As well as being the birthplace of Spanish bubbly, Catalonia is also the place to discover some amazing modernista masterpieces
On the otherwise unremarkable corner of Carrer de Sicilia and Carrer de Provença in Barcelona’s Eixample, there is a cashpoint. Catalans queue impatiently in the rain to refill their wallets. The wall of the apartment block opposite is decorated with political graffiti. And across the road is ‘one of the most hideous buildings of the world’.
That, anyway, was George Orwell's opinion of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia. ‘The Anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance,’ according to the Englishman better known for his elegant prose than his architectural criticism.
But at a time during the Civil War when almost every church in northern Spain had been reduced to a smouldering shell, such was Catalan pride in Gaudí that his masterpiece remained almost untouched. Today it stands, still (very) unfinished, looking for all the world like it has been sculpted from half-molten candle wax. Along with his Casa Battló, La Pedrera and Parc Güell, it forms the centrepiece of any architectural trip to Barcelona.
There was much more to Catalan Modernisme than just Gaudí and his lunatic Hansel-and-Gretel architecture. Domenèch i Montaner’s Palau de la Música, a sequin jungle of mosaics inside and out, exhibits the love of modernity combined with a reverence for tradition and history that was the movement’s hallmark. His mosaics in the (still used) dining room of the Hotel Espanya are a more intimate taste of his decorative work—and make a stay in this Ramblas budget hotel a uniquely modernist experience.
And Catalonia’s architectural treasures don’t stop at the city limits. The old centre of Sitges, hedonistic capital of the Costa Daurada, is home to a number of Modernista villas. Many, like Buigas’ Hotel El Xalet (now a chi-chi hotel that's just perfect for a weekend break), were built by returning colonials, second sons who had made their fortune in the Spanish Caribbean.
And the hills of Penedès hide the crowning glory of Modernista architecture. Sant Sadurní d’Anoia is the home of cava, first made here in 1872. Josep Raventós, back from working in France’s Champagne region, brought the techniques he had seen to the family business. Within a decade, his xampany wines were a sensation, and Codorníu has since become the biggest fizz producer in the world.
With riches flowing in, the Raventós family commissioned Josep Puig i Cadafalch, creator of the Casa Amatller in Barcelona, to build them a unique headquarters. Work began in 1901 on what would become an iconic winery. Of the three buildings Puig designed, the reception and tasting room leaves the indelible impression. Sweeping elliptical arches and crenellated towers, echoing the Sagrada Familia, trace the faint shape of Montserrat in the distance. From the inside, the massive ceiling vaults give the impression of being inside an overturned ship’s hull. Two-tier chandeliers and tessellated stained glass windows are a reminder of Puig’s Gothic influences, and wouldn’t look out of place on a Dracula film set.
Outside, the family home, surrounded by manicured gardens and chocolate-box babbling fountains, moves beyond pastiche into folly. Half-Bavarian, half-Catalan, it’s Disney before Walt ever came along. But on the far side of the gardens, the pressing room and cellars are astonishing. The building now houses a museum (with Codorníu shipping 35 million bottles a year, the rooms have been somewhat outgrown for their original purpose). Four parabolic arches, shaped like adjacent Victorian railway stations, frame the building against the sky. Inside, stale oak and long fermented grapes fill the nostrils, and nowhere on the Modernista trail, Sagrada Familia included, am I more reminded of a cathedral.
Standing under the brick arches, you certainly don’t sense that Puig was always uncomfortable about his association with Modernisme. For him, architecture was a political act; he was building a nationalist Catalunya nova. But in design terms, he felt more at home in Barcelona’s Gothic past than its Art Nouveau present. Though he lived for another half-century, the cellars at Codorníu remained his most aggressively modern project.