What is Catalan Modernism? The fairytale of Barcelona.

View from Park Guell in the evening light of Barcelona.

How sophisticated does the phrase 'Catalan Modernism' sound? So flowery and attractive. This exuberant style in painting, architecture, applied art and literature emerged in the vivid and colorful Catalonia of the late 19th century, and turned out to be a perfect fit.

But what if you don’t know about the history of architecture or art, how can you get the most of it on your visit to Barcelona? You have found the right story here, as we will fill you in on the background of this Modernista style, and how to identify it while walking the streets of Barcelona.

The birth of the Modernista style

At the end of the 19th century, Europe experienced an industrial boom, and Spain was no exception, with Catalonia becoming the centre of the industrial bourgeoisie. It was particularly in Barcelona where the new factories appeared, luring people from rural areas to look for work in the city. In order to accommodate for the growing population, the city’s authorities decided to create the Eixample district, which means 'expansion' in Catalan. It was in this very characteristic area, with its checkerboard layout and wide streets designed for comfortable transport by horse-drawn vehicles, where many of the Modernista buildings appeared. Right through the heart of Eixample runs the Passeig de Gràcia, the main avenue of the city, enriched with a good number of Modernista buildings. The most famous can be seen in the 'Block of Discord', which contains three iconic Modernista buildings located in one and the same block.

Passeig de Gracia in Barcelona with a view on the Block of Discord.
The Block of Discord on the Passeig de Gràcia, with Casa Amatller in the centre and Casa Batlló on the right.

The golden age of Catalan Modernism is customarily counted as of 1888, when Barcelona hosted the Universal Exposition. The first piece of Catalan Modernism reaching world-fame was the Three Dragons Castle, built in 1888 by architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner as a café-restaurant for the Universal Exposition. The spectacular brick fortress with its rich tiled decor and luxurious stained-glass windows laid the foundation for many successful future architectural creations.

The Palace of Catalan Music

Domènech i Montaner is nowadays most credited for his gorgeous Palace of Catalan Music, a stunning concert hall built in 1908. With an innovative internal metal structure, Domènech i Montaner succeeded in creating walls of glass, which allow for plenty of daylight to enter the concert hall. A decor consisting of bright colors, smooth lines and sculptures, creates an incredible blend that will amaze anyone who takes a peek inside. Of course, an even better option would be visiting a concert to enjoy the sounds of music in this luxurious hall. Learn more about tickets and tours on the official website.

An inside look in the Palace of Catalan Music.
A look inside the Palace of Catalan Music.

Casa Martí

Another creative mind who left his architectural trace on the map of Barcelona was Josep Puig i Cadafalch. During his long life he created many masterpieces, not only related to Modernism, but also to other styles as Neo-Gothic, Neo-Baroque or Monumentalism. Casa Martí was one of his Modernista buildings, designed in 1896. The ground floor of this building is occupied by 'Els Quatre Gats', a tavern that used to be one of the artistic and cultural epicenters of Barcelona in the early 20th century. Ramon Casas, Santiago Rusiñol and Pablo Picasso were amongst its illustrious guests. Have a look inside this legendary tavern and feel the spirit of the greatest minds of Barcelona in this place. Find Casa Martí easily on the free Streetwise map of Barcelona, or learn more on the official website of Els Quatre Gats.

Casa Amatller

The other world-famous Modernista building by Puig i Cadafalch is Casa Amatller, part of the Block of Discord. All three Modernista buildings were majestic reconstructions of already existing buildings. Casa Amatller was designed in 1900, after Puig i Cadafalch got inspired by houses typical for the Netherlands – see for instance the rectangular shapes that make up the top of the facade. The house was designed for the Amatller chocolate manufacturers, and inside you can still find a shop selling sweets of the same company.

Masterpieces by Gaudí

The facade of Casa Vicens in Barcelona.
Casa Vicens was the first important building designed by Antoni Gaudí between 1883 and 1885.

Casa Vicens

However, if anyone has made an incredible contribution to the development of the architectural look of Barcelona, then this is undoubtedly the greatest architect of Modernism, Antoni Gaudí. One of his first attempts on the road of Modernism was the construction of Casa Vicens. The house was designed in 1885 for the Vicens family, who owned a tile factory – which provides an obvious reason as to why the house is so richly decorated with it. Casa Vicens was the first independent work of the famous architect, who had just started his journey and was still looking for his own style. This Gaudí design is actually being considered primarily as an example of the Neo-Mudéjar style, a popular style in Spain those days which resembled a revival of the Moorish style. You can see this back in a preferred use of straight lines rather than curved ones, typical for the later works of the master.

Parc Güell

Gaudí created many of his masterpieces with the support of his patron Eusebi Güell. Thanks to this acquaintance, we can visit one of the most ambitious joint ideas of this tandem. We are talking about Parc Güell, which was meant to become a 'garden city', an organic place to live and relax. To implement his ideas, Güell acquired 15 hectares of land which he divided into pieces for future mansions. However, at that time Barcelona did not show a major interest in the villas, and as a result only three houses were built. Although it didn't turn out to be possible to realize their ideas to the full extent, the park is nevertheless a magnificent example of Gaudí's genius. Find here the famous mosaic lizard, an unofficial symbol of Barcelona, the house-museum of the architect himself, or a long curved bench on the upper terrace, made in the form of a sea serpent.

Sea Serpent bench in Park Guell in Barcelona.
The long sea serpent benches in the Monumental Core of Parc Güell.

Visit Parc Güell to find a perfect harmony between nature and architecture. Please note that the park consists of a free area and a paid area. Gaudí's works can also be admired from the free area, but if you want to get a close look go for a ticket and head for the monumental core of the park.

The Sagrada Família

The most remarkable work by Gaudí is undoubtedly the fascinating Sagrada Família, a fantastic offshoot of church architecture and one of the most famous long-term buildings in the world, initiated already more than a century ago. From the inside the basilica looks wonderful, reminding some of a fairytale forest. Other people see a space-ship or futuristic interior, but it doesn’t leave anyone indifferent, striking with its amazing shapes, incredible decor and the idea that this was created by a human being. The cathedral is an architectural pearl of Barcelona, completed or not. Book your tickets online to avoid waiting and enjoy this masterpiece as long as possible.

The striking interior of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.
The striking interior of the Sagrada Família.

How to recognize Catalan Modernism?

Each architect has developed his own particular style, and yet some common features are still easy to distinguish. Almost always you will find asymmetrical forms, as well as elements that elegantly replicate nature. Often you will see curved lines reminding us of plants and flowers, and decorative elements in which you can see echoes of the animal world. And exactly in this eclectic chaos hides the refinement and harmony of Catalan Modernism.

To help you a bit further, we have selected the greatest pieces of Catalan Modernism on our free map of Barcelona. Find these jewels of architecture by activating the layer 'Catalan Modernism' on the Streetwise map.

What else to do in Barcelona?

The magnificent architecture of Barcelona is not limited to the majestic buildings of Catalan Modernism. To verify this, just head for the Gothic Quarter, the oldest part of the city. Here, on the narrow streets, among the tourists and small shops, the heart of the city is hidden. You will find ancient ruins, hidden alleys and surprising architectural details. Do not forget to read our guide to the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona to make the most of your visit to El Gòtic.

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