Barcelona's Old New Art Nouveau Gem
13th May 2018It's no secret that Barcelona contains arguably the world's most impressive collection of Art Nouveau architecture, largely, although not exclusively, thanks to the internationally famed Antoni Gaudí. His Casas Mila and Battló along with Park Güell and the Sagrada Familia (to date my favourite religious building) form a varied portfolio of the style. However, if you head four blocks out from the incredible cathedral along the aptly named Avenida de Gaudí, you will stumble upon another Art Nouveau gem designed by, not Gaudí, but another Catalán architect, Lluís Domènech i Montaner.
Avenida De Gaudí cuts through Barcelona's rigid plan to connect the Sagrada Familia and Reciente Modernista De Sant Pau. Photo by Sant Pau BarcelonaThe Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau is a beautiful and innovative healthcare complex that opened its doors to the public in 2014. On a recent trip to Barcelona I decided to visit the complex on a whim, and I was stunned by both its beauty and forward thinking, holistic approach to healthcare. Since it is relatively unknown despite being a UNESCO World Heritage site and the world's largest Art Nouveau complex, I felt compelled to write an article exploring and highlighting the hospital's wonderful story and hopefully inspiring you to pay a visit next time you're in Barcelona.
Hospital Santa Creu before closing down. Photo by Sant Pau Barcelona Pau Gil i Serra, the wealthy banker who left his estate to the city in his will for the construction of the hospital.The genesis of the hospital was in 1401, when six small medieval hospitals were merged to form Santa Creu (Hospital of the Holy Cross) in the central Raval district of Barcelona. It went on to serve the city for centuries until the late 1800's, when the rapid growth of the population and major advances in medicine called for a new, larger facility. By pure coincidence, and fortunately for the residents of Barcelona, in 1896 whilst potential sites for the new hospital were being considered, a wealthy Catalan banker named Pau Gil i Serra passed away and left in his will his whole estate, requesting that it be used for a state of the art hospital complex. Located in the North East of the city close to the newly started Sagrada Familia, the site presented itself as a powerful opportunity to match the splendour of the cathedral and demonstrate the importance of health and science in modern Spain.
Construction of the hospital. Photo by Sant Pau Barcelona A model showing the layout of the complex. Photo by Barney SheppardConstruction began in 1902 and was finished in 1930, with the complex containing 27 buildings and taking up approximately nine city blocks of space. At the time of the conception of the design Lluís Domènech i Montaner was in his late 40s and at the height of his career. He utilised the Modernist style which has become the defining aesthetic of Barcelona's key landmarks, and spatial lessons learned through the study of various hospitals around Europe.
The hospital was in service for a staggering 79 years, finally relocating its patients, staff and facilities to a new building on the site in 2009. The complex, which remained largely unchanged over the decades, survived the Spanish Civil War and countless technological and medical advances, proving the enduring success of the design. In fact, a few departments, such as radiography and physical therapy, still reside in the Art Nouveau buildings.
Outside space surrounding the pavilions. Photo by Barney SheppardLluís Domènech i Montaner experimented with a number of innovations in the scheme which have gone on to define effective healthcare architecture. The most notable of these at Recinte Modernista Sant Pau is the provision for outside space. The gardens form a fundamental part of the rehabilitation process, with plants and trees purifying the air and providing shade, and fountains cooling the microclimate. The psychological benefits of nature in healing cannot be understated either, and the advantages of this groundbreaking approach were only recognised in 1984, a whole 50 years after the hospital opened, in a famous study by environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich.
Another major part of the design revolved around the admittance of natural light into the interior spaces. A technical solution consisting of a steel frame with Catalan vaulting facilitated large, column free spaces with expansive windows. Patient comfort was at the heart of all the decisions that dictated the design, and like the presence of greenery, natural light has a profound effect on wellbeing and healing. In the corner of the plan of some of the pavilions there is a bright, glazed day room that allowed mobile patients to accept visitors. Instead of isolating patients from the general public to try to limit the spread of disease, as had been the case previously, the hospital welcomed visitors, recognising their importance in the rehabilitation process.
A network of tunnels ensured smooth operation of the hospital. Photo by Barney SheppardFrom a logistical point of view, running a hospital is a hugely complex operation, with a constant flow of patients, apparatus and medicines in all directions. To facilitate order and efficiency whilst maximising outside space for patients and maintaining a tranquil atmosphere, Lluís Domènech i Montaner designed a network of tunnels to connect the pavilions of the complex. The wide subterranean arteries of the hospital are beautiful in of themselves, despite their purely functional purpose, again proving the creativity of the architect and his dedication to joyful, pleasing architecture. Following its closure in 2009, Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau underwent a five year restoration and alteration programme to change it into a museum and cultural centre. Worth visiting for its unique, innovative architecture alone, it now contains various exhibitions about the complex and its architect.
Hospital or palace? Photo by Barney Sheppard The Sant Salvador Pavilion. Photo by Barney Sheppard Clerestory windows illuminate the bright green-blue tiles in the Sant Salvador Pavilion. Photo by Barney SheppardThe grand entrance provides a flavour of what's inside, with an aesthetic more similar to a palace than a hospital. After heading through the Administration Building you emerge in the main garden, the vastness of which is a huge surprise within Barcelona's relatively dense, built up core. Despite its size, the surrounding buildings define more intimate nooks and shield the wind, creating a calm and relaxing environment. My favourite pavilion was the Sant Salvador Pavilion, which first admitted patients in 1916. It has now been restored to its original condition, with the green-blue tiled ceiling and clerestory windows being particularly stunning. The San Rafael Pavilion provides an interesting insight into the past, with its deliberately stripped back interior mimicking the typical appearance of a 1920s nursing ward. This window into history is continued in one of the tunnels with an exhibition recounting key moments from the hospital's story.
Looking to the future, Reciente Modernista de Sant Pau will continue to play host to innovation and education in the medical field and beyond. Alongside the museum and cultural centre, a nursing school and medicine faculty are situated on the site, as well as the aforementioned new hospital.
Whilst techniques for healthcare have changed dramatically over the past century, its aims are universally timeless, to provide wellbeing and comfort to patients in order to aid recovery and rehabilitation. Reciente Modernista de Sant Pau introduced many techniques still used today in hospital architecture, demonstrating the forward thinking attitude of both the architect and organisation behind the scheme. Its flamboyant, organic style has to be seen in person to be truly appreciated, and I fully expect the complex to grow in popularity in the coming years and eventually take its place alongside Barcelona's other Art Nouveau gems.
Tickets and more information can be found on the Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau website.