With so much architecture and art in Barcelona, fighting through the tourist crowds on La Rambla to see “yet another” Gaudí building may seem like an obvious addition to your why-bother list of places to avoid in the city. After all, you’ve already seen La Sagrada Familia. Yet, Palau Güell is worth enduring the tourist hordes, buskers, and fake purse vendors on La Rambla, if only because it is the only newly constructed building that Gaudí actually managed to complete in his lifetime. It’s a fine example of Gaudí’s unique blend of Islamic Mujedar decorations, enormous geometry-defying arches, and renowned tile work, with the added twist of a dark, historical past.
Neighborhood: El Raval
Address: c/Nou de la Rambla, 3-5
Entry Fee: 12 euros, including audio guide
Palau Güell History
Palau Güell was constructed between 1886-1890 and remains one of the least modified of Gaudí’s buildings. As with many of Gaudí’s other projects, the textile merchant and real estate magnate, Eusebi Güell, commissioned the project as a personal residence for his family. Even in the 1800s, El Raval was a bit of an odd choice for such luxury — all the elites were moving out to that new and trendy (now re-trendy) neighborhood of E’ixample — but, Güell wanted to stay close to the old family residence. Besides, Güell decided it would be better to be the party host than just an attendee. His commission required Gaudí to also make the family home THE place for the Catalan elites to meet and socialize. Any other architect would’ve balked, given the tiny footprint of the El Raval property lot, not to mention the narrow streets and lack of light. Gaudí rose to the challenge and the palace expresses it via the three-story central hall covered by a parabolic dome. The central hall served as the main space for social gatherings, with the dome amplifying the music. Hang around long enough to hear one of the musical pieces played every 30 minutes for visitors.
Palau Güell’s haunting past
Palau Güell’s golden chapel, stunning ironworks, multiple terraces with 20 chimneys and a 50 foot spire, catenary arch entrance, unique pillars and vaults in the former horse stable, not to mention the hall of lost steps, were designed to impress, as was fitting for the home of one of the most successful of Catalan businessmen. Unfortunately, only a few decades later, in 1936, the home was seized and used as military barracks during the Spanish Civil War. This is where the palau’s history takes a dark turn, with the residence’s basement being used to interrogate prisoners. By 1944, the palau was in enough disrepair that it caught the eye of a North American millionaire who knew a good deal when he saw it. He proposed to purchase the palau, break it up and ship it, piece-by-piece, across the ocean and rebuild it. (Because there’s “wealthy enough to build a palace rich” and then there’s “wealthy enough to tear down your palace, ship it thousands of miles, and rebuild it on my turf rich.”) Fortunately, the Güell family donated the property to the city, making the ajuntament promise they would preserve it (and give the Güell family an annuity — hey, they didn’t become rich by making poor business deals). And so it stands, renovated and re-opened in 2011, awaiting you to tour its halls, stables, and terraces.
Where to eat nearby: Federal Cafe; Viana; Cecconi’s Barcelona; Madame
Other places to check out: Miscelanea Art Gallery; Liceu Opera House; La Boqueria
Well, isn’t that interesting: It’s well-known that Picasso hated Gaudí’s overwrought architectural stylings, so much so that he wished Gaudí to go to hell. Yet, Picasso moved into a studio directly across from Palau Güell in 1902 and began his Blue Period there.