There, they stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the crowds across from the sandcastle-like basilica, marveling at the conical spires and whimsical relief on the church’s facades—some still in the works despite an 1882 groundbreaking.
Inspired, many in the crowd then trudge to the city’s upscale Eixample district, where they line up to enter Gaudí’s sensual Art Nouveau buildings. But Gaudí wasn’t the only Catalan architect in town with a bold imagination and penchant for run-amok mosaics, fanciful stained glass and undulating ironwork.
Just a half-hour walk from Sagrada Família, deep in the old port city, is a less-well-known wonder by a Gaudí contemporary. The Palau de la Música Catalana (Palace of Catalan Music)—or the Palau—is one of Europe’s most distinct and eccentrically designed concert halls. Built between 1905 and 1908 by architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner—a savvy political operator and Catalan nationalist—the Palau deliberately ignored past concert-hall traditions. Instead, it was designed to express Catalonia’s cultural chauvinism and unbridled passion for music through an idiosyncratic mix of color, decorative arts and top-hat formality.
As art critic and “Barcelona” author Robert Hughes wrote of the Palau: “It is a masterpiece and one of the extreme examples of what the 19th century called ‘speaking architecture.’ What it speaks of is the cultural history and political aspirations of ‘radical’ Barcelona, as they were understood in 1908.”
From the start, the Palau had an attitude. It was conceived as a hall to glorify Catalan folk music and prove that its composers were in the same league as Europe’s classical masters. As a structure, the Palau was meant to celebrate the Catalan imagination and stand as a triumphant symbol of the region’s cultural superiority over Castilian Spain. A modern iron frame was used to bear all the loads, making the Palau the first curtain-wall building to go up in Spain. This marriage of exuberance and pragmatism was necessitated by the Palau’s site, chosen for its reasonable price. The lot in the densely packed neighborhood meant the building’s 15,000 square feet had to be shoehorned into a rectangular space previously occupied by a church.
Even today, when you come upon the Palau suddenly while winding through the section’s narrow streets, you sense that the hall was always a neighborhood wise guy. Moorish touches appear along the roofline and facades as well as loud mosaics and stained glass. Where the streets Carrer d’Amadeu Vives and Carrer de Sant Pere Més Alt meet, a sizable stone sculpture by Miquel Blay titled “The Popular Song” was attached to the facade’s rounded corner in 1909, giving it the feel of a ship’s bow. The allegorical stage-set sculpture depicts a maiden of song backed by a crowd of supportive Catalans as a helmeted soldier above holds an unsheathed sword as an offer of protection. Singers never had it so good.
On the exterior of the Palau along the Carrer d’Amadeu Vives side street is a wedding cake of decorative elements. Above the entrance is a terrace with a colonnade of 14 Corinthian columns—each clad in a different mosaic pattern. Above the colonnade are brick column extensions, atop which sit busts of Palestrina, Bach and Beethoven. Still higher is a vivid mosaic mural that depicts a choir presided over by a queen. At night, lemon-yellow lights cast a warm, gaslight feel on the building while the original box office on the street, with its fanciful mosaic-encrusted arched window, provides a hint of the visual mischief that awaits inside.
In the lobby, you’re met by a rush of warm color and textures from the baked ceramic tiles, twinkling glass lanterns and glossy blond marble. Directly in front of you is the grand staircase that branches democratically to the left and right, doubling back to rejoin on the two landings above. Most seductive are the honey-hued glass cylinders between the banisters and the stone stringers encrusted with Art Nouveau relief. Each glass cylinder is cast as a columnlike vase, with a ginger-colored ceramic base and matching crown of roses at the top—giving the stairway’s pomp a theatrical touch.
Upstairs in the concert hall, the totality of the densely ornamented space takes one’s breath away. There are stained-glass windows along each side, sizable sculptures, colorful mosaic columns and a massive pipe organ above the stage—making the space feel like a historic carousel. Even the layout of the hall’s 2,200 seats is highly unusual. Unlike most concert halls of the period, the Palau offers three-sided seating. There are traditional orchestra rows and stalls at stage level, but the second and third tiers sweep all the way around so that seats on the sides wind up facing each other rather than the stage.
Watching over the relatively small stage are two busts—one of Anselm Clavé, the father of the Catalan folk-song revival, and the other of Beethoven, which is mounted at a conspicuously lower level. Behind the stage is a ceramic semicircular screen featuring 18 sculptures of goddess-muses—their heads, shoulders and arms protruding from the wall while the rest of their bodies are completed in mosaics. Once again, we’re reminded of the hall’s original agenda—that composers, singers and musicians should be considered divine.
But perhaps the most spectacular design element in the concert hall is a dazzling skylight, that occupies much of the ceiling. It’s a 650-foot-long rectangle of stained glass that protrudes downward in the center as if pulled by two fingers. The tinted glass appears circular in design, with 40 images of female choir members around the outer panes. Lighting in the hall comes from tilted crown lanterns mounted atop mosaic-clad columns.
The Palau may have started out as a loud cultural pulpit for the Catalan cause, but economics and globalization eventually necessitated diversity. In 1936, the Palau held its first jazz concert—featuring alto saxophonist Benny Carter, the French Hot Club and Barcelona Hot Club Orchestra. By 1966, the Barcelona Jazz Festival began holding concerts at the Palau, hosting virtually every major jazz artist, from Duke Ellington and Sonny Rollins to Ornette Coleman and Maria Schneider.
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