Winter 2015
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IV. ARCHITECTURE & THE ENVIRONMENT

Art and Politics in Lluis Domenech’s Catalonia

Entrance of Parc Guell by Antoni Gaudi

Entrance of Parc Guell by Antoni Gaudi

Lluis Domenech i Montaner, born in Barcelona in 1849, was one of the forerunners of Modernisme catala, also known as Catalan Art Nouveau or Jugendstil, a movement pushing for a definitive national style of architecture and design. Domenech’s prolific work, however, including the monumental and highly-touristed Palau de la Musica Catalana and the Hospital de Sant Pau, never came to symbolize Catalonia, in the way of that of his contemporary, Antoni Gaudi; today, two of the most visited architectural attractions in the world, and almost synonymous with the definition of Catalan architecture of the late 19th and early 20th-century, are unsurprisingly Gaudi’s parabolic Sagrada Familia and tile-encrusted Parc Guell. This overshadowing can be attributed to the sculptural ardor of Gaudi, though also a very experimental engineer, but not to structural ardor—this is where Domenech’s achievements are more evident, as long as one knows what to look for. Gaudi’s designs are highly unique, that is, impossible to reduce to a pattern and repeat, whereas Domenech’s steel and glass structures are typological and formulaic, the proportions of which quickly became normative within the language of modern architecture and have become more or less expected of architecture today.

Modernisme was actually finely split in two as it progressed at the turn of the century, with architects, including Domenech, on one side, advocating a combination of structural rationalism, like the French, and integrated ornamentation, and on the other, a formal inventiveness and a brand of Gesamtkunstwerkthe German concept generally meaning “synthesis of the arts” or “comprehensive artwork”. While these two groups diverged, architects from both sides contracted the same artists and artisans to fulfill their designs, which contributes to the similar appearances of their buildings at first glance. Furniture by Gasper Homar, mosaics by Lluis Bru, ceramics by Josep Orriols and Modest Sunyol, stained glass by Rigalt i Granell, cement tiles by Escofet, and sculptures by Eusebi Arnau can be found throughout the cities and seaside towns of Catalonia on and in a gamut of buildings by Domenech, Gaudi, and the other major architects of the period, such as Enric Sagnier, Josep Puig i Cadafalch, and Josep Marie Jujol. Yet there is something noticeably different between a building by Domenech and Gaudi, for example, and that is transparency–not per se in terms of openings in facades and the openness of interiors, but in terms of construction and ornamental legibility.

Interior of the Hospital de Sant Pau

Interior of the Hospital de Sant Pau

Domenech’s belief in this sort of transparency was inspired by Viollet-le-Duc’s theory of architecture published in his two volume book Entretiens sur l’architecture (1858–72), in which he praised historic building types, such as the Greek temple, for clarity of construction and proposed methods for adapting practical engineering systems of previous movements, such as the Gothic, to new building materials, such as cast iron. To Domenech, this theory generally provided a way to merge the past and the present, without nostalgia, and, in his own practice, affirmed his design process. Domenech designed typologically as Le-Duc suggested, faithfully adhering to the following few steps throughout his career: begin with a well-thought out type (the Greek temple, for example), reduce it to a formula or pattern of structural components (rows of columns, a frieze, a pediment, etc), reinvent the pattern with modern materials (columns become steel), arrange the structural components into a frame or skeleton to the volumetric requirements of the project,  and lastly, contract the best artists and designers to further modify structural components and flesh out the remaining matter with art and craft (the frieze becomes cement tile, the tympanum stained glass, the ramp a mosaic, etc). It must be noted here that, while the Greek temple is an easy illustration of this process, it is an imperfect example. Domenech typically began with his own typological proposals, which he would adapt per project, such as those he developed for an unbuilt public school when he was a burgeoning architect. This is not to say that his building types were not derivative or at least heavily informed by Ancient Greece and other countries from that time forward. History and documentation of the present to preserve and procure an understanding of it was inseparable from Domenech’s various livelihoods, as architect, politician, and writer. As an architecture student at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid, Domenech copied buildings as part of his course work, and from then on continued to study and document architecture in texts and on his travels. At the end of his career, his personal archives included a vast collection of texts describing different types of civic buildings that were considered innovations at the time (hospitals, concert halls, and hotels) and thousands of photographs he took while visiting an array of cities in Catalonia, which now belong to the visual archive of the School of Architecture.

The Task of the Collective
Domenech’s own treatise on architecture, En busca d’una arquitectura nacional (In search of a national architecture), published in the journal La Renaixenca in 1878, evoked the original concepts of Modernisme and set the movement off. Encouraging a search for a new style that would be representative of the times while incorporating symbols of its history, Domenech’s ultimate aim was for Catalonia to assert its oft-threatened identity and rise in reputation as a cultural center in the eyes of Europe. The essay was highly influential and effectively defined what would become the Modernista approach. It was the original goal of the Modernista to strive to  preserve Catalonian culture by imbuing it with modern features—to save it, in other words, from becoming obsolete, by invigorating the arts and advancing developments in the arts born out of the Industrial Revolution and Europe’s progressive cities. At the same time, Domenech began his prominent role in the Catalan autonomist movement, as a founder of the La Jove Catalunya. Eventually he would become Chair of Lliga de Catalunya and one of the organisers of the commission that approved the Bases de Manresa, a list of demands for Catalan autonomy.

Facade of the Hospital de Sant Pau

Facade of the Hospital de Sant Pau

Thus Catalan culture was conveyed and given new life, ideologically and quite literally (as artists were given work), via the implementation of ornament in facades, structural components, and interiors. Domenech’s language consisted particularly of symbols of Catalonia’s history, of its military and civic high points, its literature, its music, its myths–anything that could serve to invoke a sense of its glorious-if-idealized past. In regards to the principle of transparency, it has been said that Domenech, perhaps more skillfully than any other architect of his generation, was able to implement ornamentation at precisely the right moments, that is, his symbols emerged from structure to accentuate it. Ornament was used to punctuate structure, rather than adorn or sweep across it (as occasionally occurs in Gaudi’s work).  From the facade of the Hospital Sant Pau, in which carved reliefs of Saints and coats-of-arms alternate under arches, to the stained-glass ceiling of the Palau de la Musica Catalana, which takes its cone shape from iron frames stemming from exterior columns, the articulation of structure is clear and never muddled or concealed, no matter how complex or expressive the ornament’s design.

The use of ornamentation in Domenech’s work was in part so successful because he was able to extrapolate the technical relationship between art and industry that had been fostered by other movements in Europe. In mid 19th-century society, it was a common reaction to turn towards craft, in opposition to the Industrial Revolution’s dehumanization of production; and ornamentation, which required time and manual labor to produce, became the young generation’s form of protest. Art was merged with industry nonetheless as an interest in the methodology of industrialization persisted. In Britain, during the Arts and Crafts movement, design and construction were understood as processes which could be systematized to provide for artists’ work and, ultimately, eradicate the division of labor required for mass-production. It was no different in Catalonia: the movement was politicized and received support from the Catalan provincial government, which commissioned Domenech’s first realized project, the cafe-restaurant Castell dels Tres Dragons, built for the 1888 World’s Fair. The same year, the architect became President of the Lliga Regionalista, and he would go on to become a prominent member of parliament in 1901. It could be said that craft came back to life in the era of Modernisme only by way of Domenech’s radical approach to changing labor via architecture via politics or that his architectural agenda was political and vice versa.

Fonda Espana

Fonda Espana

Domenech’s use of ornament was also so successful because it simultaneously expressed and overcame the romantic and idealistic philosophies of the era. The important space Domenech reserved for art and craft redeemed the romantic idea of the craftsman as solitary artist, and gave voice to the sentiments and ideals of Catalan’s artists, musicians, writers, and philosophers which resonated throughout the entire culture. Only does his work truly come to life by the hand of Homar, Bru, and Arnau: the Palau de la Musica Catalana would not burnish like a treasure, the Hospital de Sant Pau would not breath like a garden, and the Fonda Espana would not tell its oceanic stories without these artists’ contributions. Of course, they were agreeing to perform in concerto, to transcend the romantic ideal of art as an entirely independent endeavor in favor of Domenech’s concept of Modernisme, in which the creation of art to reform society was a collective task. Craftsman, given space within a frame in which to work were part of the same system as the architects and engineers organizing it; all belonged to the same industry and were working towards the same goal: cultural expression.

—Ashley Booth Klein