In the mid-nineteenth century, the cut and thrust of industrialization pushed Barcelona to it’s limit; the city was growing demographically and bursting at the seams. To compensate the walls that had surrounded and protected the city for generations were demolished and a plan to revamp the city was undertaken by Catalan civil engineer Ildefonso Cerdá. Cerdá’s plan redesigned the city, modernizing the layout but giving it’s buildings a homogeneous appearance.
This modernism became the perfect tool to give shape to the aspirations of one of Barcelona’s wealthier citizens, textile business man Josep Batlló. He sought the help of Antonio Gaudí, one of Barcelona’s most preeminent architects and entrusted him with the transformation the his house. Gaudí was given free creative reign and applied his own extremely personal style to the whole building; restructuring the facade, restoring the interior and redesigning the furniture.
The Batlló Family
With the aim of settling down in a fashionable area of the city, Batlló acquired an austere building on Passeig de Gracia, a street that formed the backbone of the new part of Barcelona, the Eixample district. It was this building that was entrusted to Gaudí to redesign.
Gaudí was not only known for his constructions techniques, but also for his particular personality. The architect never thought twice about changing something that he disagreed with, often without thought for the budget or even seeking permission.
Throughout his professional career Gaudí’s style evolved towards a personal and unique style, defined by the inspiration he drew from nature. Nature’s influence can be seen in his building’s structures and ornamentation, giving them a more organic feel than the surrounding structures. His projects are charged with symbolism, expressing the values of Catalonia and Christianity. An astounding seven of his works are declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Work began on the renovations in the year 1904. At 52 and in the prime of his career Gaudí was also involved at the time with two of his other famous projects; Sagrada Familia cathedral (to which he dedicated most of his career) and Güell Park. After two years work was completed on Casa Batlló in 1906.
The Layout of the House
Gaudí took in to consideration how each space would carry out the function required by it’s inhabitants. The basement was used as a coal bunker, the ground floor was used for the parking. The first floor would entirely be used by the Batlló family, which had 5 children. On the other floor would be five apartments which would be rented. The attic was used as a service area and was covered with a rooftop terrace.
Gaudí kept the original structure, while at the same time creating something totally original over top. He combined materials such as stone, glass, ceramic work and iron, in such a way that when the sun hits the facade it dazzles and shimmers. His use of ceramic tile as decoration, a style known as Trencadís, was avant-garde and also reflected in his other works. Curving and shimmering the redesigned facade strikes the viewer with it’s vibrant colors and fantastical shapes.
Modernist architects made extensive use of ceramics, but Gaudí in particular proposed a more unconventional method. He covered his three-dimensional architecture with glazed ceramics of different shapes and colours, which created their famous brightly coloured patterns. For the task, he used discarded pieces of ceramic tiles, broken plates, and broken cups discarded from local factories. One could argue he was a pioneer in recycling. The technique was used for the first time at the Guell Pavilions where the complex architecture forced him to break the tiles where he couldn’t use an entire square one.
The overall design tells an interesting story with each element carefully chosen to support this theme. Over the years Casa Batlló has had many nicknames one of which is the House of Bones from the skeletal shape of the columns and balconies. The balconies, and their unique ironwork, remind the observer of Venetian masks, or maybe of human skulls… The corpses of those killed by a dragon! A dragon who met his unfortunate end, slain by the sword (the sword being the famous cross-topped column) of Saint George, patron saint of Catalonia. Which leads us to the roof…
Gaudí always paid special attention to the design of the tops of his buildings, and that is certainly the case here. The roof crowns the personality of Casa Batlló. It’s shimmering undulating reptile skin visible for miles and unlike anything seen before or since. The tiles form the back of the great dragon; looming over the city, full of danger and striking terror into the hearts of Catalans, who anxiously await a hero.
The allegorical battle between the Saint George and the dragon that plays out in the facade is one of Gaudí’s crowning achievements. The roof represents the mystical beast while the bone-like shapes of the columns and the balconies symbolize his victims. The tower, crowned with a cross, is the victorious sword belonging to Saint George. The sword is plunged into the dragons side, causing the lethal wound from which flowed blood that stained that area of the roof.
Frankly, I pass by it at least once a day and I never fail to stare and wonder… Every day it seems so fresh and I learn a new detail. In all sincerity I can’t decide when I like it most; in the day the wonderful colors play with the light of the sun, or at night when it holds such a mysterious presence. Night or day I always think once again: God, I am so lucky!