Spanish Street Art

Walking in the back streets of Madrid’s art district, between small galleries and run-down buildings, I was stunned by the graffiti you see in the featured photo. It was painted on a sheet of plastic covering part of construction site. The beautiful skyline, minimally emphasized by the yellow lines, and the lettering were so assured, and at the same time so ephemeral! I was lucky that I walked by the few days of its lifetime.

I did not see more by this artist. In that sense none of the Spanish cities I visited seemed to have the prolific street artists of Porto. But what I saw captured me. Just as I captured some of what I saw. Here’s the gallery below, browse it and see if you like it as much as I did.

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Art on sale

I haven’t written about shopping before. But when the shop window looks like the featured photo, perhaps I could do it. We walked into the shop to look, and it was full of things which were as wacky as these. Apparently Art Escudellers of Barcelona collects contemporary sculpture and ceramics from across Spain. Apart from the figures which are meant to stand in your home and brighten it we also found things which are useful, beautiful, and equally costly.

We didn’t have time to go to the Museu de Ceramica, so it was pleasant to walk into a cool shop to spend a little time just looking at the samples of Catalan ceramics on display here. If we had to buy ceramics we would have spent some time researching the shops.

The doors of her face

One of the famous churches of Barcelona stands in a very constricted space within the Barri Gotic (Gothic quarter), or old town. This is Santa Maria del Mar. Standing in front of it, only the name tells you how close you are to the harbour. I was captivated by the door of the church, and the two commemorative figures on it (featured photo). The story is that when the church was built in the 14th century CE, all the guilds of the area, la Ribera, lent a hand. The figures acknowledge their help in porting the stones of the church. The last stone was laid in 1383 CE.

When you look closely at the figures and how they are dressed, you realize how different it is from modern European clothes. The closest in style that we can see today are probably the kilts and stockings of traditional Scottish dress.

Barcelona: rose window of Santa Maria del Mar

The year long seismic events of 1427 CE culminating in a destructive event called the Candelmas earthquake of 1428 CE destroyed, among other things, the rose window. The one which can be seen now was finished in 1430 CE. As far as I know, this medieval church was not touched by the refurbishments which swept through this area and remade it into the romantic-medieval tourist centre that it is today.

The oldest parts of Barcelona

We had a quick look at the the most ancient part of Barcelona near the Metro stop called Jaume 1. On one side is the busy Via Laietana, on the other, the remains of the old Roman wall. Barcelona existed before the Romans built the fortified town of Barcino around 15 BCE, during the time of the Emperor Augustus. These walls are not visible at street level now. What one sees is the Roman wall from the 4th century CE and later additions.

Barcelona: part of the Roman wallWe walked along via Laetana until we came to the Placa de Ramon Berenguer el Gran (featured photo). The Roman wall has been used here to prop up the medieval Chapel of Santa Agata. The arches and windows that you see here belong to the chapel, which dates from the early 14th century CE.

We walked along the impressive walls looking at the mixture of old stone replaced by later brick filling. Doors had been cut into the wall at some time, and one of these was impressively decorated in the modern street style (photo here). We walked along until we came to the remnant of what must have been an aqueduct supplying water to the walled town.

A longer walk would also have been interesting. It is also possible to visit the extensive archaeological discoveries under the Barri Gotic. We saw the entrance near the cathedral, but, regretfully, had too little time to do this.

In the rest of the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona it is hard to tell true history from fanciful reconstruction. The Roman wall anchors you to real history: the founding of Barcino, possibly by the Laietani, the arrival of the Romans a century or two later, and the eventual fall to Visigoths in the 5th century CE.

Goatic Barcelona

We walked from Plaza Espanya up to the Magic Fountain of Montjuic on a sweltering hot afternoon to find that the beast was having a siesta. We discovered later that the true colours of the fountain are seen only after dark. This was built in 1929 for the Barcelona World Fair, damaged during the Spanish Civil War, partially restored in 1955, and reassembled for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Nearby stands the resurrected Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe. As we walked up to it, we found this incredibly eye-catching object by the road side. It was promptly dubbed the Barcelona Goatic.

Alien aesthetics

By many professional measures Gaudi was an unsuccessful architect. His best-loved works are the few public projects he undertook. His designs for houses had few takers. Why did his modernism not have a market? In the decades when he was designing modernist projects which failed, elsewhere in Europe Art Nouveau and Jugendstil were spawning commercial success. We went to one of Gaudi’s few successful building projects to find out what it was like inside. This is Casa Mila, located just off Barcelona’s famous shopping avenue of Passeig de Gracia.

Casa Mila: atrium

The atrium was full of light. The floor was covered in trencadis mosaic, the iron gates were in typical Art Nouveau style, and the bottom of a staircase was covered with a mural in delicate pastel colours (which is not original). One architectural innovation which can be seen here are the pillars. They largely carry the load of the six storeys high building. In 1906, when the construction began, it was supposed to be a radical innovation, allowing interior walls to be free of load.

Casa Mila: interior passage

As a result of being built around an atrium, the interiors of flats are full of light. The doors and windows are made with the flowing curved lines which reflect the aesthetics built into the walls. It is said that Gaudi paid as much attention to the handles on doors as in the architectural design.

Casa Mila: bedroom

The furniture was also specially designed. The flat which is on show has reproductions of the furniture that was made for the original flats. These are typical Art Nouveau pieces. I wouldn’t mind some in my flat. As you can see from the photo above, there is no lack of light in the rooms. The main problem that customers faced was the lack of straight lines in the walls. As a result every piece of furniture had to be specially made for the building. When you see the kitchen or the bathrooms you are immediately struck by this realization.

Casa Mila: bedroom ceiling

I looked up at the ceiling and was amazed at the detail there. I’m not sure that I can sleep in such ornate rooms, but the aesthetics of that time could have been different. Apparently owners began to change the furniture and colours inside the flats as soon as they could. By the time the house was declared an UNESCO heritage structure, internal and external changes were so many that it was hard to restore the original colours. As a result, I’m not sure whether this ceiling, for one, now looks as Gaudi wanted it to look.

Casa Mila: facade

The facade of the building is very distinctive. The rough and unfinished look gives it the local nickname, La Pedrera, meaning the quarry. The intricate iron-work grilles on the balconies are remarkable. But the most remarkable part of the building is probably the roof, with its fantastically shaped chimneys and flues. The alien in the featured photo is one of these.

Trencadis in the Park

Breaking up ceramic tiles into pieces and using them in a mosaic is called trencadis. You can see this in many parts of Barcelona, but my favourite collection of trencadis is Gaudi’s work inside the Park Guell. All the photos here come from this place. Gaudi assembled the pieces from discarded tiles and broken pottery. You can see that Gaudi’s style of architecture with its dearth of straight lines was unable to use the usual rectangular tiles, and so was forced in this interesting direction.

Park Guell: Trencadis covered spire

We’d reached Barcelona late in the morning, and decided to go off to Park Guell after lunch. Not a great decision on a burning hot day, since there is a bit of a climb from the nearest metro station. For the last four years one needs tickets to get into this municipal park! Unless you have thought ahead to buying them, you could be in for a surprise. On this hot afternoon tickets were sold out five hours in advance. The ticket allows you in to all the parts of the park which have Gaudi’s work, including his wonderful tiles.

Parc Guell: Tencadis on the main terrace

Apart from the buildings at the entrance, and his famous lizard-dragon (vandalized in 2007 and restored quickly after), the main trencadis work is on the main terrace. You can see this in the photo above. One of the interesting things about this style is that the component tiles are used only as tesserae in a mosaic, Parc Guell: detail of trencadisand the original design on the tiles has nothing to do with the pattern that emerges. A closer look at the details (see photo alongside) will tell you how that happens. Work of this kind requires an artist. That’s one of the reasons that the modernist art movements of the early twentieth century never took over the world. The machines of the time could not build this. It also turned out that the buildings which Gaudi designed were not a big draw for the paying public: now you can see about three of them in Barcelona, and one was the house where he himself lived.

Bird of Passeig

My visit to Barcelona was so short that I walked on the famous shopping street of Passeig de Gracia only once. It was incredibly hot, in the upper thirties. As I waited for a traffic light to change, I noticed this wonderful wrought-iron lamp-post next to me. Below it was bench decorated with the irregular ceramic mosaic called trencadis in Catalan. Was it by Gaudi? The bench could have been, but I thought the iron-work didn’t look like his style.

Later I found that the design of the whole ensemble, bench and lamp, is due to another Catalan architect, namely Pere Falques i Urupi. He is the man responsible for the current open look of the Placa de Catalunya, by clearing up, in 1889, the hodge-podge of buildings which had accumulated there. Falques was a municipal architect from 1888 to 1914. His lamp posts on Passeig de Gracia were installed in 1916. The iron-work was done in the workshop of another famous Barcelona modernist: Manuel Ballarin i Lancuentra, who was Falques’ brother-in-law.

In one of the world’s first smart-cities, this hundred year old lamp-post seems to be a relic. Next to it you can see a modern lamp-post with LED lights. If you look carefully at that post you can see a box which contains a communications hub for traffic and pedestrian sensors on the road.

The Boqueria market

When you walk down Barcelona’s La Rambla, you feel that it could not have changed much through its history. Your feeling may be correct. As far back as 1217 CE, there was apparently a pig market near a gate which stood where Miro’s mosaic can be seen at Pla de l’Os. This was then part of a larger market, which now seems to have taken over the whole of La Rambla. But if you want to see a real food market, you have to duck into the Boqueria market, whose entrance is on this road. Among the things we didn’t know about it was that you can find Catalonia’s oldest nougat here. The sample we had did not taste 242 years old!

The Boqueria market

The meat stalls stand at the entrance to the market. The variety of hams hanging there left me stunned. Most of the sales people seemed too busy to have a chat about the differences between the meats, even if we had a shared language. The pig market was moved here in 1840 after a convent was removed. As you can see in the photo above, the current structure is very modern, but atop it stands a high structure of iron struts which is clearly older. At the edge of the photo you can see the even older stone pillars, which mark out a covered gallery running around the market. This older structure houses lots of restaurants and tapas bars.

Vegetables at the Boqueria market

We moved into the crowded fresh produce section of the market. Although I saw nothing which I have not seen before, all the produce looked extremely fresh. The chilis that you see in the photo above are wonderful when they are grilled. We had a plateful of that much later in the evening. Some of the fruit stalls have fresh juices available. It was still extremely warm and the fluids looked welcoming. We took our time selecting the juices we wanted to drink. Fresh pressed orange juices were our breakfast staple in Spain, but here there was a large variety: from tropical fruits like guavas to European summer berries.

Relaxing at the Boqueria market

We moved on, and found the usual selection of cheese. Stopping there would have been sad, not just because I don’t know much about Spanish cheeses, but also because we did not have the leisure to select a few of them to taste over days. I wish we had the time to go back and walk through the market a few more times at leisure, sampling a larger variety of tastes. It would have helped us enjoy what the city calls one of the world’s largest markets if we had access to a kitchen while in Barcelona.