This is the unedited and unabridged version of an article I originally wrote for Expedia.
Whether you’re looking for a more balanced view of Barcelona’s superlative architecture or revisiting the Catalan capital and have already “done Gaudi”, here is your crucial guide to the city’s lesser known manmade delights.
Words and photos by Ben Holbrook
As a first timer landing in Barcelona the most compelling desire is to sate your appetite for sun struck strolls though the two-thousand-year-old backstreets of the Gothic Quarter, to feel the burning sands cool your feet as you inch your way into the Mediterranean Sea. And the ultimate pilgrimage for those fresh off the proverbial boat is to gawk at Gaudi’s Catalan Modernism masterpieces. And for good reason too, seven of his nature-inspired creations are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites and have become immovable cultural and physical emblems of Barcelona, elevating the city from its historic reputation as a second-rate city to becoming one of the world’s most seductive global hotspot.
But it must be said that Gaudi was merely one of many enlightened architects driving the city forward with avant-garde design and atypical thinking, and the city continues to attract the design world’s illuminati, who dazzle free-thinking visitors who aren’t afraid to take a sidestep off the beaten path.
As “God’s architect” said himself: “Creation continues incessantly through the media of man.”
Meet Lluís Domènech i Montaner
Often referred to as “the one that’s not Gaudi”, Domènech i Montaner was one of the key figures in the Catalan Modernism movement. A man of many hats, he worked as a professor at Barcelona’s school of architecture for 45 years, as well contributing to industry journals and also working as a politician. His designs fused the ostentatiousness of Spanish-Arabic architecture with rationalism, utilising ceramics, mosaics, wrought iron and intricate stained glass to create vibrant architectural utopias.
His style is, perhaps, most evident in the Hospital de la Santa Creu i de Sant Pau, which was built between 1901 and 1930. This is Barcelona’s most colossal and intricate example of Catalan Modernism and actually operated as fully-functioning hospital up until 2009. For this reason, it is often neglected in the city’s ‘Top 10’ lists, but it has now been transformed into a museum and cultural centre where you can stroll through its orange tree scented pavilions and soak up the Modernist details without fear of being run down by an ambulance.
Domènech i Montaner was also responsible for the Castell dels Tres Dragons (Castle of three dragons) in Park Ciutadella. Hailed as one of the first examples Catalan Modernism, this Moorish-inspired fortress of imposing towers and battlements was built for the 1888 World Fair.
Other seminal work includes the Palau de la Música Catalana, which together with the Hospital de la Santa Creu i de Sant Pau is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As one of the most important concert halls in Barcelona, this cultural pillar of high society was financed by Barcelona’s bourgeoisie and successful industrialists. The design is overtly Modernist, with intricate mosaics, lashings of irons and glass, and floral motifs that add a tropical greenhouse vibe.
Explore Poblenou – “The New Town”
For a real taste of up-and-coming (although it’s more ‘up’ than ‘coming’), this once unremarkable industrial district of Barcelona is now a tour du force of modern design. Streets of abandoned factories and working-class housing are peppered with contemporary hotels and avant-garde office spaces that have reshaped the physical and spiritual feel of the city.
The Torre Agbar Tower is fast becoming as recognisable as the peaks of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. This phallic exaltation stands as a fervent exclamation, marking Barcelona’s progressive nature and crystallising its position as one of the most important design cities in Europe. Designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, this 38-story, 144.4m tall ‘skyscraper’ was inspired by the peaks of nearby Montserrat mountains. Its glass façade features 4,500 LEDs that transform the building into an architectural light show – best seen at night – that illuminates the sky like some kind of psychedelic disco gherkin.
In the shadows of the tower you’ll also find the Barcelona Design Museum – which is in its own right a a triumph of contemporary design – and the new Encants Market, which was designed by Fermín Vázquez and is a sort of mind bending feat of mirrored mayhem housing one of Barcelona’s oldest flea markets.
From here, take a short stroll down towards the sea and you’ll stumble upon the sustainable splendour of the Media-TIC Building, which achieves both green design ideals and intriguing aesthetics. There’s also the bronzed beehive beauty of the CMT Building. It sits on the site of an old Can Tiana fabric factory and its geometric honeycomb frame links the old with the new as it appears to float like the shell of a half-built cruise ship waiting to slide down to the sea.
Back in the centre of Barcelona and the lavish curves of the Santa Caterina Market continue to dazzle. This eccentric building features a neoclassical façade with classic Spanish arches and exquisite carpentry, but it’s the roof that transforms it into something entirely unique. Multicoloured ceramics on a flowing ribbonlike roof cover the vast expanse in the most magical of ways – a design that could have easily been dreamt up by Gaudi himself to represent the shape of a shell.
And just a few tapas bites away, you’ll find the Església de Santa Maria del Mar, arguably one of the world’s finest Gothic churches, as well as the Modernist extravaganza of Passeig de Gràcia, which includes Lluís Domènech i Montaner’s Casa Lleó i Morera and Casa Fuster, as well as Casa Amatller, which was designed by ‘the other’ great Catalan architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch, who also created the must-see Casa Macaya and Casa de les Punxes.
So next time you’re exploring the Catalan capital, prepare to see the city with eyes afresh, for there is a Barcelona beyond Gaudi, and it’s every bit as wild.
Make it Happen
- Hospital de la Santa Creu i de Sant Pau – Carrer de Sant Quintí, 89, 08026
- Castell dels Tres Dragons – Passeig de Picasso, 5, 08003
- Palau de la Música Catalana – Carrer Palau de la Música, 4-6, 08003
- Torre Agbar Tower – Av. Diagonal, 211, 08018
- Barcelona Design Museum – Plaça de les Glòries Catalanes, 37, 08018
- Encants Market – Carrer Castillejos, 158, 08013
- Media-TIC Building – Carrer de Roc Boronat, 08018
- CMT Building – Carrer Bolivia, 56, 08022
- Santa Caterina Market – Av. de Francesc Cambó, 16, 08003
- Església de Santa Maria del Mar – Plaça de Santa Maria, 1, 08003
- Casa Lleó i Morera – Passeig de Gràcia, 35, 08007
- Casa Fuster – Passeig de Gràcia, 132, 08008
- Casa Amatller – Passeig de Gràcia, 41, 08007
- Casa Macaya – Passeig de Sant Joan, 108, 08009
- Casa de les Punxes – Carrer del Rosselló, 260, 08037