by STIRworldJun 24, 2020
Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi was known for his ability to amalgamate architecture and craft in his work. He integrated ceramics, glasswork, metalwork and carpentry into the very form of his structures. While his work is often categorised as Art Nouveau, his unique take on the movement allowed him to transcend the archetypal definition of the international style of art. The profound impact of his sinuous facades and immaculate organic details has even led to seven of his structures being declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO, including Sagrada Família, Casa Mila and Casa Batllo in Barcelona, Spain.
On the occasion of Antoni Gaudi's birth anniversary, STIR revisits his iconic Casa Batllo. Completed in 1906, Casa Batllo was a renovation project that completely reimagined the mass of the original structure. Given a free rein by the owners, the Batllo family, Gaudi was able to create the structure’s inimitable façade and interiors. As part of his refurbished design, he added new floors to the building and completely redid the main apartment, which is referred to as the Noble Floor and was occupied by the family until the 1950s. The additional floors were individual apartments that the Batllo family then rented out. Gaudi also expanded the central circulation and introduced two light wells on the two edges of the staircase. These two atriums are famously referred to as the blue lightwells because of the ceramic blue tiles used to finish the surfaces. The atriums are not aesthetic additions. Casa Batllo is a townhouse, which means only two of its facades, along the short end, have fenestrations. This makes cross-ventilation particularly difficult, especially for the apartments on the upper floors. By adding these atriums, Gaudi was able to introduce additional light and facilitate easier ventilation.
Skin and bones
Gaudi’s free and audacious approach to Casa Batllo’s façade is probably why we still refer to a project designed in 1906 with such reverence. The undulated surface sits on the structure as a skin, and transforms one’s perception of the building’s mass. The organic form of the façade has distinct sections. The ground and main floor feature a Montjuïc sandstone finish with large irregular arches that are harmoniously integrated into the existing framework. The columns on this section incorporate slender bone-shaped stone columns decorated with a floral pattern.
While the windows on the upper floors are larger rectilinear opening, they are framed by balcony railings that resemble an eye mask. These were made using a single piece of iron, and attached to the structure at two points of contact. The size of these details tapers vertically, while the size of the fenestrations does not change. This adds to the sinuous nature of Casa Batllo. The mosaic on the façade is created using a medley of materials many of which were repurposed from waste created from the interior finishing.
Nobility and intricacy
The Noble Floor is the core of the house. Accessed through a private entrance hall, with skylights that resemble tortoise shells, the Noble Floor is over 700 square meters. Apart from the structural walls and the walls framing the central atrium, there are no straight surfaces on this floor, including the ceiling. Facing the street are the large windows which were designed to look over the main street in order to “see and be seen”.
Another element that stands out in this space are the large oak doors. Intricately designed, Gaudi integrated coloured glass, which when seen in relation to the undulating ceiling, gives one a strong sense of being underwater. The section facing the street features Batlló's study, a dining room, and a secluded seating area. This is where the famous mushroom-shaped fireplace is located. The elaborate fauna and flora inspired décor can be seen throughout the Noble Floor.
Rooftops and dragon scales
If the Noble Floor is the heart of Casa Batllo, the roof is the crown jewel. Continuing to take inspiration from animals, the serpentine roof of the building resembles a dragon’s spine. Gaudi achieved this by placing the ceramic tiles as if they were scales. Using differently coloured tiles that have a metallic sheen, Gaudi creates an illusion of a dragon. The tiles are green on the right side, near what many consider to be the head of the dragon, this gradually becomes deep blue and violet in the centre, and finally a red and pink on the left side of the building. The loft enclosed underneath this roof is equally fascinating. Built using 60 catenary arches, the interior experience of this architectural element is akin to that of an animal’s ribcage. Gaudi’s ability to tie together the external aesthetic and the internal experience into a single narrative is one of the many reasons why his work continues to be celebrated for its avant-garde approach.
The building, which is now over a 100-years-old, has undergone numerous alterations. However, Casa Batllo has been undergoing an intense and detailed restoration for the past few years. Using archaeological techniques, the restoration team has been able to recover the original stuccoes of the Noble floor. They also discovered and were able to reproduce wainscoting details and restore lamps and other decorative elements. The core of the restoration endeavour has been to respect the original architectural work and preserve its authenticity.
The restoration of the main façade, which was carried out at the beginning of 2019, involved the expertise of seven different guilds. A particularly complex process given the presence of five different materials, namely stone, iron, ceramic, glass and wood, each of which required a specific treatment and knowledge. The laborious process has been internationally celebrated and even received a Special Mention in the 2021 European Award for Architectural Heritage Intervention, announced on June 21, 2021. The commendation specifically cites the restoration efforts of Xavier Villanueva, Ignasi Villanueva, Mireia Bosch and Ana Atance, saying, “respectful and technically high-quality restoration, which makes possible the resurgence of an initial project that has partially disappeared and achieves the recovery of an altered work, respecting its identity.”