We haven’t even begun to think about our end-of-the-year holiday plans for 2015, but we already know where we’re going to be in late 2016: in Barcelona, taking in the eye candy also known as Casa Vicens, an early masterwork by Catalonia’s most famous—and most visionary—artist and designer, Antoni Gaudí.
We’ve long had a love affair with Gaudí’s architecture, with its unmistakable catenary curves; liberal sprinkling of Gothic, Indian, and Moorish elements; and why not? approach to creating forms that are both functional and outlandishly unforgettable. The May 2015 issue of WSJ Magazine offers the first tantalizing peek at Casa Vicens, widely considered to be Gaudí’s first important building, and a primer on his inimitable style—so much so that Mercedes Mora, whose family owns the building, says, “To understand Gaudí’s career, you have to see Casa Vicens.”
Commissioned in 1882 by Valencian ceramics and tile magnate Don Manuel Vicens Montaner, Casa Vicens was created, in the extravagant custom of the time period, as summer house, a place for the industrialist and his family to escape the clamor of the city. Gaudí, then a hot new face in architecture, was just 30 years old, and apparently unintimidated by challenge of working for a powerful and wealthy family. Casa Vicens, which borrows elements from both Moorish and Orientalist architecture, took six years to complete.
The house sticks out among the plainer—by Spanish standards, at least—buildings of Barcelona’s Gràcia district. Gràcia was an independent town until the late 1800s, and, as is typical of Catalonian communities, regional pride runs deep there; many residents still identify themselves as from Gràcia rather than from Barcelona. The neighborhood is an unusual melting pot of generations-old families, young artists, and new bohemians, and has the largest concentration of foreign restaurants in Barcelona. Gràcia is perhaps best known for its Fiesta Mayor, a five-day festival held in August, in which the locals compete to win Best Decorated Street honors. To say that Gràcians take their decoration seriously would be like saying that Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia is a quaint little chapel. Here’s just a taste of how they deck out the calles during Fiesta Mayor:
While Casa Vicens lacks some of the dramatic flourishes of Gaudí’s later designs, the building rises like a neo-Moorish fortress—all sharp angles, turrets, and gables—from the busy city street. Since Don Vicens owned a tile factory, Gaudí was able to go wild with the tilework, including green and white checkerboards interspersed with green, white, and yellow-sunflowered florals. In his typical fashion, the architect covered windows, balconies, and fences with lavishly scrolled wrought-iron bars, railings, and decorative elements, giving many of the house’s openings the look of Gothic portals.
He spared no effort or imagination on the interiors, as well. Virtually every wall, door, ceiling, and cabinet have been elaborately painted with tropical botanicals, fruit, insects, and flying birds, with hand-carved mouldings, baseboards, and trim to boot. The interiors are considered to be in pretty good shape, with only minimal humidity-caused damage. Still, a team of architectural historians and craftsmen will be spearheading the home’s restoration over the next year, to bring Casa Vicens back to Gaudí’s original vision.
In a tragic turn of events, Don Vicens barely got to enjoy his summer getaway; he died just seven years after the building was completed. Lucky for us, since then, the house has had a series of design-minded stewards, and will soon be ready to welcome a new generation of appreciative Gaudí fans. Count us among them.