Barcelona has a treasure-house list of buildings and works by Antoni Gaudi. Sagrada Familia, of course. The buildings and grounds of Park Guell. The curvy and colorful Casa Battlo and La Pedrera. The stately mansion, Palau Guell.
But the oldest Gaudi building, his first major commission, gets much less attention, and wasn't even open to the public until a very few years ago.
Casa Vicens, whose design began the year Gaudi graduated from architecture school and was built only a few years later, was the prize surprise of my latest visit to Barcelona. Tucked away on a quiet street in the Gracia neighborhood, it is instantly recognizable as his work although it is very different from later buildings.
In many of his later buildings, the lines curve and the color is largely inside, behind masonry or concrete forms. At Casa Vicens, which was designed to be a summer home, just a bit north of the city, color blares in all directions, and the lines, if canted, tend to be straight.
But other aspects of the later Gaudi are there to be seen: while there is more reference here to 'oriental' or 'Moorish' themes, there is also the profusion of shapes modeled on nature—even, as below, with 'vines' tucked into rafters to give the impression of an arbor.
Throughout the house, in fact, two 'natural' themes recur: yellow flowers, and leaves of the fan palm or palmetto. In a letter to a collaborator, he wrote that “When I went to take the measurements of the site, it was totally covered with some yellow flowers, which I used as an ornamental theme for the ceramic. I also found an exuberant palmetto palm, whose leaves fill the grid of the gate of the house.”
The picture below shows the house's main gate, molded from clay images of the palm leaves.
Because it was meant as a summer house—for a broker/marketer, Manuel Vicens who had become a friend—Gaudi created many connections to the outdoors: small balconies, open porches with shutters rather than glass, and fountains in the extensive gardens. There was even a waterfall, opposite the main entrance, which was through the garden rather than from the street.
And, in part because it's a summer house and in part because it's Gaudi, there's a roof terrace worth visiting.
Below the roofs, Gaudi showed his innovative nature in a number of ways, including using small hexagonal hallways in the center of the building, next to the stairs, rather than wasteful corridors; that meant more space in the rooms. And in the rooms, he used a variety of three-dimensional ceiling treatments to give the impression of larger spaces.
Sadly, in the 20th century, parts of the garden land were sold off, and the waterfall was demolished; other changes made the house more comfortable for the families that continued to live there until 2014 but caused the loss of some original features.
Sheet of Gaudi's submitted plan; an 1890s photo of the house
In 2014, MoraBank, an Andorran finance company, bought the building and financed its restoration as a house-museum. As with a number of other moderniste works, it was already on the Unesco World Heritage list; now visitors can see why.
The restoration, though, left me with remaining question. The restorers removed a number of additions that clashed with the original, and restored features such as the shutters on the porches.
On the other hand, the rooms are empty, and the top two floors are configured as clean white-wall exhibit space. Perhaps someday, someone will offer to pay for replicas of the furniture Gaudi designed for the house, and to restore the upper floors to their time.
Even so: It is such an exuberant work, and such a foretaste of the ways in which Gaudi's work developed, that I'd say it should be near the top of the bucket list for visitors, possibly right behind Sagrada Familia.