Skip to main content

Urban chic

Stephen Thomas explores the art and architecture of Barcelona, discovering why the city has been named design capital of Europe. In his book Barcelona, Robert Hughes describes the remarkable transformation of the city over the past 10 years as "pharaonic", and he is right. Nudged along by the impetus of the 1992 Olympics, the city has seen good design applied with flair and sensitivity and the legacy of Picasso, Miro and Gaudi celebrated with enthusiasm. I visited the Catalan capital last year with a group of A-level art and GNVQ art and design students.

Picasso moved to Barcelona at the age of 14 and over the next nine years got his carousing in early in the city's red light district, the Barrio Xines. The early works are gathered together in the Picasso Museum in the Carrer de Montcada, a lovely medieval street laced with private galleries. The collection of paintings and ceramics demonstrates a mastery of styles ranging from the early drawings, through the Blue and Pink periods to Cubism and his neo-classical fauns and satyrs.

The Miro Foundation on Mont-juic displays vivid tapestries, paintings and sculpture by this Catalan artist, who died in 1982, although it is ironic that the most compelling exhibit is Calder's fascinating 1936 "Mercury Fountain", which sits alongside work by Moore, Matisse and Caro.

The best places to weigh up Barcelona's reputation as the "design capital of Europe" are stores like B D Ediciones de Diseno, on the Carrer de Mallorca 291, which is stacked with the best of contemporary Spanish furniture, reproduction Gaudi chairs and Dali pink sofas costing over a million pesetas. Vincon at Passeig de Gracia 96, owned by Fernando Amat, reputedly the Spanish Conran, has reflected changing fashions in Spanish mass market interior design since the Sixties.

Barcelona provides an almost unrivalled opportunity to experience the switches and turns of contemporary architecture at first hand. "Modernista", that unique strand of Catalan art nouveau, is at its most accessible in the Gaudi tourist spots such as the Church of the Sagrada Familia. Among its almost baroque richness of motifs, this building has more than 30 species of plant carved in its stonework, and like the Parc Guell, which is on the edge of the city, it explores the relationship between sculptural architecture and natural forms.

Visits to the interior and roof of the sumptuously bizarre Palau Guell in the Carrer Nou de Rambla and the free visit to the Casa Mila are less well publicised.

Gaudi's Casa Mila, the richly exotic apartment and office building, now owned by Fundacio Caixa de Catalunya, a major bank, is in the throes of restoration. The roof is already open to the public and the long climb up the service stairs to see vents and chimneys decorated with marble, ceramic and stone mosaics is one of the delights of Barcelona.

In 1986 one of the most important examples of modernist architecture, Mies van der Rohe's Pavilion, was built as the German contribution to the 1929 Barcelona Fair, at the foot of Montjuic. This magnificent building plays with straight lines, shimmering water and the smooth surfaces of onyx and glass, making it the perfect minimalist structure.

Barcelona has three major buildings designed by the astonishingly prolific Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill, whose sometimes successful brand of factory made, post-modernist neo-classicism has been copied across Europe. His calm airport terminal, disappointingly bland Sports University on Montjuic and the more impressive, but yet to be finished Parthenon-like National Theatre of Catalonia in the Placa de Les Glories, all have some appeal, but they often disappoint.

The brilliant Spanish engineer Santiago Calatrava has left a sharper imprint with his sculptural communications mast near the Olympic Stadium and the majestic white Bac de Roda bridge, a short walk from the Navas Metro station. Despite scarring graffiti, it is one of the most original contemporary bridge designs.

British high-tech dominates the skyline with Norman Foster's 256m lance-like Collserola Tower. Completed for the Olympics, it concentrates television, microwave and radio communication into one elegant structure perched near the funicular on Tibidabo Mountain. The trip to the visitors' gallery by glass external lift gives staggering views across the city and confirms at a macrocosmic level what has been learned on foot down on the street.

Between the awfulness of the Francoist fringes, where public neglect and private speculation spawned the unregulated planning that has choked valleys and hillsides with ugly apartment blocks, the inner core of the city still has an amazing coherence, a model of civilised urban planning.

Robert Hughes' Barcelona (Harvill Press) gives sharp focus to the city's cultural history and structural development.

The Barcelona Design Guide offers pointers to designer shops and restaurants and the leading design professionals. Casa Mila, tel: 487 36 13.

Miro Foundation, tel: 329 19 08 Iberia airlines enabled Stephen Thomas to research this article.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you