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Casas Batlló and Milà

Published Sun 13 June 2010 00:01 (+1200)
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After we visited Parc Güell and La Sagrada Familia we went to see the two amazing Gaudí buildings just a couple of blocks away from each other in Eixample, the district in Barcelona we were staying in (good choice Mary!). They are both incredible buildings, utterly unlike the conventional boxes we're used to, and Casa Batlló in particular is a great example of designing a place to suit the way people want to live in it.

Casa Batlló

Casa Batlló at night
Casa Batlló at night
The living room on Casa Batlló's facade
The living room on Casa Batlló's facade
Seat for courting couple (with seat for chaperone) in Casa Batlló
Seat for courting couple (with seat for chaperone) in Casa Batlló

Yep, two Ls. Instead of the original plan to raze the original house at this site and build a new one, the owners decided to remodel it, replacing the facade and attics and moving interior walls and changing the light wells which cut into the building from the top. Gaudí took the project and really ran with it, producing something not only unusual and aesthetically pleasing but also meant to serve the lifestyle of the people who lived in it well.

For example, he changed the light well so that instead of being a vertical shaft, it tapers down from wider at the top to narrower at the bottom (the first floor up) to improve the amount of light reaching the lower inner rooms. He also used perceptual tricks such as changing the shading of the tiles lining the light well – darker at the top and lighter at the bottom, dithering the pattern so that the transitions are not abrupt. The effect when you look up toward the top is that the lightness seems more even, since the darker colors are more brightly illuminated by the sunlight coming down through the sunlight.

The facade is carved sandstone and has been shaped around the windows and looks like the house itself is made out of giant bones, giving the house its local nickname. The original straight and perpendicular edges are all gone; in fact there's very few straight edges left in the main parts of the house, replaced by Gaudí's nature-mimicing curves. Once you step through the entrance you can see a mushroom-shaped niche made in the wall, with a fireplace and a curved bench seat; it's made for a courting couple to sit in – plus a smaller seat opposite for their obligatory chaperone!

Spinal stairs in Casa Batlló
Spinal stairs in Casa Batlló
Whirlpool ceiling in Casa Batlló
Whirlpool ceiling in Casa Batlló
Styley light in Casa Batlló
Styley light in Casa Batlló

The stairwell edge is ribbed like an animal spine, and the ceilings are curved surfaces flowing into the walls, or in one case swirled into a central point like toffee. Even the light fixtures are styley, elegant shades or glowing translucent glass.

Gaudí's signature catenary arches
Gaudí's signature catenary arches

He put a lot of effort into making the house a pleasant environment to be in, for example internal windows help distribute light throughout the spaces, and shutters on connecting doors and even from the living room to the outside slide on or off holes to allow fresh air through.

He took the way that the people who lived there lived and worked into account; for example, the top level of the interior proper is given over to such functional domestic matters as the laundry for clothes, but even as these show his signature in the inverted catenary arches to naturally distribute the load of the attics above, he worked the usage of the floor into their design, making the slanted wall panels here overlap with gaps so that the rain is kept out but air can flow through to dry the clothes. Apparently the neighbouring property had an ajoining roof and they came over to do their washing here too, so Gaudí tried to keep this access.

"Dragon" decoration on the top of Casa Batlló
"Dragon" decoration on the top of Casa Batlló

Some think the very top of the building resembles a dragon, with colorful tile mosaics (like those in the Parc Güell) covering the curved and warped surfaces forming the skin, and bumps formed by round ceramics on the ridge as if it were the spine. It's a bizarre and great effect! The cross sculpture on the front of the facade also reflects the Catholicism that was very important to Gaudí, and presumably his clients.

It does cost to go into Casa Batlló, but I thought it was perhaps the most amazing building I've been in, so I definitely recommend it. The multi-lingual audioguide is then free, and useful.

Casa Milà

Casa Milà's curvy facade
Casa Milà's curvy facade
Atrium of Casa Milà
Atrium of Casa Milà

Just down the road on the same street – plenty of works by other architects to explore on it next trip too – there's a big apartment building on the corner, whose exterior is distinctive but apparently just a fragment of what Gaudí had in mind – the big sculpture he planned was not permitted by the council, in fact some of the parts of the roof structures he'd already had built were ordered demolished for exceeding height codes – but you can once again see the wave-like flowing lines, and the balcony fences look like lines of kelp waving in the sea.

You can go in through the entrance into the atrium and the bookstore/gift shop freely, but there's a charge to go up to see in one of the apartments, the museum, and the roof – definitely worth it I think.

Stairwell tops on the roof of Casa Milà
Stairwell tops on the roof of Casa Milà
Up-and-down rooftop due to the inverted catenary arches supporting the structure
Up-and-down rooftop due to the inverted catenary arches supporting the structure
Ventilation for Casa Milà
Ventilation for Casa Milà
Looking along the alignment of Casa Milà to La Sagrada Familia
Looking along the alignment of Casa Milà to La Sagrada Familia

The roof is yet another absolutely unique Gaudí construction. When you pop out of one of the stairwells you'll wind you've walked out of a big thimble-shaped construction, with a wavy surface and (in the case of the ones visible from the street) covered in cracked tiles.

The roof's not level – in fact it goes up and down continually, like waves around the central atrium space. This is because it tracks over the inverted catenary arches he used, as always, to support the structure.

The other objects on the roof are all functional too – the big vertical things with all the holes are ventilation shafts that circulate air through the apartment building. The twisted shaft things, mostly in groups of 4, are chimney-tops – very similar to the ones down the road at Casa Batiló, though here they're either natural the goldy-terracotta color of the stone or covered in green broken cava bottle, whereas at Batiló they're tiled with colors like the “dragon”.

If you look closely you can also see that Gaudí has managed to partly align this building with one of his other works – look down the side between the arches of two of the staircase structures and you discover you're looking straight towards La Sagrada Familia.

Seed pod examples from nature in the Casa Milà design museum
Seed pod examples from nature in the Casa Milà design museum
Serpent spine example from nature in the Casa Milà design museum
Serpent spine example from nature in the Casa Milà design museum
Those Gaudí arches again!  Museum up in Casa Milà.
Those Gaudí arches again! Museum up in Casa Milà.

The museum is worth a look. I think the most interesting part was the display of relevant biological specimens showing the forms Gaudí was trying to learn from, because he wasn't just trying to make everything curvy and leave it at that. There's also a cutaway of Casa Batiló showing the light well structures, and some more info about his structural elements – including those arches of his which, once again, make an appearance here – this time in brick – and some multimedia displays about the works and period.

I thought both buildings were cool – I really don't get why we don't make buildings like these all over the place now – and definitely recommend a visit.