed by Richard Meier and incorporates the characteristic elements for which the American architect is so well known – the geometric minimalism and the pervasive use of all white with glass and steel.

Arousing no little architectural debate, as with so many of architect Ricardo Bofill's projects, the Teatre Nacional de Catalunya, which opened in 1996, is a blend of the neoclassical and the modern. Framed by 26 columns with a single gabled roof and grand entrance steps, the theatre takes the form of a Greek temple, though its all-glass exterior gives it a light and open appearance.

Henry Cobb’s World Trade Center, at the tip of a quay jutting out into the waters of Port Vell, has been overshadowed by Ricardo Bofill’s hotel, W Barcelona, whose spinnaker-like front looks out to sea from the southern end of La Barceloneta’s beach strip.

The New Millennium

One of the first big projects of the 21st century occurred around Diagonal Mar. A whole district has been built in the northeastern coastal corner of the city, where before there was a void. High-rise apartments, waterfront office towers and five-star hotels – among them the eye-catching Meliá Barcelona Sky hotel (completed in 2008) by Dominique Perrault – mark this regenerated district. The hovering blue, triangular Edifici Fòrum by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron is the most striking landmark here, along with a gigantic photovoltaic panel that provides some of the area’s electricity.

Much of the district was completed in 2004, though the area continues to evolve as new buildings are added to the mix. Among the most notable recent additions is a 24-storey whitewashed trapezoidal prism that serves as the headquarters for the national telephone company, Telefónica. Designed by Enric Massip-Bosch and dubbed the Diagonal 00, it has a deceivingly two-dimensional appearance upon initial approach. Shortly after its completion in 2011, the Torre was awarded the respected Leading European Architects Forum (LEAF) award for commercial building of the year.

Another prominent addition to the skyline came in 2005. The shimmering, cucumber-shaped Torre Glòries is a product of French architect Jean Nouvel, emblematic of the city’s desire to make the developing high-tech zone of 22@ a reality.

Southwest, on the way to the airport, the Fira M2 trade fair along Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes is now marked by red twisting twin landmark towers (one the Hotel Santos Porta Fira, the other offices) designed by Japanese star architect and self-confessed Gaudí fan Toyo Ito.

The heart of La Ribera got a fresh look with the renovated Mercat de Santa Caterina. The market is quite a sight, with its wavy ceramic roof and tubular skeleton, designed by one of the most promising names in Catalan architecture until his premature death, Enric Miralles. Miralles’ Edifici de Gas Natural, a 100m glass tower near the waterfront in La Barceloneta, is extraordinary for its mirrorlike surface and weirdly protruding adjunct buildings, which could be giant glass cliffs bursting from the main tower’s flank.

The City of Tomorrow

Big projects have slowly taken shape around the city. The redevelopment of the area near Plaça de les Glòries Catalanes was one of the latest completed projects, with the goal of revitalising the neighbourhood and making it a draw for tourists.

The centrepiece, completed in 2013, was the Museu del Disseny, which incorporates sustainable features in its cantilevered, metal-sheathed building. Vaguely futuristic (though some say it looks like a stapler), it has a rather imposing, anvil-shaped presence over the neighbourhood.

Nearby stands Mercat dels Encants, the 'Charms' flea market, which was given a dramatic new look by local architecture firm b720 Fermín Vázquez Arquitectos. Traders now sell their wares beneath a giant, mirrored canopy made up of geometric panels and held aloft with long, slender poles. Work to turn the adjacent traffic-choked roundabout into a park, taking the cars underneath, continues apace.

In a rather thoughtful bit of recycling, British architect Lord Richard Rogers transformed the former Les Arenes bullring on Plaça d’Espanya into a singular, circular leisure complex, with shops, cinemas and more, which opened in 2011. He did so while still maintaining its red-brick, 19th-century Moorish-looking facade. Perhaps its best feature is the rooftop with 360-degree views from the open-air promenade and cafes and restaurants.

In the Ciutat Vella (Old City), El Raval has been the latest focal point for urban renewal. The Filmoteca de Catalunya is a hulking rather brutalist building of concrete and glass, with sharp angles. It was designed by Catalan architect Josep Lluís Mateo and completed in 2011. It sits near the Richard Meier–designed MACBA, which opened in 1995.

Feature: Changing Attitudes Towards Gothic Styles

The lofty Gothic buildings of medieval Europe inspire awe in their modern visitors. But as early as the 16th century, when Renaissance artists and architects turned to the clean lines of classical antiquity for inspiration, all things medieval looked crude, rough and, well, frankly barbarian, just like the ancient Germanic tribes of Goths that had stormed across Europe centuries before. To label something Gothic became the ultimate insult. This attitude spread across Europe. In Barcelona, many private homes built in Gothic style would get a baroque makeover later, but thankfully most of the major monuments were left alone. Not until the 19th century did this extraordinary heritage again awaken admiration, to such an extent that in some north European countries in particular it led to a wave of Gothic revival building.

Feature: Modernisme & Catalan Identity

Modernisme did not appear in isolation in Barcelona. To the British and French the style was art nouveau; to the Italians, Lo Stile Liberty; the Germans called it Jugendstil (Youth Style); and the Austrians, Sezession (Secession). Its vitality and rebelliousness can be summed up in those epithets: modernity, novelty, liberty, youth and secession. A key uniting element was the sensuous curve, implying movement, lightness and vitality. It touched painting, sculpture and the decorative arts, as well as architecture. This leitmotif informed much art-nouveau thinking, in part inspired by long-standing tenets of Japanese art.

There is something misleading about the name Modernisme. It suggests ‘out with the old, in with the new’. In a sense, nothing could be further from the truth. From Gaudí down, Modernista architects looked to the past for inspiration. Gothic, Islamic and Renaissance design all had something to offer. At its most playful, Modernisme was able to intelligently flout the rule books of these styles and create exciting new creations.

Aesthetics aside, the political associations are significant, as Modernisme became a means of expression for Catalan identity. It barely touched the rest of Spain; where it did, one frequently finds the involvement of Catalan architects. As many as 2000 buildings in Barcelona and throughout Catalonia display Modernista traces. Buildings from rich bourgeois mansion blocks to churches, from hospitals to factories, went up in this ‘style’, a word too constraining to adequately describe the flamboyant breadth of eclecticism inherent in it.

Sidebar: Gothic Masterpieces

  • La Catedral
  • Basílica de Santa Maria del Mar
  • Basílica de Santa Maria del Pi
  • Saló del Tinell (in Museu d'Història de Barcelona)
  • The Drassanes (Museu Marítim)

Sidebar: Mercantile Empire

Catalonia's vast 14th-century mercantile empire fuelled Barcelona's boom. All manner of goods flowed to and from Sardinia, Flanders, North Africa and other places, with Catalan Jews carrying out much of this trade. The later pogroms, Inquisition and expulsion of Jews had devastating financial consequences and helped reduce Barcelona to penury.

Sidebar: Trencadís

The Arabs invented the ancient technique of trencadís, but Gaudí was the first architect to revive it. The procedure involves taking ceramic tiles or fragments of broken pottery or glass and creating a mosaic-like sheath on roofs, ceilings, chimneys, benches, sculptures or any other surface.

Sidebar: Modernista Masterpieces

  • Casa Batlló
  • La Sagrada Família
  • Palau de la Música Catalana
  • La Pedrera
  • Palau Güell
  • Casa Amatller
  • Hospital de la Santa Creu i de Sant Pau

Sidebar: Best Contemporary Buildings

  • Torre Glòries
  • Teatre Nacional de Catalunya
  • Mercat de Santa Caterina
  • Edifici Fòrum
  • W Barcelona
  • Hotel Santos Porta Fira (Llobregat)
  • Les Arenes (Plaça d’Espanya)

Sidebar: Old Waterfront

No one longs for the pre-Olympic days when the waterfront was a dangerous and polluted wasteland. However, some old timers still bemoan the loss of its old rickety restaurant shacks, which sat on stilts over the water and served delectable if utterly unfussy seafood.

Picasso, Miró & Dalí

Three of Spain's greatest 20th-century artists have deep connections to Barcelona. Picasso spent his formative years in the city and maintained lifelong friendships with Catalans. It was Picasso's own idea to create a museum of his works here. Joan Miró is one of Barcelona's most famous native sons. His instantly recognisable style can be seen in public installations throughout the city. Although Salvador Dalí is more commonly associated with Figueres, Barcelona was a great source of inspiration for him, particularly the fantastical architectural works of Antoni Gaudí.

Pablo Picasso

Born in Málaga in Andalucía, Pablo Ruiz Picasso (1881–1973) was already sketching by the age of nine. As a young boy, he lived briefly in A Coruña (in Galicia), before landing in Barcelona in 1895. His father had obtained a post teaching art at the La Llotja school of fine arts, then housed in the stock exchange building, and had his son enrolled there, too. It was in Barcelona and Catalonia that Picasso matured, spending his time ceaselessly drawing and painting.

After a stint at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid in 1897, Picasso spent six months with his friend Manuel Pallarès in bucolic Horta de Sant Joan, in western Catalonia – he would later claim that it was there he learned everything he knew. In Barcelona, Picasso lived and worked in the Barri Gòtic and El Raval (where he was introduced to the seamier side of life in the Barri Xinès).

By the time Picasso moved to France in 1904, he had explored his first highly personal style. In this so-called Blue Period, his canvases have a melancholy feel heightened by the trademark dominance of dark blues. Some of his portraits and cityscapes from this period were created in and inspired by what he saw in Barcelona. A number of pieces from this period hang in the Museu Picasso.

By the mid-1920s, he was dabbling with surrealism. His best-known work is Guernica (displayed in Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia), a complex painting portraying the horror of war, inspired by the German aerial bombing of the Basque town Guernica (Gernika) in 1937.

Picasso worked prolifically during and after WWII and he was still cranking out paintings, sculptures, ceramics and etchings until the day he died in 1973.

Joan Miró

At the time the 13-year-old Picasso arrived in Barcelona, his near contemporary, Joan Miró (1893–1983), was still learning to crawl in the Barri Gòtic, where he was born. He spent a third of his life in Barcelona but later divided his time between France, the Tarragona countryside and the island of Mallorca, where he ended his days.

Like Picasso, Miró attended the Escola de Belles Arts de la Llotja. He was initially uncertain about his artistic vocation – in fact, he studied commerce. In Paris from 1920, he mixed with Picasso, Hemingway, Joyce and friends, and made his own mark, after several years of struggle, with an exhibition in 1925. The masterpiece from this, his so-called realist period, was La Masia (The Farm).

It was during WWII, while living in seclusion in Normandy, that Miró’s definitive leitmotifs emerged. Among the most important images that appear frequently throughout his work are women, birds (the link between Earth and the heavens), stars (the unattainable heavenly world, the source of imagination) and a sort of net entrapping all these levels of the cosmos. The Miró works that most people are acquainted with emerged from this time – arrangements of lines and symbolic figures in primary colours, with shapes reduced to their essence.

He lived in Mallorca, home of his wife Pilar Juncosa, from 1956 until his death in 1983.

Salvador Dalí

The great Catalan artist Salvador Dalí i Domènech (1904–89) was born and died in Figueres, where he left his single greatest artistic legacy, the Teatre-Museu Dalí. Although few of his famed works reside in Barcelona, the city provided a stimulating atmosphere for Dalí, and places like Park Güell, with its surrealist-like aspects, had a powerful effect on him.

Prolific painter, showman, shameless self-promoter or just plain weirdo, Dalí was nothing if not a character – probably a little too much for the conservative small-town folk of Figueres.

Every now and then a key moment arrives that can change the course of one’s life. Dalí’s came in 1929, when the French poet Paul Éluard visited Cadaqués with his Russian wife, Gala. The rest, as they say, is histrionics. Dalí shot off to Paris to be with Gala and plunged into the world of surrealism.

In the 1930s, Salvador and Gala returned to live at Port Lligat on the north Catalan coast, where they played host to a long list of fashionable and art-world guests until the war years – the parties were by all accounts memorable.

They started again in Port Lligat in the 1950s. The stories of sexual romps and Gala’s appetite for local young men are legendary. The 1960s saw Dalí painting pictures on a grand scale, including his 1962 reinterpretation of Marià Fortuny’s Batalla de Tetuán. On his death in 1989, he was buried (according to his own wishes) in the Teatre-Museu he had created on the site of the old theatre in central Figueres, which also houses an awe-inspiring Dalí collection.

Sidebar: Ladies of Avignon

With Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon; 1907), Picasso broke with all forms of traditional representation, introducing a deformed perspective that would later spill over into cubism. The subject was supposedly taken from the Carrer d’Avinyó in the Barri Gòtic, in those days populated with a series of brothels.

Sidebar: Fundació Joan Miró

The Fundació Joan Miró, housed in an extensive gallery atop Montjuïc, has the single largest collection of Miró’s work in the world today.

Feature: Art on the Streets

Barcelona hosts an array of street sculpture, from Miró’s 1983 Dona i Ocell (Woman and Bird), in the park dedicated to the artist, to Peix (Fish), Frank Gehry’s shimmering, bronze-coloured headless fish facing Port Olímpic. Halfway along La Rambla, at Plaça de la Boqueria, you can walk all over Miró’s mosaic.

Picasso left an open-air mark with his design on the facade of the Col·legi d'Arquitectes de Catalunya opposite La Catedral in the Barri Gòtic. Other works include the Barcelona Head by Roy Lichtenstein at the Port Vell end of Via Laietana and Fernando Botero’s rotund El Gat on Rambla del Raval.

Wander down to the Barceloneta seaside for a gander at Rebecca Horn's 1992 tribute to the old shacks that used to line the waterfront. The precarious stack is called Homenatge a la Barceloneta (Tribute to La Barceloneta). A little further south is the 2003 Homenatge a la Natació (Tribute to Swimming), a complex metallic rendition of swimmers and divers in the water by Alfredo Lanz.

Heading a little further back in time, in 1983 Antoni Tàpies constructed Homenatge a Picasso (Tribute to Picasso) on Passeig de Picasso; it's essentially a glass cube set in a pond and filled with, well, junk. Antoni Llena’s David i Goliat (David and Goliath), a massive sculpture of tubular and sheet iron, in the Parc de les Cascades near Port Olímpic’s two skyscrapers, looks like an untidy kite inspired by Halloween. Beyond this Avinguda d’Icària is lined by architect Enric Miralles’ so-called Pergoles – bizarre, twisted metal contraptions.

Music & Dance

Barcelona's vibrant music and dance scene has been shaped by artists both traditional and cutting edge. From Nova Cançó, composed during the dark years of the dictatorship, to the hybridised Catalan rumba to hands-in-the air rock ballads of the 1970s and ’80s, Barcelona's music evolves constantly. Today's groups continue to push musical boundaries, blending rhythms from all corners of the globe. In the realm of dance, flamenco has a small loyal following, while the old-fashioned folk dance sardana continues to attract growing numbers.

Contemporary Music

Nova Cançó

Curiously, it was probably the Francoist repression that most helped foster a vigorous local music scene in Catalan. In the dark 1950s, the Nova Cançó (New Song) movement was born to resist linguistic oppression with music in Catalan (getting air time on the radio was long close to impossible), throwing up stars that in some cases won huge popularity throughout Spain, such as the Valencia-born Raimon.

More specifically loved in Catalonia as a Bob Dylan–style 1960s protest singer-songwriter was Lluís Llach, much of whose music was more or less antiregime. Joan Manuel Serrat is another legendary figure. His appeal stretches from Barcelona to Buenos Aires. Born in the Poble Sec district, this poet-singer is equally at ease in Catalan and Spanish. He has repeatedly shown that record sales are not everything to him. In 1968 he refused to represent Spain at the Eurovision song contest if he were not allowed to sing in Catalan. Accused of being anti-Spanish, he was long banned from performing in Spain.

Born in Mallorca, the talented singer Maria del Mar Bonet arrived in Barcelona in 1967, and embarked on a long and celebrated singing career. She sang in Catalan, and many of her searing and powerful songs were banned by the dictatorship. On concert tours abroad, she attracted worldwide attention, and she has performed with distinguished groups and soloists across the globe.

Rock, Pop & Beyond

A specifically local strand of rock emerged after the 1980s. Rock Català (Catalan rock) is not essentially different from rock anywhere else, except that it is sung in Catalan by local bands that appeal to local tastes. Among the most popular groups of years past include Sau, Els Pets, Lax’n Busto and the Valenciano band, Obrint Pas.

Far greater success across Spain has gone to Estopa, a male rock duo from Cornellà, a satellite suburb of Barcelona. The guitar-wielding brothers sing a clean Spanish rock, occasionally with a vaguely flamenco flavour. Along the same vein, the Barcelona hit trio Pastora peddles a successful brand of Spanish pop, mixing electric sounds with a strong acoustic element.

Towards the end of the nineties a very different Barcelona sound emerged, typified by the eclectic sounds of Manu Chao and Ojos de Brujo, both of which had international success. A Barcelona band with similar flavours is Macaco. All three switch between languages – Catalan, Spanish (Castilian), English and Portuguese among others – and blend Latin rhythms with flamenco, ska, electronica and many more. When people talk about the ‘Raval sound’ (after the name of the still somewhat seedy old-city district), this is the kind of thing they mean.

Born in El Raval, Cabo San Roque is an even more experimental group, incorporating huge soundscapes, powerful rhythms and mechanical accents often using non-traditional John Cage–style instruments in their avant-garde performances. In one show, the five-person group shared the stage with a polyphonic washing machine powered by a bicycle chain.

Another key name on El Raval's scene is 08001 (which is the area's postcode). This ever-evolving collective brings together musicians from all across the globe, fusing unusual sounds from hip-hop, flamenco, reggae and rock to styles from Morocco, West Africa, the Caribbean and beyond. Their last album No Pain No Gain came out in 2013, but they continue to work together.

Hailing from Barcelona, Mishima is an indie pop band that has recorded a mix of albums in English and Catalan. They remained largely obscure prior to the release of their 2007 album Set tota la vida, which earned accolades across the music industry. The Pinker Tones are a Barcelona duo that attained international success with an eclectic electronic mix of music, ranging from dizzy dance numbers to film soundtracks. Electro group Love of Lesbian is another festival favourite, as is Catalan techno DJ John Talabot.

Classical, Opera & Baroque

Spain’s contribution to the world of classical music has been modest, but Catalonia has produced a few exceptional composers. Best known is Camprodon-born Isaac Albéniz (1860–1909), a gifted pianist who later turned his hand to composition. Among his best-remembered works is the Iberia cycle.

Montserrat Caballé is Barcelona’s most successful voice. Born in Gràcia in 1933, the soprano made her debut in 1956 in Basel (Switzerland). Her home-town launch came four years later in the Gran Teatre del Liceu. In 1965 she performed to wild acclaim at New York’s Carnegie Hall and went on to become one of the world’s finest 20th-century sopranos. Her daughter, Montserrat Martí, is also a singer and they occasionally appear together. Another fine Catalan soprano was Victoria de los Ángeles (1923–2005), while Catalonia’s other world-class opera star is the renowned tenor Josep (José) Carreras.

Jordi Savall has assumed the task of rediscovering a European heritage in music that pre-dates the era of the classical greats. He and his late wife, soprano Montserrat Figueras, have, along with musicians from other countries, been largely responsible for resuscitating the beauties of medieval, Renaissance and baroque music. In 1987 Savall founded La Capella Reial de Catalunya and two years later he formed the baroque orchestra Le Concert des Nations. You can sometimes catch their recitals in locations such as the Gran Teatre del Liceu or the Basílica de Santa Maria del Mar.

Dance

Flamenco

For those who think that the passion of flamenco is the preserve of the south, think again. The gitanos (Roma people) get around, and some of the big names of the genre come from Catalonia. They were already in Catalonia long before the massive migrations from the south of the 1960s, but with these waves came an exponential growth in flamenco bars as Andalucians sought to recreate a little bit of home.

First and foremost, one of the greatest bailaoras (flamenco dancers) of all time, Carmen Amaya (1913–63) was born in what is now Port Olímpic. She danced to her father’s guitar in the streets and bars around La Rambla in the years before the civil war. Much to the bemusement of purists from the south, not a few flamenco stars today have at least trained in flamenco schools in Barcelona – dancers Antonio Canales and Joaquín Cortés are among them.

Other Catalan stars of flamenco include cantaores (singers) Juan Cortés Duquende and Miguel Poveda, a boy from Badalona. He took an original step in 2005 by releasing a flamenco album, Desglaç, in Catalan. Another interesting flamenco voice in Catalonia is Ginesa Ortega Cortés, actually born in France. She masters traditional genres ably but loves to experiment. In her 2002 album, Por los espejos del agua (Through the Water’s Mirrors), she does a reggae version of flamenco and she has sung flamenco versions of songs by Joan Manuel Serrat and Billie Holiday.

The seven-man, one-woman group Ojos de Brujo (Wizard’s Eyes) melded flamenco and rumba with rap, ragga and electronic music. The band split up in 2013, with lead singer Marina setting off to pursue a reasonably successful solo career as 'Marinah'.

Sardana

The Catalan dance par excellence is the sardana, whose roots lie in the far northern Empordà region of Catalonia. Compared with flamenco, it is sober indeed but not unlike a lot of other Mediterranean folk dances.

The dancers hold hands in a circle and wait for the 10 or so musicians to begin. The performance starts with the piping of the flabiol, a little wooden flute. When the other musicians join in, the dancers start – a series of steps to the right, one back and then the same to the left. As the music ‘heats up’ the steps become more complex, the leaps are higher and the dancers lift their arms. Then they return to the initial steps and continue. If newcomers wish to join in, space is made for them as the dance continues and the whole thing proceeds in a more or less seamless fashion.

Feature: Longing for Cuba

The oldest musical tradition to have survived to some degree in Catalonia is that of the havaneres (from Havana) – nostalgic songs and melancholy sea shanties brought back from Cuba by Catalans who lived, sailed and traded there in the 19th century. Even after Spain lost Cuba in 1898, the havanera tradition (a mix of European and Cuban rhythms) continued. A magical opportunity to enjoy these songs is the Cantada d’Havaneres (www.havanerescalella.cat), a one-day festival held on the Costa Brava in early July. Otherwise you may stumble across performances elsewhere along the coast or even in Barcelona, but there is no set program.

Feature: Return of La Rumba

Back in the 1950s, a new sound mixing flamenco with salsa and other Latin sounds emerged in gitano (Roma people) circles in the bars of Gràcia and the Barri Gòtic. One of the founders of rumba catalana was Antonio González, known as El Pescaílla (married to the flamenco star Lola Flores). Although El Pescaílla was well known in town, the Mataró-born gitano Peret later took this eminently Barcelona style to a wider (eventually international) audience.

By the end of the 1970s, however, rumba catalana was running out of steam. Peret had turned to religion and El Pescaílla lived in Flores’ shadow in Madrid. But Buenos Aires–born Javier Patricio ‘Gato’ Pérez discovered rumba in 1977 and gave it his own personal spin, bringing out several popular records, such as Atalaya, until the early 1980s.

After Pérez, it seemed that rumba was dead. Not so fast! New rumba bands, often highly eclectic, have emerged in recent years. Ai Ai Ai, Barrio Negro, El Tío Carlos and La Pegatina are names to look out for. Others mix rumba with styles as diverse as reggae or ragga.

Sidebar: Music against Oppression

Around the same time Nova Cançó singers were taking aim at the Franco regime, folk singers from Latin America were decrying their own corrupt military dictatorships. Songs by Victor Jara of Chile, Mercedes Sosa of Argentina and Chico Buarque of Brazil helped unite people in the fight against oppression.

Sidebar: Top Albums

  • Barí, Ojos de Brujo
  • Anells d'aigua, Maria del Mar Bonet
  • Verges 50, Lluís Llach
  • Wild animals, Pinker Tones
  • Set tota la vida, Mishima
  • Voràgine, 08001
  • Rey de la rumba, Peret
  • X anniversarium, Estopa

Sidebar: Pau Casals

Born in Catalonia, Pau Casals (1876–1973) was one of the greatest cellists of the 20th century. Living in exile in southern France, he declared he would not play in public as long as Western democracies continued to tolerate Franco’s regime. In 1958 he was a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.