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The Complex Restoration Of Antoni Gaudí’s Wild First Commission

The Casa Vicens estate was the first project for which Gaudí started developing his signature style. In the fall, it will open as a public museum.

The buildings of 19th-century Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí are unmistakable. His work, which mixed the neo-gothic with Orientalist techniques, looks more like art than architecture, complete with colorful ceramic tiles and densely ornate arches. One thing his buildings are not, though? Low maintenance. Gaudí’s intricate facades, and the way he inventively used material, mean his buildings aren’t simple to maintain—or to restore.

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© Casa Vicens, Barcelona 2017. [Photo: Pol Viladoms]
In the Gràcia neighborhood of Barcelona, Casa Vicens, an elaborate family home and Gaudí’s first commission at the age of 31, is getting the restoration treatment. In the fall, Casa Vicens will open to the public for the first time. And apart from bringing the surreal building back to its original quality, the architects face another challenge. How do you best restore a 130-year-old estate that has already been through two major renovations and has been used in several different ways, while being as faithful as possible to the architects’ original intent?

Such was the problem posed to the architectural team: architects José Antonio Martínez Lapeña, Elías Torres, and David García, as well as the restoration the architecture studios Martínez Lapeña-Torres Arquitectes S.L.P. and Daw Office S.L.P. In 2005, Casa Vicens was declared a World Human Heritage Site by UNESCO along with eight other Barcelona landmarks. The Andorran bank MoraBanc purchased it in 2014 with the goal of turning it into a house museum.

© Casa Vicens, Barcelona 2017. [Photo: Pol Viladoms]

When it starts taking visitors this fall, Casa Vicens—with its ceramic tile facade, tropical garden, and extraordinary architectural detail—will give visitors the chance to experience Gaudí’s spectacular and wholly original style within the first project where it manifested.

In 1883, when the Manuel Vicens i Montaner, the owner of a brick and tile factory, commissioned Gaudí to build his summer home, the young architect had just graduated from Provincial School of Architecture in Barcelona three years prior. Up to that point, he was mostly designing houses in a Victorian style that was popular during the time. Casa Vicens was the first project with which he began to develop his signature style, which was influenced by the Neo-Mudéjar style, a type of Moorish Revival architecture that became popular in 19th century Spain. Gaudí made the style his own by incorporating several different materials, such as iron, glass, ceramic tiles, and concrete—all of which were used in Casa Vicens.

In 1925, the second owners of the house, the Jover family, decided to expand it from a single-family summer home to a multi-family first residence, hiring Gaudí’s friend and the Spanish architect Joan Baptista Serra de Martínez to do the extension. In 1935, the house was expanded again under the Jover family, this time by architect F. V. Ortenbach Bertrán. The estate in its current state is double its original size.

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With the new vision for Casa Vicens as a public museum, the team of architects and managers overseeing the project decided to use the later, non-Gaudí renovations to their advantage, organizing the new museum’s program based on whether it was designed by Gaudí or Serra de Martínez. The areas added on in the 1925 renovation will house the offices and administrative services for the museums–they’re being renovated slightly, with a welcome area on the ground floor, for example, and exhibition halls on the second and third—while the original Gaudí design will not be modified except to return it to its original state.

© Casa Vicens, Barcelona 2017. [Photo: Pol Viladoms]
The key restoration project was to open back up the first-floor gallery, originally designed by Gaudí to open to the garden but closed off in the 1925 renovation. Wanting to create a space where the surrounding palms and other plants could be visually present in the interior, the architect also designed an innovative system that consists of revolving blinds with a lattice made of Oriental-inspired geometric shapes. Before it was taken out by the Jover family, it was used to regulate both the amount of light that entered and the air circulation—now the design will be replicated and added back in. Gaudí continued the plant motif with decorative elements in the gallery and the dining room, which also houses murals that depict different exotic birds. In the dining room, the architects worked to restore a ceiling with a plaster polychrome honeycomb structure, as well as papier-mâché tiles that had to be restored to their original blue, green, and gold polychrome.

The complex strategy for incorporating the house in all of its modifications–while still remaining faithful to Gaudí’s original vision–led to a beautiful end result. Casa Vicens will open up to the public at some point during the fall of 2017. Until then, see the colorful Gaudí masterpiece in all its splendor in the slideshow above.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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