Barcelona: Casa Batlló

I’m surprised that in my first article following my six-month hiatus from writing, I failed to mention my trip to Spain last October.  It was a family vacation, rather than an architectural study abroad trip, but I did learn a little bit about Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí and was able to experience his work firsthand.

Gaudí’s Casa Batlló was built on the fashionable Passeig de Gràcia, in a section of Barcelona’s Eixample District now known as the Illa de la Discordia (Block of Discord), the result of the rivalry and competitive spirit of Barcelona’s most prominent architects (or that of their clients’) and their clashes of artistic style.

Illa de la Discordia along Passeig de Gràcia – Barcelona

A few elements of Casa Batlló that make it so unique include:

The façade
The upper exterior is covered in broken, watery-colored tiles and what appears to be painted, plaster disks.  The cast iron balconies look like masks; the lower columns like bones.

Casa Batlló, front façade (1906), Antoni Gaudí, architect – Barcelona
Casa Batlló, exterior façade: a brilliant and eco-friendly way to eliminate repainting!

The absence of right angles
Inside the house, Gaudí chose to forgo right angles – from the doors, the windows, and their glass panes.  (Notice the wavy baseboard, too).


Casa Batlló, Apartment no. 6

The rooftop terrace
It’s a party up here!  Colorful, crooked chimneys, a giant garlic bulb, and a dragon’s back.

Casa Batlló’s rooftop chimneys, designed to prevent backdrafts
The garlic bulb is believed to be the sword of Saint George (patron saint of Catalonia), stabbing the dragon’s scaly back.

The last remaining, original tenant
The house was actually an apartment building, with the Batlló family living on the second (noble) floor and apartment residents on the subsequent floors.  While on the tour, our guide told us a fascinating story.  I haven’t read this story anywhere else, so I’m relying on my memory to retell it.

At the time Casa Batlló was established, a law entitled tenants to remain in their apartments for as long as they lived (or something to that affect – I’m sure they at least had to pay their rent).  Standing on the Batlló’s courtyard patio, looking at the upper floors, our guide pointed out the single balcony decorated with green plants, belonging to an original Casa Batlló tenant.  She is in her 80’s or 90’s now and will continue to live in her apartment, along with all the tourists running around below, for as many more years as she wishes.

Casa Batlló, rear façade, with balcony plants tended by the last, original tenant

That one million tourists visit Casa Batlló each year is (yet) another testament to the power of architecture to define time, place, and culture.  Casa Batlló was conceived during the industrial revolution, with the prosperity and social progress that came along with it, and its Modernisme style is unique to Catalonia.

And that’s all good.  However, the engineer in me sees Casa Batlló as a technical marvel and a testament to the engineering and craftsmanship of the day.  It is important to note that Casa Batlló was not new construction; it was a remodeling job.  So how did Antoni Gaudí take the original, perfectly normal, straight-forward brick building, built in 1877, and turn it into something completely unrecognizable to its former self?

left: original building by Emilio Sala Cortés (1877)   right: Casa Batlló by Antoni Gaudí (1906)

The analysis required to widen the lower floor’s openings; to reframe and enlarge the noble floor’s windows; to add additional floors; to frame the free-form roof not only to cap off the building, but also to support the weight of all those dragon-back tiles and incorporate Saint George’s sword; to the logistics of setting in place all the tile, stone, and ironwork – so many details to consider without a computer – had to have been immense.  And yet, 140 years later, those minds got it right.

Casa Batlló may be one of Antoni Gaudí’s signature works, but his most famous and challenging vision – still under construction – is two miles away.