Bewildering Barcelona

The day after Christmas, I went to Barcelona on a whim. More or less. (Wait, Some background.) As an architecture student in the late sixties, when I discovered Antoni Gaudi, I was in awe. He was unbelievable. What a genius. In the sixties, the “Less is more” International Style was dominant and de rigor at my school–the University of Minnesota. As I recall, I found Gaudi outside the classroom. This made him more personal, more astonishing and maybe a bit forbidden. In August of 1967, I was in Spain as a midshipman. We were docked in Valencia and with the weekend free, I was looking forward to going to Barcelona and Gaudi. But the trains were completely full that day, so I went to Madrid instead and that lost opportunity lingered.

There are other reasons for choosing Barcelona on the last week of the year, but let’s move forward: Barcelona was marvelous. Though I did some homework, I was unprepared for my eight days in BCN. Have you been there? My friends who had been there were unanimously positive. In many ways I was lucky. A friend of a friend of a friend (I’ll explain later) offered to show me around. But, my luck aside, the city’s uniqueness and charm is exceptional, far more stimulating than I had imagined. When I came back, I found New York dirty, aggressive and mundane. That too was unexpected. (Could it be something about the Mediterranean?)

I didn’t have an agenda in Barcelona, other than to see Gaudi’s church — the Sagrada Familia — and some of his residential projects.

Hanoch-PivenWhere to stay? What to prepare for? (Everybody kept talking about pickpockets.) I knew one person in Barcelona, the masterful illustrator/artist, Hanoch Piven. He was going to be out of town, but he did point me to a hotel in the Old Town or Ciutat Vella, aka Gothic. (Names might get confusing here as somethings are referred to in English, Spanish or Catalan. I would explain, but let’s not make this longer than necessary.) Gothic is about one mile by one and a quarter mile, the size of the Financial District in Manhattan below Chambers Street. (see maps above) It was built by the Romans and defined by a protective wall that expanded into the middle ages. The Gothic area is ad hoc, organic town planning. I don’t know why that has always appealed to me. Maybe because it has its own intrinsic logic or because in my Midwest, it is unimaginable. The streets and squares just seem to happen. Most streets are quite narrow. This area still contains the city government but it is also a busy tourist destination. The best way to describe things is by comparison but Barcelona is different from anything I had experienced, notably Rome or Paris. Maybe that is why I was so impressed. I am still trying to understand what I experienced. I am no expert on Barcelona, nor intend to be, so I am doing some research now in an attempt to be somewhat accurate in this post and add to my limited knowledge.

kbs1563drawing900*Here is a page that talks about the walls of Barcelona. Fascinating. I realize one reason why I like the ad hoc streets so much, they exude history. Also, unlike the grid, your experience is always unfolding as you walk. And you do have to walk. I think all but a few streets are closed to cars in Gothic. I never took a taxi. BTW, the Metro (subway) was excellent.

While the Gothic was impressive, it was the Modernisme architecture that was most arresting. There must be an equivalent to Stendhal Syndrome for BCN. Yes, I went to see Gaudi, and he did not disappoint, but it was only a small part of what I saw and cherished. There are a limited number of Modernisme buildings in the Gothic. With the industrial revolution, Barcelona became wealthy in the late 19th century and the walls were torn down. The city expanded. I read that the name for one prominent Modernisme district – Eixample, means expansion. This is where I found three of Gaudi projects below.

“Modernisme is equivalent to a number of other fin de siècle art movements going by the names of Art Nouveau in France and Belgium, Jugendstil in Germany, Sezession in Austria-Hungary, Liberty style in Italy and Modern or Glasgow Style in Scotland, and roughly began in 1888 (the First Barcelona World Fair)” -taken from

Is that too much background for looking at some photos? It may be foolish to write this blog post in an attempt to understand and share my experience in Barcelona. The more I write, the more questions I have. So be it. Bear with me, dear reader.