A Catalan Modernist

by Fabrizio Zanni

Lluís Domènech i Montaner, AA.VV. Santa & Cole, Barcelona, 2005 (pp. 234)

Along with Josep Puig i Cadafalch, Salvador Valeri i Pupurull, Joan Rubiò i Bellver and, of course, Antoni Gaudì, Lluís Domènech i Montaner was one of the leading figures in Catalan Modernisme, which was permeated with ideas for the discipline’s renewal as well as a “grouping of constructional Rationalism and fantastic ornamentation, inspired by Hispano-Arab architecture” (X. Figueras and I. Munté). The Movement was also distinguished by the close relationship that developed between architecture, the decorative arts and crafts.

The last, in particular, developed in Catalonia into a blend of constructional know-how and manual skill, and the Maestros d’Obras were crucial intermediary figures between the architect, the constructor and the craftsman who, to use the words of Adolf Loos, in that particular historic, environmental and cultural situation “had studied Latin”. Domènech i Montaner’s most important works are, in Barcelona, the Palau de la Mùsica Catalana, dated 1908, featuring interiors that develop in caves of stalactites and stalagmites, like an artificial grotto in which ceilings, wall decorations and chandeliers all contribute to the formation of grotesques. The exterior, in contrast, features floral themes, developed in the mosaics, ceramic inserts and windows.

The building was declared a "World Heritage Site" in 1997. Another fundamental work is the Hospital Sant Pau. Designed in 1901, its construction was protracted until 1930 with major changes being made to the original project. It extended over nine standard-street blocks in the Ildefons Cerdà grid (113 x 133 metres with 20 metre-wide streets) and was originally divided into 48 pavilions. The Catalan architect showed considerable interest in new complex building types serving civic purposes, such as hospitals, hotels, concert halls and public spaces in general.

Examples of this are the little-mentioned cemetery of Comillas in Cantabria and the Institut Pere Mata, the main pavilion of which is dominated by a 30-metre-tall neo-medieval tower. The book edited by Lourdes Figueras covers his extensive production of elaborate interior architecture, decorations and furnishings. Worked stone, wrought iron, wood and glass are the primary elements - materials that are sometimes assembled in extremely sculptural "interior landscapes". Lluís Domènec i Girbau says in his introductory essay that one of the major keys to the architecture of his forefather lies in continuity, intended as a formal "ensemble" of disciplines, materials and diverse skills brought together in single structure that orders and disciplines the "fragments" of decoration.

He sees this poetic as a radical move towards Modernity and away from the romantic artistic approach. This large format book looks at the only work of interior and furnishing design, except for a section containing beautiful freehand elevations of some of the main buildings constructed or designed. It is organised in three sections: the first contains introductory essays by Girbau and Figueras; the second is a large "drawing archive", which actually numbers more photographs than graphic representations.

The last is called the "bibliographic archive" and amasses writings by Montaner himself, including the interesting although historically dated “En busca de una arquitectura nacional”, period writings referring to the Catalan master’s production, theoretical and non, and, lastly, some essays from our own times, e.g. that by David Mackay on the Palau de la Música, dated 1963, and that by J. F. Rafols on "Decoration in Domènec’s work" dated 1956. The book ends with a concise biographical and architectural chronology.

Fabrizio Zanni Professor of Architectural Design at Milan Polytechnic

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