Between 1904 And 1906 The Catalan
Between 1904 and 1906, the Catalan artist Antonio Gaudí renovated a building located on Barcelona’s principle residential street, the Passeig de Gràcia, for Josep Batlló Casanovas, a bourgeois industrialist (Casa). The result was deeply rooted in modernisme, an artistic movement linked with the Renaixença (rebirth) of the Catalan identity which arose with industrialisation, the strengthening of the bourgeoisie, and economic prosperity (Casa). Gaudí’s signature interpretation of modernisme criticised rapid industrialisation and stoic tradition, instead choosing to draw inspiration from natural forms and classical art.
The Casa Batlló depicts the victory of Catalonia’s patron saint, St George, over the dragon. The scaled roof represents the metallic scales of the defeated beast, with its backbone clearly depicted along the spine of the naturally curving roof. The small turret topped by a cross alludes to the sword of St George which plunges into the side of the dragon. Gaudí’s frequent use of the cross symbol aligned him closely with the leading Catalan nationalists of the time by referencing the triumph of the region’s patron saint over an external oppressor. Furthermore, by expressing nationalist sentiments through visible architecture, as opposed to high art or literature, Gaudí brought what one could call the renaissance of Catalan identity into the public sphere, notably to the less politically involved majority.
Gaudí’s tendency to draw inspiration directly from nature and to disregard industrial, measured geometry is clearly shown throughout the Casa Batlló. Gaudí renovated the pre-existing building to give it a sense of perpetual and unstable movement, using curves, which belonged to nature, as opposed to unnatural straight lines (Schdelkopf). This is not only apparent on the exterior, for example in the organic, art noveau wrought iron window frames, but also in the interior ceiling, which spirals like a shell towards the light fixture. Even the interior columns, which were inspired by the classical art tradition, have been re-designed to look like naturally imperfect animal bones.
Growing up, Gaudí’s experiences as an apprentice nurtured his disdain towards manufacturing (Ashton). In his projects, he assumed the role of the “master builder” of mediaeval times, overseeing the handiwork of skilled artisans, who realised his vision through ornamentation, including the organic glass fixtures, beautifully painted ceramic trencadís tiles, and the iron window adornments (Ashton). It is this admiration of the natural, slow process of making something by hand, or nurturing the growth of a natural form, and synthesising these elements within a greater design which provided the ultimate antithesis to a growing industrial climate.
Barcelona at the turn of the 20th century was a terra cotta city; attributable both to industrial building and to the city’s long disinterest in the Mediterranean Sea. The lower exterior of Casa Batlló reflects this tendency; tinted largely with neutral tones, it blends relatively well into the street view; although, unique decoration prevents it from appearing too familiar. However, the controversial use of blues on the allegorical roof alludes to the Mediterranean heritage which the city had long rejected and contrasts the surrounding buildings. These references further link the design to Gaudí, who considered himself a “Mediterranean man” and revered the glory of the ancient Mediterranean through reviving its timeless art traditions (Harbison).
Following the study of classical and gothic architecture which Gaudí conducted in his youth, he gave special consideration towards the transmission of light in the design of Casa Batlló (Harbison, Schdelkopf). Pragmatically, the lower windows were enlarged to better attract natural light from the crowded street and the upper window are much smaller to compensate for the abundance of sunlight at the higher elevation. Furthermore, as a domestic abode, the Casa Batlló would have had to function as a home for the Batlló family, not merely as a work of art. Thus, Gaudí emphasises the private nature of the upper floors by not only reducing the window size, but also by adding shutters which are visible from the street as if to publically designate the space as a private one. This clearly defines an area for the family to conduct private affairs. The lower windows seem to convey the opposite purpose. Their large scale, as well as beautiful decoration catches the attention of those passing by; but, the extent to which one should be allowed to gaze into the life of a private family presents an ethical dilemma. Thus, Gaudí creates an interesting tension between art for public and private contemplation by juxtaposing an exterior which demands attention and a designated private interior which denies it.
In conclusion, Casa Batlló was utilised in design by Gaudí to serve two major functions. First is Catalan regional pride; the allegorical allusion to St George and the dragon clearly reminds all native Catalans of their collective strength, as does the clear identification with the glory of the ancient Mediterranean cultures. Secondly, it represents the architect’s personal rebuttal against industrial, mechanical design by showing a preference to naturally inspired and handmade artwork.