Barcelona is home to Modernisme, the Catalan version of Art Nouveau. One of the best Modernista buildings in Barcelona is the Palau de Musica Catalana. I think that it is one of the most beautiful buildings anywhere. If agree with me that often less is just less and more is actually more, you will love this building. It was designed by Lluis Domenech i Montaner (in Català, two ll’s are pronounced y, and the er that ends Montaner is pronounced ay as in French) from 1905 to 1908. It was built for the Orfeò Català, which is the Barcelona choral society. This sounds misleading because in the early twentieth century, the Catalans believed that their culture could restore their nationhood, and the choral society organized much more than group singing. The building is filled with images of Catalan and world music and strongly asserts the important place of Catalunya in European culture.
The building is also incredibly pretty. The architect believed that he should design everything in the building and produced the designs for stained glass, sculpture, mosaic, terra cotta and metalwork, as well as the design of the building. The building is on a very restricted site, hemmed in by two very narrow streets. Domenech i Montaner wanted to fill the building with natural light. What he did was design a modern curtain-wall building where the glass outer walls serve to keep out the weather but do not hold up the building. This is the same kind of building as a glass curtain wall International Modern skyscraper like the Seagrams Building in New York, But instead of eliminating all decoration and references like a modern skyscraper, he saturated the building with decoration and references.
First the outside. By the time you see it, you are right up close to the building. First you notice the details of the ground floor. The ticket windows are in the ground-floor columns and are clad in broken tile mosaics in beautiful colors. The column capitals are terra cotta flowers in several different varieties and colors. The corner of the building is ornamented with a huge sculpture group which includes an allegorical figure representing Catalan folksong and a figure of Sant Jordi (Saint George) slaying the dragon. Sant Jordi is the patron saint of Canalunya.
Only then do you notice the second floor. Using a steel frame to support the building allowed Domenech i Montaner to line each of the two facades with double colonnades. The walls are reduced to stained-glass screens as in a Gothic cathedral.
The top of the facade
These days, you enter the Palau de Musica from the back. A new addition has been built next door and, after you buy your ticket, you enter through the cafe. It looks like the cafe is original because the stained glass enclosure for the food and waiters looks like it has always been there. There is a marble lobby and a symmetrical pair of staircases with light-fixture newel posts that leads you up to the auditorium. When you enter the auditorium, you are bowled over by the pattern and color. Every inch is covered with decoration. The stage and seating area is actually pretty small, as this was not designed as a concert hall, an opera house, or a theater, but as a space for the choral society. The stage is ornamented with with mosaic pictures of women – the muses – each of whom plays a different musical instrument. From the waist up, the women become three dimensional statues, leaning out of the wall. Above the stage, a giant pipe organ with thousands of pipes fills the proscenium arch.
On the right side of the stage, the upper arch is filled with a group of horses (Pegasuses) flying out of the corner. The left side has a willow tree above a statue of the founder of the choral society. The middle of the ceiling is dominated by a rectangular stained glass skylight that hangs down at its center like a giant drop. The drop is the sun, and is surrounded by rings of portraits of women, who represent singers in the chorus. The stained glass rectangle is located in a ceiling of terra cotta fluting, ornamented with flowers. The edges of the ceiling are held up with columns which spread out into fan vaulting in the form of peacocks tails. The arches between the peacock’s tails contain the names of famous international and Catalan composers.
Both the inside and the outside of the Palau de Musica are a delight. The overwhelming amount of decoration is not, in fact, overwhelming, because it is all so light, so pretty, and so joyous. Even though Domenech i Montaner was making several serious points about the value of Catalunya, about the place of Catalan culture in Europe, and about the future of his country, he did it with such skill and talent that the messages are not bombastic, but charming and convincing.