Gaudí opening to lead Barcelona’s tourism comeback

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The first house designed by the iconic architect – exuberant Casa Vicens in the beleaguered city’s Gràcia district – opens to the public later this month. ‘This could be a moment of peace,’ says its manager

It’s not just would-be voters in the Catalan independence referendum who have taken a knock-back in Barcelona this year. The city’s image has also suffered from anti-tourism demonstrations and terrorist attacks, and the tourist industry is down some 15% since police violence and mass rallies grabbed international headlines in October. It’s down, but resolutely not out, however.

Brand Barcelona’s comeback begins with a contribution from its heaviest hitter: Antoni Gaudí. Almost a century after his death, the architect of La Sagrada Familia is still synonymous with the city. On 16 November, Gaudí’s first house, Casa Vicens, begun in 1883, will open permanently to the public for the first time.

The house in Barcelona’s Gràcia district was commissioned by and named after Manuel Vicens i Montaner, owner of a brick factory. Vicens was perhaps persuaded to gamble on the then-unknown 31-year-old architect by the head of Barcelona’s Architecture School, who famously said upon Gaudí’s graduation: “We have given this degree to either a fool or a genius. Time will tell.”

Vicens’s audacity resulted in what many consider to be the first major work of the Catalan modernisme movement, awarded Unesco status in 2005. Once surrounded by fields and smallholdings, the house now looks even more striking hemmed in by blocks of prosaic flats. Like much of the architect’s work, it is a glorious gallimaufry of styles, combining Japanese, Moorish-revival and original elements into an improbable success. Gullies of colourful bricks dribble from the eaves like a Lego model of a half-iced cake; viciously spiked wrought-iron gates are framed by green tiles in a marigolds design; leaf patterns on interior walls could be reflections of the garden or an allegory of the journey of Christ. Nothing is as it seems.

A local family bought Casa Vicens from Manuel’s widow in 1899 and lived there for three generations before putting it up for sale in 2007. In 2014, Andorran financial institution MoraBanc bought it, and its meticulous three-year restoration has separated the exuberant original interiors from those of a 1924 extension, which is now all in plain white for maximum contrast. The basement will house a gift shop, while on the top floor, where little of architectural value was left, there’s an exhibition of the house’s history and influences, complete with Gaudí’s original plans.

Manager Mercedes Mora says the time is right for Casa Vicens to open to the public. “Culture moves emotions,” she says. “This could be a moment of peace.” The building is, she notes, a dialogue between contrasting elements, and even between nature and architecture. “This is the essence of Gaudí’s universe – the garden of Catalan modernisme. We can see the seeds of styles and techniques that he nurtured throughout his career, and of others he used only here,” she says. “It represents a new way of thinking.”

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