When the streets are talking
Words: Daniel S. Bahrami
Photos: Christoffer Wiklöw
The city of Barcelona in Spain really does not need any introduction. Known throughout the world as one of the cities with the richest culture and most iconic architecture, Barcelona is the only city in the world awarded the Royal Gold Medal for architecture by the Royal Institute of British Architects and has nine world heritage sites acknowledged by UNESCO, considered sites of outstanding cultural value. Seven of these were designed by the iconic architect Antoni Gaudí, among whose masterpieces include the Alice In Wonderland-esque Park Güell and La Sagrada Familia, the infamous cathedral that has been under construction for more than 130 years.
While the aforementioned sights might be a definite must for a first time trip to Barcelona, repeat visitors can explore the diversity of art and design, simply by keeping an eye on the surroundings, where the walls and pavements still breathe the different eras of Barcelona’s rich past. The history of the Catalonian capital is not only told by the prize winning architectural gems, but also in the bumpy roads and worn out street corners walked by thousands of people every day - even the beaches of the city were built for the high volume of tourists visiting for the 1992 Olympics. Unique things to Barcelona are the many differently designed tiles used to pave the city for a century. The story goes all the way back to the mid-1800s when Barcelona was only a fraction of the size it is now and was enclosed by massive stone walls. In 1854, the city began to tear down the walls and announced that they would hold a contest for proposals on expanding the city and bring it into the industrial and modern age. The winner was Catalan architect Cerdá, whose proposal sought out to expand the city with the new area of Eixample connecting the old harbor of Ciutat Vella with Gràcia in the north. However, his project was revoked as Barcelona’s elite decided to commission renowned architects Gaudí, Domènech i Muntaner, and Puig i Cadafalch to design their spectacular homes. Still, most of these marvelous buildings can be found on the historic avenue of Passeig de Gràcia, which has been considered the high-end district of the city ever since.
The Rose of Barcelona
A somewhat insignificant detail from one of these buildings would with time become a symbol of the city, and especially the trademark of the newer neighborhood of Eixample. The Casa Amatller, built by modernist architect Puig i Cadafalch in 1900 for the Amatller-family, paved the entryway with small stones engraved with the form of a rose. At the time it seemed minor, but several years later it would become the main inspiration for designers in their bid to carry out the pavement of the area of Eixample. The “Rose of Barcelona” has now become eponymous with the city and an icon of the Modernist Era of Barcelona. By the early 1900’s the steady growth of the new neighborhood led to a severe mud problem, forcing the city to command each property owner to pave 2.5 meters in front of their buildings themselves. This unorganized method made the city accept proposals for an official design of tiles for the city, fitting the desired dimensions of 20 x 20 x 4cm. The winning bid came from the production company Escofet whose proposal included contributions from the most well-known designers of the time. Five designs were selected and since the paving started in 1916, approximately an area of five million square meters has been covered in these historic tiles. Out of the five, the rose inspired by Casa Amatller is the most popular, and can still be found on everything from bags and clothing to chocolate bars and logos of local businesses. The Rose of Barcelona is no longer just a symbol used in the pavement, but a symbol used to describe the long history of designs that is associated with Barcelona.
The modernist route of Barcelona
Although the rose is the most popular tile, other designs are scattered throughout the city, making Barcelona the perfect destination for an on-foot treasure hunt, and making the effort to track down the different tiles, some of which are a lot harder to find than the others. Some places in Barcelona different letters are engraved in the tiles, from a time when street names were paved on the ground. Wear and tear has led the city to slowly replace this system dating all the way back to the 1910s, but examples can still be found around town if you watch were you step. Spread around all of Barcelona, a round, metal and red version of the Rose of Barcelona can be seen in strategic places. Named the “Modernist Route of Barcelona”, 120 of these are scattered across the city and marks sights associated with the modernist era. These sights include everything from iconic landmarks like La Sagrada Familia to much humbler sights such as old bars and shops and even benches and lampposts. All hold in common their ability to add excitement to the surroundings with their distinct motifs, providing an up close look into the long-gone modernist era. Especially the astonishing buildings on Passeig de Gràcia, offer a complex contrast with their curvy shapes, to the rest of the plain-looking buildings on the avenue.
Under the sea with Gaudí
Passeig de Gràcia does not only stand out for its high number of modernist sights and the density of designer shops, but even the avenue’s pavement is one of a kind. Designed by the famous Antoni Gaudí, these hexagonal tiles, which require seven pieces to be laid down to display the full pattern, were originally created in 1904. Originally they were supposed to be used for the interior of Gaudí’s iconic Casa Batlló, but ended up being used two years later for the nearby La Padrera - an iconic corner building with wavy surfaces that looks like something straight out of a Tim Burton movie. By 1976 the tiles were redesigned by Escofet for outdoor use, and upgraded to a sturdier non-slip version in 1997, which are the ones you can see on the long boulevard today. The mosaic tiles are a brilliant example of Gaudí’s design DNA that is inspired by two constants always present in his work: symbolism and geometry. Gaudi was remarkable for his usage of nature motifs, patterns and characteristics to make his designs seemingly come alive. The six-sided shape is believed to symbolize honeycombs, turtle shells or crocodile skin, while the symbols on the tiles are meant to represent a starfish, a seashell and jellyfish, transforming the grounds of this long street into a beautiful mosaic of aquatic creatures right beneath our feet. Still these mosaic tiles are in fashion, as numerous thefts are reported each year, demanding that the city spends thousands of euros on replacing the unique tiles.
The World Begins With Every Kiss
Although the tiles are testament to the rich design history Barcelona holds, the many surfaces are not exclusive to old design. In the last 40 years Barcelona has also proven to excel with modern art and design, combining the rich and distinct shapes and designs of the modernist era with the innovative design of the future. The sail-shaped W Hotel by the harbor, and the industrial Torre Agbar building are prime examples of this. Barcelona has become a design hub leading to the emergence of modern street and urban art.Hidden in Plaça d’Isidre Nonel in the old part of the city you will find a great example of this. “The World Begins With Every Kiss” is a street art mosaic created by Hasselblad-Award winning photographer Joan Fontcuberta in 2014, celebrating the tercentenary of the end of The War of the Spanish Succession. The piece was created when local newspaper El Periodico requested people to send in photos that represented “a moment of freedom”. The result is a mural measuring 8 x 3.8m made up of 4000 small photographs printed onto the tiles. The photographs have been arranged according to color and density in a way, that they form an image of a giant kiss when viewed from afar and is a symbol of freedom, empathy and affection - three core values representative of the Catalan people.
Pop art and surrealism
Art pieces covering the surfaces of Barcelona are not just reserved for photographers and architects but also world-renowned artists. Roy Lichtenstein, who was pivotal in popularizing the pop art movement in the 1960’s, created a piece for the Olympics; a 90 ton statue covered in colorful mosaic tiles - a clear nod to Antoni Gaudí. The 15 meter tall face-statue in red and white stands out as a contrasting input to the surrounding buildings. At first glance the surface is a Picasso-like face, but as one gets closer a smaller face is revealed in the contours of the piece. The native Barcelona artist Joan Miró also contributed quite a few pieces to his hometown, with his mural on the busiest pedestrian street, Las Ramblas, being one of the most eye-catching and centrally located. The circular mosaic made up of hundreds of colored tiles is about 65 square meters and forms an upward arrow, showing visitors from which direction to enter the city. It was designed in 1976, just a year after the death of dictator Francisco Franco, and was created to commemorate that, as Miró had openly opposed him and was internally exiled to Mallorca until 1975.
Reclaiming the streets
Although most of the everyday art you see on the streets is sanctioned by the city, the graffiti-sprayed walls play a big part in the popularity of Barcelona as a design nexus. After Franco’s reign ended in 1975, the graffiti culture started having an uprising of young people reclaiming the streets. It was the post-modernistic era, and the 80’s brought the graffiti culture from Paris. By the 90’s, the hip hop culture from New York was very evident in the streets and attracted a lot of young, driven artist to Barcelona. One of the most remarkable pieces is a political motif by American artist Keith Haring. Without permission he created a 30 meter long piece in the poor neighborhood of Raval - an area where sexual diseases were spreading and the drug use rates were rising. The piece is the red painted outline of a giant snake choking a syringe while people are trying to escape its poisonous bite. A powerful message accompanied the piece reading “all together we can stop AIDS”. Though later damaged due to graffiti being painted on top of it, the mayor of Barcelona decided to take paint samples and reproduced it in 1996 and again in 1998. The current 34 meter reproduction from 2014 is located on wall directly behind the MACBA - Barcelona’s Museum of Modern Art, and is now a protected mural in the city, cementing the fact that not only did Miró and Gaudí play a pivotal role in developing Barcelona as a mecca of design, but those of more contemporary artists as well.Although graffiti is still illegal in Spain, it doesn’t hold back the dozens of talented designers in decorating the city, with street artists like El Pez, Miss Van and El Xupet Negre gaining international recognition for their work. Barcelona has also created several different walls around the city, where upcoming artists as well as veterans can display their pieces completely legal, providing bystanders a beautiful view of the new era of talent emerging in the city, and contributing to the never-ending stories told by the surfaces of Barcelona.