Casa Vicens: Gaudi's early townhouse set to open doors
Casa Vicens has been described as 'Gaudì's prelude'. The first of the Catalan architect's masterpieces, it's also one of the eight UNESCO world heritage sites in Barcelona. Despite its architectural reputation, Casa Vicens has long been ignored by the tourist crowds. In part, because it stands on a compressed little street in the untouristy barrio of Grácia. But also, because it has never been open to the public. Now, this is all set to change.
As of October 2017, after 132 years serving as a family home, Casa Vicens will finally open its doors to the public. The Andorran bank Mora Banc, who brought the property in 2014, have spent €4 million on its restoration and hope to attract 150,000 visitors a year. A museum will offer permanent exhibitions exploring the social, historical and cultural context of the building and Gaudi's philosophy.
Gràcia was still a village located outside the city when Casa Vicens was erected between 1883 and 1885. The Vicens family wanted a holiday home and weren't scared of making an extravagant statement. They turned to a young architect, 31 years old and fresh out of the Escuela Provincial de Arquitectura de Barcelona.
Gaudi had been hoping for a project where he could indulge his fixation with with Persian, Mughal-Indian, and Japanese architectural styles. Commissioned by Manuel Vicens, who was the owner of a tile and brick factory, he found his opportunity, and created an orientalist fantasy which would break with the Victorian-influenced aesthetic norm of the time.
Much of the facade is still as it was in Gaudi's original designs, with a colourful checkerboard of ceramic tiles, windows finished in mitre-shaped arches and Moorish domes adorning a series of castellated towers.
In the interior is a Turkish sala de fumadores with a honeycomb alabaster ceiling reminiscent of the Generalife in Granada. Access to the higher floors would originally have been via a horseshoe-shaped staircase (which was ripped out in later building works and has now been replaced by something more standard in the absence of any documentation of the original design), while in the sitting room stained glass windows and floral tiles combine with papier maché geometric patterns and friezes of palms garnishing the vaulted ceiling.
In its day, Casa Vicens was a fundamentally playful fusion of autochthonous and oriental motifs which would pave the way for the Catalan architectural movement known as modernisme.
After the death of Manuel Vicens the house was sold to the Jover family, who, in 1925, just a year before Gaudi's death (he was hit by a tramcar while crossing the road), turned to Joan Sierra de Martinez, a chief collaborator of Gaudi's, to have the building enlarged and divided into three apartments.
Since the announcement of the plan to turn the building into a museum, local residents have been vocal in their concerns, not just about the possibly detrimental effect of huge crowds in the cramped confines of Carrer Carolines, but the impact of mass tourism on the district of Gràcia at large. All this comes at a time when an angry debate is raging about the city's relationship with tourism, with issues such as illegal accomodation, incivisme and soaring prices to the fore.
The museum's owners have come up with an Internet-only ticket policy, with no queues permitted outside the building on the street and visitors encouraged to wait in the cafe and terrace areas.
However, the opening of Casa Vicens to the public might have a transformative effect on a barrio which has never had to deal with mass tourism in its condensed streets and squares. Traditionally Gràcia has been a defiantly local barrio in which small, independent businesses flourish, and where corporate tack has been slow to penetrate. It remains to be seen whether Casa Vicens attracts the same kind of crowds as a Casa Batllo or Mila. But if it does, how will Barcelona's proudest and most rebellious district react?