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Sant Pau: New Life for a Barcelona Classic


You don't always get the chance to watch an important historical and artistic landmark transformed from its original use to a new future, and from a physically declining state to a full restoration.


I've been lucky enough to have that experience with Barcelona's Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, the Art Nouveau masterwork of Catalan architect Lluis Domenech i Mantener.


Sant Pau now calls itself Recinte Moderniste, or Art Nouveau Complex de Sant Pau, a nice transition for a campus that's no longer a hospital, but home to dozens of cultural and artistic organizations as well as a museum and venue for exhibitions. The hospital itself moved in 2009 to a new complex a few blocks away.


The first time we visited, in 2009, the hospital was still open, we were largely limited to seeing the outsides of the buildings and a few cluttered lobbies at the Emergency Room; the chaos of both operating and packing for the move meant no real visitor opportunities.

P1230458P1230465Period apothecary jars at the hospital, and a hall with a free-form dragon sculpture representing different aspects of Domenech's life

Two or three years later, on a short stay, the hospital had become a giant renovation and construction site, and we were luckily able to get tickets for a guided 'hard-hat' tour of part of the works. We also toured some of Domenech's other projects on that trip.


The Sant Pau, or Saint Paul, hospital was built in the first years of the 20th century to replace a hospital that had served the city for over 500 years, but was crumbling, and too small for a vastly-expanded city that was feeling rich on textile and banking money.


The money came from the will of banker Pau Gil; the concept and design came from Domenech i Montaner, who spent many months visiting and studying Europe's most modern hospitals, and gathering ideas to use here. His research led to real advances in hospital care. Gil's name is worked into the decorative ceilings of the impressive Administration building.


In his view, the beauty of the site and of the individual spaces in it were part of the care of patients: provide a bright, colorful uplifting atmosphere, and patients will be optimistic and fight to live. Colorful tiles and other decor throughout the complex reflect that.


Large separate pavilions allowed for specialties and isolation; high ceilings promoted not only air circulation, but also large windows for light. A kilometre of underground tunnels connecting the different pavilions meant a sanitary path for moving materials, patients and staff.

P1230509P1230525P1230487An entrance from the courtyard to the tunnel system; it was last week's One-Clue Mystery, recognized by George G.

Domenech died in 1923, with the last buildings completed with his son as architect. Only 27 of the original 48 buildings were completed due to financial shortfalls, but the hospital became a major center of care, research and teaching. It was dedicated in 1930, with the King of Spain in attendance.


Over the years, changes were made; some of the high-ceilinged wards were double-decked to make more room, and large wards were divided into smaller, allowing more privacy, but less light and air. Some rooms and clinics were shoehorned into the tunnels.


By the late 1990s, it became clear that major work was needed, and the decision was soon made to build a new hospital complex just north of the old one, leaving the existing campus in need of a new plan.


In 2006, with construction underway on the new hospital, a new group, the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau Private Foundation, was formed to create a plan for the old one. The plan, eventually adopted and funded by government and EU funds and private donations, called for restoring the main administration building and twelve additional buildings, all of Art Nouveau/Moderniste design, as the core of the project.


As of this June, eight of the twelve pavilions have been restored, with much of the added-on materials removed and restored to original designs. Exteriors have been refurbished and missing bits restored. Parts of the interior are set aside for visitors to see and understand the complex, while spaces were created for the cultural and social organizations that are its new tenants.


From the upper level window of the administration building, a view straight ahead to the Sagrada Familia basilica, the masterwork of Domenech's one-time pupil, Antoni Gaudi.



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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