Gaudí Schmaudí: Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter

I’ve paid homage to Horta at the architect’s old house in Brussels, never failed to admire Guimard’s Metro entrances in Paris, and delighted at the contents of the Museum dedicated to Alphonse Mucha in Prague. And yet, on the eve of my first trip to Barcelona, the prospect of seeing Gaudí’s work firsthand provoked only indifference in me.

Flicking through the pages of guidebooks dedicated to Barcelona, I pondered over the reasons for my ambivalence. I reasoned that part of my problem was that history had allowed no architect or artist to dominate Brussels, Paris or Prague in the same way that Gaudí had subsumed Barcelona, at the expense of other important figures, such as Lluís Domènech i Montaner and Josep Puig i Cadafalch.

Plaça de Sant Felip Neri, Barcelona
Plaça de Sant Felip Neri, Barcelona

Studying Barcelona’s street patterns on Google Maps provoked another thought: most of the Modernista creations of Barcelona were all to be found in the regular gridiron streets of the Eixample, the Park Güell—even further toward the edges of the city—being a notable exception. My eye, however, was drawn to the labyrinthine lanes of the old city. That was where the flâneur in me wanted to go. The regular, rectangular blocks of the Eixample seemed, to my mind, as familiar to me already as the Sagrada Família and the Casa Milà, the likes of which I’d seen presented in travel guides and art history books more times than I cared to remember.

In spite of my misgivings, we did visit the Sagrada Família and the Park Güell. The former left me wondering what might have happened had the inheritors of Gaudí’s project followed their own creative instincts more robustly, rather than attempting to make sense of the plans that Gaudí left behind. Like much Art Nouveau architecture, the Sagrada Família, construction of which began in 1883, looks like an attempt at a Gesamtkunstwerk, but one that will take nearly one-hundred-and-fifty years to complete. Did the church’s present architects not realise, I wondered, as I looked up at the Passion façade in bewilderment, that few religious buildings on such a scale have ever been designed by one man or completed in such a short space of time? Most cathedrals are the product of centuries of elaboration, combining Romanesque, early- and late-Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth century elements. As the Sagrada Família enters its third century of construction, would it not make sense (it would certainly be more interesting) to let a decidedly more contemporary architect—a Rem Koolhaus or a Frank Gehry—loose on the Sagrada Família’s Glory façade?

The visit to the Park Güell was, happily, a more rewarding experience, perhaps because the travel guide depictions were more faithful to its reality. The visit also turned out, quite unexpectedly, to be a lesson in urban planning history. In the Porter’s house at the entrance to the park, an exhibition told the story of how Eusebi Güell, a successful Catalan industrialist, purchased the land on which the park is now situated at the turn of the last century, with the intention of transforming the site (with Gaudí’s help) into a housing development reminiscent of an English Garden City, for the benefit of Barcelona’s upper classes. Güell’s vision was never fully realised, and after his death in 1918, Güell’s family donated the land to the city. As we departed the park on foot and headed back down the hill towards the city below, we walked past queues of jockeying taxis, and I enjoyed the irony of now knowing how, what had started off as an unashamedly elitist project, had become one of the most popular and frequented sites in the city.

After our visits to the Sagrada Família and the Park Güell, we retreated back to the heart of the Gothic Quarter, via the Jaume I metro station, which lay close by to our hotel on the Via Laietana. From here, I found it impossible to resist the lure of the old town—the Gothic Quarter to the west and the Ribera to the east—which seemed to me to capable of delivering the unexpected surprises that Gaudí’s set pieces amongst the Eixample could not.

The Gothic Quarter is, presumably, how the centre of Paris once looked before Haussmann got his hands on it. A city of shadows and textures: rough-hewn stone, brick pattern, open gutters, degrading shop signs. A dark quarter of narrow winding, undulating alleyways, over which cascades of foliage pour from terracotta pots and plastic troughs standing on upper-floor balconies. Sometimes these cascades converge from left and right, creating green vaults of flora which block out the slivers of sky. At ground level, monumental stone doorways reveal glimpses into cool lobbies, exquisitely decorated with painted ceramic tiles bearing floral motifs and geometric patterns in blue, green and yellow, which evoke something of the city’s Moorish past.

Antiques shop, Gothic Quarter, Barcelona
Antiques shop, Gothic Quarter, Barcelona

Every now and then the narrow alleyways of the Gothic Quarter open up into small but beautifully proportioned piazzas, each of which share the same common ingredients: on one of its three or four sides (in Barcelona, triangular squares are possibly the norm) the austere rear walls of a Gothic ecclesiastical edifice loom upwards. On the other two (or three) remaining sides, ancient apartment blocks huddle together, their faded façades filled with a regular array of iron balconies and wooden shutters. Another common feature of many of these tiny squares are the tables and chairs arranged on its stone cobbled pavement, amongst which a mix of locals and visitors sit, drinking and relaxing in the serenity of their surroundings. Curiously, in each instance that I encountered one of these scenes, there was no sign of the bar or café from whence these people’s drinks had come.

Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter at night
Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter at night

Undoubtedly though, the streets of the Gothic Quarter come alive as dusk falls, when archaic street lamps, whose naked wires snake their way along bare stone walls, take over from what little daylight penetrates from above. But sight is no longer the most important sensory faculty required in navigating the darkening lanes, for the enticing aromas that waft from unassuming, almost invisible tapas bars, usually hidden away in dark corners, are all one needs to find their way through the encroaching night.

The Vinateria del Call, Barcelona
The Vinateria del Call, Barcelona
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