Sagnier’s Barcelona

The architect Enric Sagnier had the good luck to work during one of the most propitious periods for architecture and town planning that Barcelona had ever known.

The Modernista movement, like the Gothic style, was to leave an indelible mark on the city’s urban landscape. Over the last two millennia there have been three major milestones in the city’s urban development. The first was when Pere III commanded the last mediaeval wall to be erected in the mid-14th century; thereby bounding the city with walls that would remain intact until 1854. The second was when Cerdà’s plan to enlarge the city, known as the Eixample, was adopted. And the third was the wholesale transformation that took place in the city when Maragall was its mayor, in preparation for the 1992 Olympic Games.

It was, indeed, providential that Modernisme should have had that vast and attractive site on which to erect its works. But, fortunately, that was not the only happy circumstance. During the second half of the 19th century a number of factors coincided, in an unrepeatable way, to transform what was already a propitious moment into a perfect cauldron of auspicious possibilities: the Barcelona middle-classes were in the midst of an almost unprecedented economic bonanza; fabulous amounts of money were being transferred from the colonies; long-established rural families from the Catalan interior, weary of the abuses arising from the Carlist wars, sold their possessions and moved to the Eixample district of Barcelona; the city, meanwhile, was replete with craftsmen whose exceptional skills, passed on from father to son, were such that they were often able to make improvements to the plans of architects and designers, many of whom had little or no experience, and these skills endowed the Modernista movement with the highest splendours the applied arts had to offer.

Furthermore, the drawing to a close of the years of decadence and an embryonic Catalan nationalism created the conditions necessary to provide stimulus and drive for numerous undertakings and adventures, many of which would have resounding influence in the most diverse fields. As if this were insufficient, the city, despite having been subjected after 1714 to the worst repression it had ever suffered in its entire history, had preserved its own style and way of doing things. Its social fabric had remained intact and it was at precisely that time that the city’s long welled-up potential burst forth anew, and with renewed force, to show what it was really made of.

It is in this context that a fair appraisal may be made of an intangible benefit, the magnitude of which is sometimes difficult to appreciate: the fillip provided by the colossal undertaking to stage the 1888 Universal Exposition. If one were merely to list the facts, as some are prone to do, it would be hard to avoid the conclusion that Barcelona benefited relatively little in terms of architecture and landscape—and still less in terms of town planning—from that event, with the exception of the Ciutadella and its immediate environs. It seems to me, however, that what was of greater importance was its psychological effect. The decline experienced just as the modern age was commencing and the trauma felt as a consequence of Bourbon humiliation had seared a deep-seated pessimism into the minds of the citizens, a pessimism that was invariably passed on to the next generations. Proof of this was the fact that the challenge of hosting the Exposition was immediately seen as a perilous undertaking, the fear being that it would probably result in a shambles, making Barcelona the laughingstock of the world. The success of the event, at precisely that crucial moment, provided a tremendous boost for the people’s collective self-esteem and sense of confidence and that made it possible, at last, to radically change direction on a course that had hitherto seemed destined to drift forever downwards.

I suppose it was this happy outcome that explains the unexpected dynamism and exemplary efficiency with which the Eixample project was undertaken, in spite of the exceptional scale involved for a city that had become accustomed to the penance of extreme overcrowding. Right from the start it was clear that the project was destined to be a resounding success.

For the reasons alluded to above Modernisme, Art Nouveau, or Modern Style, acquired features that had a political, nationalist and historical transcendence lacking in all the other European countries in which it flourished; which was almost all of them. There was an overwhelming sensation that the mission in hand was no less than the transcendental one of recovering past glory; how else is it possible to interpret the calls made by some architects to cultivate the neo-Gothic, or to seek inspiration in the roots of the Romanesque, even if these were swathed in an innovative and enhancing Modernista coat?

In this historic undertaking, the Eixample district of Barcelona designed by Ildefons Cerdà was providential, not only because of the gigantic size of the site for which it was planned, but above all because it established the foundations and characteristics for a scenario that was utterly out of the ordinary. The grid system he devised entailed expanses of space the Barcelonese had never, even in their wildest dreams, imagined as being possible: all the streets would be a minimum of twenty metres wide, and that in a city whose Carrer Ample, or “Broad Street”, merited its name because its six metres breadth had made it the widest street in mediaeval Barcelona. This was the tempting stage Cerdà set for the architects, one that would enhance and inspire their work like no other. What is more, with a stroke of genius he added a feature to his planned grid system that had never been seen before in the history of town planning, the xamfrà, or chamfered corner, which endowed the city with undreamed-of visual magnificence. We need only consider the difference between the house Sagnier designed for Antoni Roger i Vidal, on the corner of Carrer Ausiàs Marc and Carrer Girona, and any of the buildings sandwiched in the middle of a block.

With unprecedented speed there arose, before the astonished gaze of citizens accustomed to the narrow thoroughfares of the old quarter of the city, a succession of buildings of extraordinary grandeur. Architects vied with each other to make the most of the new conditions, now so favourable to their profession, as property owners, right from the very beginning, became enmeshed in an unparalleled competition of social one-upmanship to show the world who could build the biggest house; or the most beautiful one; or the most original; or the most ornamented; or even the most outlandish. The result soon came to the notice of sophisticated observers, such as the Surrealists who, guided by Dalí, published a combative report in Minotaure with intentionally biased photographs by Man Ray on what Dalí termed the ‘edible architecture’ of Modernista Barcelona; and of Walter Benjamin who in the 1930s, in a posthumously published work, the Arcades Project, defined the Eixample district of Barcelona as being the most intense concentration of Modernisme, or Modern Style in Europe.

It should be made absolutely clear that the first people to throw their wholehearted and courageous support behind the new Eixample project came from the aristocracy and the upper-middle classes. The backing they gave to the project was praiseworthy, but implied risks. In all fairness it should be borne in mind just what it meant to leave the ancestral home, held for generations by their forebears, charged with history and resonating with family genealogy, and move to the new Eixample district of town which lacked even the most elementary public and community services. With the ironic inventiveness that so characterises the Barcelonese these first settlers in the district were called the ‘protomartyrs’ of the Eixample. The historian and expert on heraldry Armand de Fluvià once told me that he had counted twenty noble families that had decided to start a new life in a large family home built on one of Cerdà’s wide avenues, always on the right-hand side of the planned grid system, soon to be known as the Dreta de l’Eixample.

The example set by the aristocratic families and some of the city’s other grand families had an influence on the rest of the people in the city, calming their doubts and allaying their fears.

Sagnier’s clients were always from these higher strata of society to which he himself was linked both maternally and paternally.

Cerdà’s plan was not just for a self-sufficient district, but one in which every certain number of city blocks in the new grid system would served by their own facilities such as a church, a school, a hospital and market. It was not, therefore, merely a question of building houses. This diversity also influenced the kind of commissions Sagnier would receive during the course of his professional life. Although a large part of his work was devoted to the creation of housing, he was also involved in designing these other kinds of building that befitted a great city undergoing a process of expansion, including churches, chapels, schools, business premises, banks, sports facilities, tombs and impressive public buildings, even a triumphal arch for Alfonso XIII.

Barcelona’s dramatic recovery after two centuries revealed a city that had regained its self-confidence; a city that was capable of carrying out the immense Eixample project in a short period of time; a city capable of rising to the challenge of yet another great undertaking. Given that Barcelona did not benefit from the privileges that might be claimed by a capital city, its quest to strive forwards required it, perforce, to channel its energies through such great undertakings and events. Thus, during the first years of the twentieth century the idea began to be mooted of incorporating Montjuïc into the city, if only that part of the hill naturally linked to the growing city through Cerdà’s grid system and the town of Sants. If the 1888 Universal Exposition had made it possible to recover the terrain occupied by the detested Ciutadella, the 1929 International Exposition would serve to commence work on incorporating the equally hated hill of Montjuïc, chosen decades before to house a bulky facility nobody wanted on their doorstep: the large new cemetery.

This was a city that was fulfilled even in the most surprising ways: as well as being the only city in the world to be the setting for a commercial revolution during the mediaeval period and an industrial revolution in the modern age, it had many artistic attractions and leisure pursuits to entice visitors from abroad. As an example we need only mention that spectacular year of the International Exposition in 1929. The famous English novelist and celebrated author of Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh visited the city having arrived on a cruise liner (Barcelona was becoming ever more a port of call or the destination for such grand tours) and would later evoke the city in his book Labels: A Mediterranean Journal. Not only did the German chancellor Stresemann fall in love with the Spanish Village built on Montjuïc for the event, but he declared that whoever was responsible for the Magic Fountain should be hanged from the highest tree because he had left no chance whatsoever for next city hosting the Exposition to do better than Barcelona.

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Lluís Permanyer

Historian and expert on the work of Enric Sagnier