“Legend has it that when school director Elies Rogent awarded Antoni Gaudi his degree, he remarked that only time would tell whether the iconic architect-to-be was either a madman or a genius.”
Hercules, so goes a Greek myth, was so taken aback by the beauty of the land where Barcelona now blooms that it was he who founded the city. However, it would be the next great empire, the Romans, who were really responsible for establishing this iconic port, known then as Barcino. There have been various occupational forces and governments throughout the city’s 2,000-year history and today it continues its fight to retain its cultural identity. The cityscape is defined by the Mediterranean and art and architectural styles such as gothic and modernism.
The Catalonian culture and language, so supressed for so long, became part of the national consciousness as it developed a new sense of purpose, a new self-confidence as the region’s economy thrived through its burgeoning textile industry while much of the rest of Spain plied its trade through agriculture, and a population boom followed. It’s a period known as the Catalan Renaissance, or Renaixença.
As the centre spread, the old city walls lost their value. Wealthy citizens used their resources to support Catalan architects to aid with the expansion, and, for instance, the new district of Eixample, designed in the style of Modernism, sprung up next to Gotico. Modernism represented a new movement, an expression of the independent soul and aspirations of Catalonia, and a stark contrast against the art nouveau that proliferated throughout much of Europe at the time. It broke with tradition, creating a unique look to the Catalonian landscape that incorporated new, natural, moving architectural concepts, recognised particularly for its building materials and techniques. A unique feature is the Catalonian arch.
In 1888, Barcelona served as the setting for first World Exhibition, at the café, Castell dels tres dragons, designed by Lluís Domenèch I Montaner an set in the Parc de la Ciutadelle. The fair was an unparalleled success, drawing attention to this new style of building and promoting modernism to the world. Further local developments followed, and now there are more than 2,000 examples of the style. Antoni Gaudi is undoubtedly not just Barcelona’s most revered modernist architect, but possibly the world’s. The city is awash with his works, including UNESCO World Heritage listed buildings like Casa Milà (La Pedrera), Palau Güell, Parc Güell, Casa Batlló, Casa Vicens, CasaCalvet and his most lauded offering, the Sagrada Familia, still unfinished and under development since 1882.
From 1910 onwards, modernism fell out of favour, with many citing it as too wasteful, decadent and self-indulgent, and a more functional and straightforward style, noucentisme, took its place. It was not, however, the end of modernism, which found new mediums through the arts. Barcelona has been home to some of history’s finest creative minds—think Picasso, Miró and Dali—and today galleries and museums showcase their works, along with those from the rest of Spain, and from other eras. Among the most regarded institutions are the MNAC, with its 1,000 years’ worth of history; MEAM, with a strong contemporary and figurative art collection; and the Picasso Museum that holds everything from his early years.
The Fundació Joan Miró showcases work of its eponymous artist, along with plenty of contemporary offerings, while the Museum of Modernism offers from of the best Catalonian examples. For contemporary abstract art head to the MACBA, while the super-cool Caxia Forum is housed in a former factory.
Along with Gaudi’s constructions that pepper the city, other must see architecture and attractions includes the Roman ruins and medieval sites at the Museum of Urban History, and the Center de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona for its regular festivals, exhibits, concerts, readings and film screenings. The Old Town, lined with cobbled and stone alleys, oozes Mediterranean charm.
And keep a look out for the graffiti—street art defines Barcelona as much as the buildings of Gaudi. There are even designated areas in districts such as Poblenou, where well-known artists have been commissioned to work, with a big emphasis on social commentary.