Like his Renaissance forbears, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí left many of his works incomplete at the time of his death on 26 June 1926, three weeks after he had been struck by a tram in the centre of Barcelona. All three men were working at the very forefront of human achievement and their services were constantly in demand so it is no surprise that so many of their projects started and were then discarded.
In the case of Gaudí, there are unfinished works scattered all around Barcelona. The mosaic-lined walls of Park Güell were intended to surround an entire neighbourhood of homes, shops and markets but only a couple of houses were eventually built. Visitors to the Colònia Güell in the west of the city can see the crypt of an intended church that was never finished because the money ran out. Meanwhile, work continues on the Sagrada Família right to the present day, as its construction slowly nears completion, taking centuries to finish, like one of the great Medieval cathedrals.
So the Casa Batlló, standing in the midst of Barcelona’s grand Passeig de Gràcia is especially important as one of Gaudí’s finished projects. It is an extraordinary multicoloured building in the heart of the city that is as impressive inside as out. All of the rooms and the original furniture were designed by Gaudí in an organic style that aimed to capture the majesty of nature.
It is impossible to understand Gaudí’s art without also drawing attention to his Catalan nationalism. Gaudí was a true patriot and the Casa Batlló draws on his strong sense of Catalan identity. The swirling roof of the building suggests the curving back of a dragon, inspired by the legend of St. Jordi (aka St. George, patron saint of Catalonia as well as England).
Walking through its rooms feels like being imprisoned in the belly of the beast. There are wide white chambers with ribbed ceilings that make you feel like you are captured in the maw of a whale. By night, the rooms catch strange shadows as you scale the eerie spiral staircase.
It’s like the sinister tower of a sorcerer.
It’s a sensation that cannot be dispelled even by the massed gawkers outside who are always craning their necks to look up at the building.
Casa Batlló stands in a row of three houses built in the Modernist style (the Catalan version of Art Nouveau). Each one was built by one of the major architects of the time: Gaudí and his rivals Lluís Domènech i Muntaner and Josep Puig i Cadafalch.
Though the latter two are almost unknown outside of Spain, they were major figures of the time and this group of three houses that they built next to each other became known as the Manzana de la Discòrdia. It’s a pun, in that a block in Barcelona is known as a manzana.
Manzana de la Discòrdia could also mean the Apple of Discord, as in the Greek myth that begins the Trojan War. An apple is thrown into an Olympian wedding with an inscription that it is for the most beautiful of the goddesses. Athena, Aphrodite and Hera all claim it. They pick the exiled Trojan prince Paris to be the judge and each offers him a bribe to choose her. Aphrodite offers him the most beautiful woman in the world, and he, foolish young man, falls for it. The only problem being that the most beautiful woman in the world is Helen, and she is already married to Menelaus, king of Sparta…
It’s a fitting pun for this physical battle of the greatest architects of the time.
Just opposite Casa Batlló on the same street stands La Pedrera (“the Quarry”), another of the few completed Gaudí buildings, so fans of the great man can see two of his works in the same street, with barely time for a cerveza and a plate of patatas bravas between them.