Lluís Domènech I Montaner: Barcelona's Other Architect

Palau de la Música Catalana
Palau de la Música Catalana | © Katherine Tolley
Katherine Tolley

Barcelona may be known as the ‘City of Gaudí’ but Antoni Gaudí is not the only modernist architect who left a significant impression on this Mediterranean cultural hub. Lluís Domènech i Montaner (1850-1923) was both a contemporary and teacher of Gaudí, and a renowned architect in his own right. His modernist masterpieces remain as captivating as ever and two of his designs – Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau and the Palau de la Música Catalana – have jointly been named World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.

Palau de la Música Catalana

Lluís Domènech i Montaner

Lluís Domènech i Montaner was born in 1850 in the center of Barcelona, and worked in the city and other areas of Catalunya – including Canet de Mar (where he built his home/studio), Reus, and Tarragona – until his death in 1923. After studying in both Barcelona and Madrid, Domènech returned to Catalunya to teach at the newly opened Escola d’Arquitectura (School of Architecture) in 1875. He became the Director of the School in 1900, and over his 45-year tenure he taught such notable modernist architects as Antoni Gaudí, Josep Puig i Cadafalch, and Josep Maria Jujol (who worked closely with Gaudí).

Domènech was also actively involved in Catalan politics throughout his life and wrote a number of books and articles on both politics and architecture. One of his most well-known articles, ‘En Busca de una Arquitectura Nacional‘ (In Search of a National Architecture), published in 1878, combined his love of the two seemingly unrelated topics and set the foundations for what we know today as Catalan Modernisme.

Casa Lleó i Morera

Catalan Modernisme and the 1888 Universal Exposition

By the time the planning for the 1888 Barcelona Universal Exposition began, Domènech had already established himself as an influential political thinker and architectural theorist. His close friendship with members of the Exposition’s planning committee, and success with his first renovations and design projects meant several commissions for the architect in preparation for the event.

During this time leading up to the expo, Domènech was responsible for the designs of both a restaurant and hotel, while simultaneously overseeing the renovations of Barcelona’s City Hall. The restaurant, known as the Castell dels Tres Dragons, still stands in Parc de Ciutadella, but the more famous Hotel Internacional – which was built in an astonishing 53 days – was taken down just after the exposition (due in large part to problems incurred during its hasty construction). These two buildings with their meticulously designed brick exteriors and lofty interiors with exposed ironwork were a far cry from the architect’s earlier German- and Moorish-inspired buildings.

Castell dels Tres Dragons

These buildings debuted at the 1888 Universal Exposition, along with designs by Domènech’s friend and contemporary Josep Vilaseca i Casanovas (who designed the Arc de Triomf for the expo) and Antoni Gaudí, thus setting the stage for the Modernista period in Catalunya. Modernisme Català, a movement of both art and literature, is very closely related to Art Nouveau, although its roots in Catalan nationalism meant that the movement developed its own unique style in the region. The revival of the Catalan language and culture resulted in an increased desire among its citizens to move forward and create for themselves a new ‘national architecture’ – as Domènech had written about almost a decade before.

Hospital de Sant Pau

Barcelona Gems

After his success at the 1888 Universal Exposition, designs by Domènech were very much in demand. He worked on several projects in Barcelona and the surrounding areas before beginning some of his most famous and iconic works in the city center. In 1902, the architect was commissioned to remodel an existing house on Passeig de Gràcia – Casa Lleó i Morera. Work on the project lasted until 1906 and included a completely new façade, three new galleries, stone balconies, and a re-imagined interior space for the prominent Morera family. Domènech proved more than equal to the task, employing some of his newfound technical skills and calling upon various craftsmen throughout Catalunya to help reinvent this 1864 house.

Casa Lleó i Morera Interior

Domènech’s technical skills and ability to combine mosaics, glasswork, masonry, woodwork and other decorative arts, come together in the stunning design that is the Palau de la Música Catalana. From 1905 to 1908 Domènech worked on the building commissioned by the Orfeó Català (Catalan Choral Society) and the result was a beautiful landmark of Modernisme Catalan and national identity. Domènech oversaw dozens of craftsmen working on this project, and orchestrated a breathtaking performance space dominated by an enormous glass skylight in the shape of the sun, as well as a large organ. The stage itself is relatively small, but is studded with the images of muses that appear to be coming to life, thanks to an ingenious combination of 2D mosaics and 3D sculpture work. The double façade and luminous skylight fill the entire space with natural light during the day, and in the evening the interior transforms into a magical setting that is more Midsummer Night’s Dream than concert hall.

Hospital de Sant Pau

The last of Domènech’s three grand projects during this time period – which all won architectural awards from the City of Barcelona – was the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau. This large hospital complex built between 1905 and 1930 was finished by the architect’s son after Domènech passed away in 1923. While there is still evidence of the ornate decoration and attention to detail seen in the Palau and Casa Lleó i Morera, the architect focused on the function of the hospital complex as a whole. His knowledge of the modern hospitals of Europe and their plans in regards to hygiene and sanitation led the architect to design and build 27 separate pavilions (another 21 were never realized). In 2009, the hospital’s operations moved to a modern building on the campus, and restorations began on the cultural landmark. It is used today as the International Center for Knowledge.

Hospital de Sant Pau

Although his buildings today are not as widely known as the designs of his contemporary and former student Antoni Gaudí, Lluís Domènech i Montaner was hugely popular in his time. His Modernista masterpieces remain as impressive and timeless as ever, and still stand as symbols of Catalan pride, and a testament to one of the great pioneers of the Catalan Modernisme movement.

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