February 09: una cançó per al Renaixença l’arquitectura

2012/02/09 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1908 the Palau de la Música Catalana was inaugurated.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site in Barcelona, the Palau is an extraordinary building designed by undersung Modernisme architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner (1850-1923).  Like all but one of the others in this aesethetic/political movement dedicated to the independent national identity of Catalonia–the Renaixença (“Rebirth”)–, Domènech is overshadowed by the most famous (although much less elegant and engaging) Catalonian architect.  He’s the one you’ve heard of, the one who designed some of Barcelona’s most famous buildings, ones that are independent to the extreme, have no following, and thus no school to symbolize the political (and thus communal) aims of the Renaixença.  Not so for Domènech, who was at the head of an actual political-architectural movement that also featured such great (and sadly ignored) talents like Puig and Jujol, and who is the one who ought to have his name in textbooks next to Wagner of Vienna, Horta in Brussels, and all the other leaders of Art Nouveau idioms in their regional variety (unlike that other guy).  Also the central theorist of the group, Domènech is credited with the initial designs of the Catalan version of Art Nouveau, Modernisme.  These dragons in the Parc de la Ciutadella (1888) were the start of his approach that developed a fresh expression from established imagery and new technology, all of which was legible and thus meaningful (unlike that other guy).

Domènech’s masterpiece (and what should be the iconic building of Barcelona), the Palau was a new concert hall for a new choral group, the Orfeó Català, whose mission to celebrate Catalan themes and musical traditions in their performances.  In other words, the form and function fit squarely with the Renaixença.  Domènech’s building (in addition to being a great place to hear a concert) is  a brilliant expression of Catalan imagery: Spanish (but definitely not Spain-ish) traditions married to Mudejar ornament and Arab-inspired arches, slathered with Domènech’s own decorative devices in locally made ceramic tile, mosaics and stained glass, all engaged with contemporary construction technology (much of that exposed, revealing the modernity of the movement, rather than its sentimentality).  An army of Catalan artists was employed to festoon the building in an appropriately dramatic and exultant manner, especially in one beautifully derived, considered and executed element inside.  Carved by Dídac Masana  and Pablo Emilio Gargallo, the proscenium frames the chorus with two major sculpture groups. To the left, Anselm Clavé, a Modernisme choir director, rests below a tree and a choir of girls singing one of the old Catalan folk songs that he helped to revive.  To the right, a bust of composer Beethoven stands before two large Doric columns that support an architrave from which spring the horse-riding Valkyries of Wagner’s opera.

It’s a marvelous conceit: within a building dedicated to modern political identity and culture born from highly valued and well-understood traditions, a giant sculpture group that poses the equality and relevance of regional folkways and universal classicism.  Marvelous, Modernisme.

image: exterior sculpture group, “Catalan Song,” by Miguel Blay (Clio’s); for more of the spectacular spectacle, look at this site

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You are currently reading February 09: una cançó per al Renaixença l’arquitectura at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.

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