Where Architecture and Culture Meet in Spain

Fifth in a series of posts about a trip to Barcelona, Bilbao, Rioja and Granada

On Thursday morning, we made the twenty minute walk to Plaça Catalunya to meet our guide for a walking tour of outlying Sarrià and Pedralbes, areas that were once completely independent villages before being annexed by the city. Our guide, Ariel, 40-something, moved to Barcelona from Buenos Aires in 2000 with his wife, who is also involved in architecture. Ariel completed his PhD here and now splits his time between architectural projects and walking tours. He presented us with a spiral-bound flipbook containing historical information about the area, photos of the buildings we would visits and even floor plans of some of the innovative apartment/townhomes we would see.

Off we went on the Metro. Ten minutes later, we stepped off into another world in Sarrià. Across the street Ariel showed us the public market and began to promulgate his core idea: that architecture affects the way people live and is a window into a country’s culture. As our tour explored the Medieval idea of community architecture (in Sarrià) and the Saxon idea (in Pedralbes), we began to understand how features like plazas and mixed residential and commercial buildings encourage pedestrian access and community, while buildings surrounded by gardens or fences for privacy tend to produce streets that are void of people, and cars become a necessity.

Ariel pointed out the difference between the architecture of different centuries (for example, older buildings were shorter), and elements that we wouldn’t have noticed. Protruding bay windows that he called “tributes” were favored by bourgeoisie who wanted to make a statement about their wealth by extending over the sidewalk below. Ariel noted that Catalonia, due to its industrialization in the nineteenth century, developed a vibrant middle class. Many public institutions – from hospitals to street cars to markets – were used by rich and poor, shoulder-to-shoulder. At the top of the power pyramid, he explained, were the Church and the government (City Council). Both had imposing buildings that lorded over a plaza where the community gathered. Besides buildings as old as the 14th century (the convent or “monaster” in Pedralbes), the towns had a number of Modernist and Brutalist buildings, including Gaudi’s first commission — a horse stable and garden created for Count Eusebi Güell.

The Monaster of Pedralbes, which happens to be on the blue line route of the Bus Turistic, is definitely worth a visit; besides the architecture, the 14th century Italo-gothic paintings in the St. Michael’s chapel are exquisite.

Source: MonasticMatrix.org

Source: MonasticMatrix.org

By the time we finished our walking tour at 1 p.m., we were better informed and more than a bit thirsty and tired. Ariel purchased an espresso for us at a modern mall that is innovative for its open passageways that invite the public to flow in and out, rather than shutting it off from the commerce within. To our surprise, he suggested we take the bus back! We successfully took the #7 back, along the Diagonal. Getting off a stop too early, we stopped in at the casual (but popular) Por Sant (108 Carrer Balmes) for jamon bocadillos made with pan tomat bread – plus three cervezas.

On our return, we had one of those unfortunate travel moments. Collette’s bank card, we discovered, wasn’t working. She called Golden One only to have their customer service agent insist that she hadn’t told them she would be traveling to Spain (although she had), and the fraud department had cancelled it! Customer service eventually agreed to reactivate her card.

After a short rest, we took a cab to the Palau de la Musica Catalana, with the intent of enjoying a live performance in its stunning concert hall. Unfortunately, the piano competition to which we had purchased tickets was in the small unadorned hall below it. Talk about feeling out of place! The first contestant, a 29-year-old Polish pianist resembling Benedict Cumberbatch, performed his extremely complex three pieces over the course of forty very long minutes. Several times, when Collette shifted in her chair and quietly exchanged colored for clear glasses, the woman in front of us glared back at her. The sparse audience didn’t so much as move, sniff, sneeze or cough. In the aisles behind us, a dozen judges followed the music and took notes. It was the Olympics of piano recitals, with a more severe standard of etiquette than standing next to the green during a Master’s golf tourney. We escaped at the first opportunity.

We returned to the hotel to figure out what to take with us for our trip to Bilbao and Rioja.


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