Gaudí and Casa Batlló: How a house remodel became
a Modernist work of art
‘There are no straight lines or sharp corners in nature. Therefore, buildings must have no straight lines or sharp corners’ – Antoni Gaudí
On the Passeig de Gràcia in the heart of Barcelona stands a jewel of Catalan Modernism. Gaudí’s Casa Batlló is the story of a simple house renovation that became a universal work of art. But more than that, it was one of several projects that shaped a city at the point of Catalan cultural revival, defined an art movement and cemented Gaudí as one of the 20th century’s architectural icons whose singular, avant-garde vision continues to build brand ‘Barcelona’ today.
Antoni Gaudí was the best-known architect of Catalan Modernism. Put into a wider context, this was the Spanish style that emerged in parallel with other European fin de siècle art movements – Art Nouveau in France and Belgium, Jugendstil in Germany, Sezession in Austria and Hungary, Stile Liberty in Italy and Modern or Glasgow Style in Scotland. All developed along similar principles but Modernism, centred in Barcelona arose from a resurgent urban and industrial development and a revindication of Catalan identity which provided a platform for Gaudí’s creativity. ‘Gaudínism’ was born.
Main façade, Casa Batlló, Photo © oneARTlover 2018
The architect was already working on the Sagrada Familia, Parque Güell and the Torre Bellesguard when he was commissioned to start the renovation of Casa Batlló in 1904 and which lasted until 1906. The building, known locally as the Casa dels ossos – the House of Bones – named for the skeletal appearance of its exterior was transformed into a brilliant demonstration of Modernist principles which, while predominantly expressed through architecture involved design and other art forms. Sculpture, carpentry, ironwork, ceramics, glass work and other decorative arts supported the main architectural manifestations in a movement that blurred the boundaries between art and architecture. And Gaudí was its master.
Treating the smallest ornamental details in the same way as complex constructional solutions, Gaudí balanced aesthetics with functionality in all he designed. Inspired by his passions in life, his projects were total works of art fitting beautifully-crafted, organic forms into both a building’s carcass and its contents. Nature, religion and mythology pervade every floor of this multi-storey home. And there are no straight lines in sight.
Architectural rigidity transforms into undulating, flowing structures impressed on the visitor through sweeping, carved wooden staircases and curved, marble and stone masonry. These obvious structural elements demonstrate the unique nature of this project but the delight comes in the detail at Casa Batlló. Stained-glass discs blown into whirlpool textures; curving, artisanal opalesque windows letting natural light into the main floor hallway; an exquisite ceiling light in the main salon reminiscent of a fringed jellyfish; a glass chandelier suspending ocean-water droplets above dinner guests; a staircase finial evoking Neptune’s underwater kingdom. Gaudí’s house is befitting of any Roman god.
Trencadís detail and ceramic plaques, rear terrace, Casa Batlló, Photo © oneARTlover 2018
Of course, when we think of Gaudí, it’s the coloured, broken ceramic tiles that immediately come to mind and Casa Batlló is covered in them. From the front façade to the elegantly-curved dragon-like roof to the four sculptural chimney stacks, this building is clad in his ubiquitous trencadís style. Meaning ‘chopped’ in catalan, these brightly-coloured glazed ceramic shards enabled Gaudí to cover curved surfaces in different patterns and shades. Salvaged from the Pujol i Bausis factory and other manufacturers, they remind us of Roman tesserae. Wander around inside and the style is present throughout the interior too on stuccoed painted ceilings, paired pillars and walls. This technique is Gaudí’s nod to antiquity.
The central patio is the spinal pièce de résistence, demonstrating Gaudí’s preoccupation with light and water. Just as ancient civilisations gravitated towards water, he channelled the ocean into this city centre home and the visitor is immersed in a shimmering, chromatic submarine realm. Glazed, blue tiles set diagonally in ascending shades from whitish tones in the basement to dark cobalt blue on the top floor control light intensity across every level, their positioning in this marine shaft a deliberate consideration by the architect.
Decorative form is instinctively balanced with functional efficiency and in stark contrast with the brilliant colours throughout Casa Batlló, the white, monochrome attic is a purely utilitarian space. Corridors lit from the central patio well lend a fresh luminosity and airiness to this communal service area. Self-supported by catenary arches, it looks somewhat like an animal’s ribcage.
Climbing spiral stairs to the top-floor terrace and views across the rooftops of Barcelona anchor the house with its urban landscape. At the front end, crowning the building, the crest silhouette of an imaginary lizard or dragon dominates the skyline.
When Josep Batlló commissioned Gaudí to re-design his sombre, Eixample abode to something ‘that would arouse the admiration of the Barcelonan bourgeoisie’, one wanders whether he fully anticipated the legacy of Gaudí’s genius. It’s hard to imagine not. Whatever the intention, Casa Batlló gave us Gaudí at his most creative and this classic case of keeping up with the neighbours has been for the aesthetic admiration of art and architecture-lovers ever since.
Casa Batlló is part of the ‘Works of Antoni Gaudí’* UNESCO World Heritage site
(*The seven buildings are: Parque Güell; Palacio Güell; Casa Mila; Casa Vicens; Gaudí’s work on the Nativity façade and Crypt of La Sagrada Familia; Casa Batlló and the Crypt in Colonia Güell).
Hallway skylights, Casa Batlló, Photo © oneARTlover 2018
Ceiling light, main floor salon, Casa Batlló, Photo © oneARTlover 2018
Window detail, main floor salon, Casa Batlló, Photo © oneARTlover 2018
Central patio well, Casa Batlló, Photo © oneARTlover 2018
Attic corridor detail, Casa Batlló, Photo © oneARTlover 2018
Trencadís roof detail, Casa Batlló, Photo © oneARTlover 2018
Chimney cowls, Casa Batlló, Photo © oneARTlover 2018
Rear view façade, Casa Batlló, Photo © oneARTlover 2018
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