'The most important thing we have done is that we have made a modern art, taking our traditional art as a basis, adorning it with new material, solving contemporary problems with a national spirit,' the Catalan architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch wrote in 1903. By the turn of the century, the national spirit had taken over most cultural activities in Catalonia, so that art, architecture and the Catalan language had become more powerful weapons in politics than resentment about Madrid's handling of foreign or economic policy. The architects who worked on the new apartment blocks and public buildings in Barcelona between 1880 and 1910 began to play with a dual mandate, not merely innovative but Catalan as well, in an effort to create a national spirit in their buildings. They used the most modern methods available: in 1888 Domènech i Montaner used unadorned brick and industrial iron for his café-restaurant in the Parc de la Ciutadella; 16 years later he used a steel frame for his concert hall, El Palau de la Música Catalana, making it the first curtain-wall building in Spain and one of the first in the world. Both buildings sought to establish the progressive nature of the Catalan enterprise, but both are also laden with medieval motifs, reminders of former greatness, of the time before 1492 and the beginning of Castilian imperialism. Like most turn-of-the-century buildings in Barcelona they used Gothic and Romanesque references, spiky shapes, cave-like entrances, floral motifs in wrought iron, coloured glass or ceramic tiles, ornate sculpture, conveying both craft and opulence. They were intensely political buildings, and both Domènech i Montaner and Puig i Cadafalch became leading politicians - Domènech i Montaner was one of the founders of the Lliga de Catalunya in 1887. Both were elected to the Cortes in Madrid to represent the Catalan cause.
LRB 18 April 1996 | PDF Download