"Gaudí was run over by a street car in 1926" we read in the guidebook. The famous architect of Modernisme in Barcelona, who built the Sagrada Familia and coined the very style of art deco in Spain, subsequently died in the city's Paupers' Hospital. He had spent all his income on this dream of a church, wasn't even recognised by the medics – and that old hospital was a shithole of a place apparently.
The real tragedy is however that Barcelona's old hospital was in the process of being replaced by a brand-new, state-of-the-art institution not so far from Gaudí's Sagrada Familia. In 1926, the new hospital San Pau was already working, and only a year later, the mediaeval place in the city centre would be closed for good.
The new hospital was designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner, then a much respected architect, who was much more famous than Gaudi himself. Montaner also built the impressive Palau de la Música Catalana in the city centre, a concert hall purpose-built for a local choral society that was also at the forefront of Catalan nationalism. The hall, which is particularly famous for its huge stained-glass windows and the large coloured skylight, became a milestone of Catalan Art Deco style, which is called Modernisme in Spain.
Of course we did visit the Palau de la Música – after some of the must-see Gaudí attractions. But on our last day, not so keen to spend more money and time on Gaudí buildings, we decided to visit one of the (as yet) lesser-known architectonic innovations of Modernisme – namely the Hospital de la Santa Creu I Sant Pau. Thanks to a very generous bequest by the banker Pau Gil, Montaner could build with the best materials and good artisans, on a huge plot of land. For each patient to be housed in the new hospital, he had almost 150 square meters of land!
The Hospital de San Pau still exists today, albeit as a huge new and modern health institution – from the main entrance at the metro station by the same name, we have to walk around the whole quarter to the opposite corner, where the original entrance hall with some of the modernist buildings have been restored after decades of use, alterations and decay.
Colourful mosaics depicting scenes from the municipal hospital's history since the middle ages adorn the facades of the administrative building at the entrance. Through grand stairways, lounges and halls we get into the spacious garden.
Montaner's design included some taller main buildings and numerous smaller pavilions, set in spacious gardens that were designed to support the convalescence of the patients – the architect had previously worked at the construction of a mental health facility, then a new field of medicine with a broader approach to healing. Accordingly, he wanted to use materials such as ceramics and natural stones that were both hygienic and pleasant and calming to see and feel. The patient's areas were decorated with patterned tiles, carvings, mosaics and the like.
On the other hand, medical facilities were strikingly sober and uncluttered: The operating theatre is a semicircular room with enormous glass windows over the entire northern front, designed for a maximum of space and natural light. And although the hospital buildings were spread out over the flowering gardens, Montaner built a tunnel connecting all the medical and chirurgical facilities, which contained supply lines and also served to move patients hygienically between buildings.
We spent more than 2 hours in the restored historic hospital, which became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, along with the Palau de la Música. In spite of its decorative playfulness, the architecture appears rational and purposeful. Here, it seems, Gaudí might have survived his accident…
Is it worth visiting the Modernisme buildings by Lluís Domènech i Montaner?
To get into the famous concert hall and the interior rooms of the Palau de la Música, you have to join a tour, which we did. Unfortunately there was a concert for children being staged in the main hall and we could only visit parts of the concert hall. Moreover as there is a dense schedule of tours, you have to stay with the group the whole time and can't go back to a place you liked. Although the Palau de la Música is nice enough, we found that the Hospital San Pao was a real highlight (not only of Barcelona, but of our travels in general).
Did you visit any of the two Montaner UNESCO sites in Barcelona? What was your impression?