Barcelona. Open-air museum

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Barcelona. Open-air museum

An Outdoor Museum of Color and Style

Imagine for a moment that you are taking a walk through a spacious art gallery. On display are numerous works that immediately capture your attention and imagination. Everywhere you look, your eyes are drawn to an infinite variety of breathtaking, bizarre shapes, forms, and colors. This surprising art collection, however, is not housed in any building or palace. The city of Barcelona is this immense open-air art museum and of special note is the Quadrat d’Or (Golden Quarter). This name is Catalan, the official language in Barcelona and the surrounding region of Catalonia. It is a Romance language related to Spanish and French. Most people in the city speak both Spanish and Catalan. The artworks on display are not paintings or sculptures but the buildings themselves. And they offer the visitor an extraordinary diversity of style and decoration. 

Located on Spain’s northeast Mediterranean Coast, just a hundred miles [160 km] south of the French border, Barcelona is probably the most European of all Spanish cities. Over the past hundred years, it has become synonymous with architectural innovation and artistic style.

Despite periodic conquests by the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors, and the Franks, Barcelona grew as a trading center. By the 14th century, the city had become Spain’s most important manufacturing city and Mediterranean port. The Gothic buildings and the cathedral, which today occupy a prominent position in the heart of the city, date back to that century. The grandeur of Gothic architecture (1), which used elaborate and sophisticated building techniques, attests to the wealth and prosperity that Barcelona enjoyed during that period.

In the 16th century, Spain’s attention turned to the West, since her trade with the colonies offered greater rewards. But with the arrival of the industrial revolution in the 19th century, Barcelona became the capital of Spain’s textile industry, and the city began to prosper once more.

A New City Comes to Life

The rapid expansion of the 19th century brought wealth as well as some problems to the city. Barcelona’s population exploded during the second half of that century, yet the urban layout had not expanded. Something had to be done to solve the problem of overcrowding. The civil engineer Ildefons Cerdà was assigned the task of designing a plan to urbanize the surrounding area and expand the city.

Cerdà’s scheme, developed in 1859, was called L’Eixample, or the expansion, and this is now the name of this central city district. According to his plan, tree-lined streets and square-shaped blocks of buildings—arranged in almost perfect symmetry—would form a crisscross grid. A new monumental, healthier Barcelona would arise.

Very quickly the city started to grow in accord with Cerdà’s plan. Each block of buildings was uniquely designed, offering visitors today a chance to view architectural structures of great charm, variety, and beauty. Stylish avenues and boulevards were also incorporated. Robert Hughes, in his book Barcelona, considers L’Eixample ‘to be one of the most interesting urban areas in Europe because of the architecture it contains.’

Barcelona’s growing prosperity led to its being the host city for the Universal Exposition in 1888. The Arc de Triomf (2) (Triumphal Arch), situated near the center of the city, was built to commemorate that important event. However, this unusual monument also testifies to the arrival of an artistic movement that has made Barcelona unique among the cities of the world.

New Art to Brighten Up the City

At the turn of the 20th century, Art Nouveau—an ornamental art style inspired by natural forms—began to flourish throughout Europe and the United States. This art style is known in Spain as Modernismo. Barcelona had the money to invest, an urban plan waiting for buildings to enhance the city, and innovative architects anxious to experiment. Thus, Art Nouveau gave the city its unique look. Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926) was the foremost exponent of the new art form, and he left an indelible mark on Barcelona’s urban landscape.

Most of the best examples of Gaudí’s work, several of which are listed as World Heritage buildings, can be found in Barcelona. Casa Milà (3), or La Pedrera, located on the Passeig de Gràcia near the city center, is a notable example. No straight walls can be found anywhere within the structure. The undulating facade looks as if it were chiseled from sandstone. Wrought-iron parapets resembling clustered leaves and brambles decorate the exterior. Inside, curved ceilings and columns take on every shape imaginable.

Another brilliant example of Gaudí’s genius is the Casa Batlló (4), also on the Passeig de Gràcia. From 1904 to 1906, Gaudí remodeled a building owned by Josep Batlló i Casanovas, a wealthy industrialist. The architect created a house that seems to be based on a fantasy world. The undulated roof resembles a dinosaur’s spine, and the tiles are like the scales of a fish. The building has to be seen to be believed.

Gaudí’s unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia church (5), is perhaps the most noteworthy example of his originality. The four steeples on the north facade look like ripples of solidified wax that has dripped down the sides of four towering candlesticks. Dwarfing the surrounding buildings, these soaring towers have become the international symbol of Barcelona.

Equally surprising is Parc Güell (6), a park designed by Gaudí that is situated on a hill on the western side of the city. Twisted sculptures and columns, multicolored mosaics, and extraordinary buildings and chimneys contrast with the attractive gardens that surround them. Another feast of form and color is the Palau de la Música Catalana (7) (Music Palace) designed by Gaudí’s contemporary, Domènech i Montaner.

Between the Mountains and the Sea

Barcelona’s location, as well as its architectural legacy, gives the city a distinct flavor. The Collserola mountains surround the city on the west and the Mediterranean Sea forms its boundary to the east. It is the sea that has done much to contribute to Barcelona’s prosperity as Spain’s principal trading port. Not surprisingly, near the port a statue of Christopher Columbus (8) points out toward the sea.

The protection of the mountains and the sea also provides the city with a temperate climate that favors outdoor life. All year round, the streets are full of people from early in the morning until late in the evening. Street cafés and restaurants are on virtually every corner, tempting passersby with the smell of freshly ground coffee or the chance to sample the local cuisine. Food markets, such as the famous Boquería situated on the tree-lined avenue called La Rambla, sell practically any fruit, vegetable, or fish imaginable.

No visit to Barcelona would be complete, however, without a visit to Montjuïc, a steep hill rising near the sea. It offers visitors museums, art galleries, and spectacular views of the city and the Mediterranean Sea. The main facilities used for the 1992 Olympic Games are also located on Montjuïc. Jehovah’s Witnesses plan to visit Barcelona for an international convention from July 31 to August 3. This event will require the huge Camp Nou soccer stadium in order to accommodate all the delegates.

Although Barcelona, like most large cities, has its problems, visitors invariably enjoy its Mediterranean flavor. Whether it be the flower stalls and cafés of La Rambla, the narrow streets and ancient splendor of the Gothic Quarter, or the city’s fascinating architecture, Barcelona offers an outdoor museum of color and style that few can forget.

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