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April 26, 2013
Bubbling with an electrical energy and warmed by the Mediterranean sun, Barcelona is unsurprisingly one of Europe’s liveliest destinations. It has a world-famous soccer team and some tremendous tapas, but it’s really the incredible history of artistic innovation that draws the crowds. A unique language and culture—plus a bit of a chip on the shoulder—helped Barcelona develop a peerless style that’s intricately woven into its architecture. Every big city in Spain seems to have its own iconic institution—Madrid holds unsurpassed museums, Seville spins with flamboyant flamenco, and Granada shows off the Alhambra. Barcelona’s beating heart is its spirit of trendsetting, its modernist soul.

The towers of Sagrada Família. Photo by: MarcelGermain

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Park Güell in the Gràcia district of Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. Photo by: Wolfgang Staudt

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Torre de Gas Natural, designed by Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue of EMBT. Photo by: Stijn Hosdez

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Torres de Toyo Ito with Hotel Porta Fira. Photo by: Mario Lopez

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A visitor holds a steady post at the Fundació Joan Miró. Photo by: Marcio Eduardo Rodrigues

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The towers of Sagrada Família. Photo by: MarcelGermain

Despite a bumpy road of civil war and authoritarian oppression, Barcelona has been a haven of economic stability over the years. Migrants from poorer parts of the country streamed into the city during its bad times, and the city underwent facelift after facelift. The result—an artful conglomeration of vibrant neighborhoods, each with a design that draws heavily from the influence of the others.

A stroll through the Eixample district is the best way to get a feel for the city’s eternal modernist panache. The strictly planned checkerboard of soft-edged edifices and wide boulevards looks humorless from the air, but on the ground, it’s a kaleidoscope of styles, from the playfully elegant to the ingeniously bizarre. In the latter category is everything Antoni Gaudí. His Casa Milà (known by locals as La Pedrera—“the Quarry”) catches the eye with an exterior that’s something between a mud-brick hut and a beehive. Toward the Serra de Collserola hills, the Park Güell housing project is Gaudí’s Modernista dream incarnate: reptilian mosaics, graceful colonnades, and fairy tale pavilions. No trip to Catalonia is complete, of course, without a checkup on Sagrada Família, Gaudí’s magnum opus and a work in progress for 130 years.

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Park Güell in the Gràcia district of Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. Photo by: Wolfgang Staudt

The modernism movement was kick-started by Lluís Domènech i Montaner, whose works are still as gracefully startling as they were a hundred years ago. Inside his Palau de la Música Catalana, stained glass bends and flows, mimicking the dynamic sculptures that grace the façade. Across town, the golden spire of Hospital de Sant Pau sprouts upward, a beacon over the cathedralesque house of medicine.

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Torre de Gas Natural, designed by Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue of EMBT. Photo by: Stijn Hosdez

Even while Franco’s oppressive regime was in power, Barcelona was hard at work forging new icons to preserve Catalonia’s culture. The Fundació Joan Miró was created as a stronghold of modern art that would inspire a new generation to carry the torch. Structured as a series of crenellated rooftops around a central patio, the museum’s architecture reflects Miró’s idea that “simplicity is freedom,” something that his Modernista forebears may not totally agree with.

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A visitor holds a steady post at the Fundació Joan Miró. Photo by: Marcio Eduardo Rodrigues

After Barcelona hosted the Summer Olympics in 1992, a rapid revitalization brought the issue of design back to the forefront. Today, up-and-coming architects are applying classic Catalonian motifs to 21st century tastes, taking Barcelona’s skyline to stylish new heights. The Torre Agbar is perhaps the most controversial of the city’s new-millennium additions. Its form has been the butt of many local jokes—some critics call it “el supositori”—but when the sun sets and the tower’s iridescent scales begin to shimmer, there are few who can argue that it’s not true to the spirit of the city.

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Torres de Toyo Ito with Hotel Porta Fira. Photo by: Mario Lopez

The perpetual game of architectural one-upmanship doesn’t seem to have any rules. Torre Mare Nostrum looks like a typical office tower from one side, but its abstract essence is evident on the other, where a huge cantilevered arm adds a bit of structural intrigue. The three sides of slender Diagonal Zero Zero are accented with delicate rivulets of steel—an aqueous homage to the bountiful waters of the Mediterranean. Hotel Porta Fira’s twisted, bright red casing looks like it’s been pulled straight from a Miró painting.

Header photos by: Antonio Gil

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