Barcelona Cultura

Juan José Lahuerta: modernisme and design

Juan José Lahuerta (Barcelona, ​​1954) is an architect and professor of History of Art and Architecture at the Barcelona School of Architecture (ETSAB), where since 2016 he has directed the Gaudí Chair. He is the founder and director of the Mudito & Co. collection, that received a FAD Medal for its editorial work in 2007.

Besides curating numerous exhibitions in different Spanish cities, Lahuerta has been an advisor at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, senior curator at the Picasso Museum in Barcelona and head of collections at the National Art Museum of Catalonia (MNAC). He has collaborated in a large number of publications around the world, participating in the editorial offices and scientific boards of architecture, art, and urban planning magazines. In addition, he has contributed to the exhibition "’Modernisme’, towards the culture of design", which has recently opened at the Design Museum, as well as in its catalog.

The way in which Juan José Lahuerta describes the Barcelona of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries almost allows us to close our eyes and visualize the context in which the modernist movement, the "door to modernity", emerged. Catalan ‘modernisme’ is gestated in a shaken Barcelona, ​​the scene of a violent class struggle full of contradictions: while the bourgeoisie dedicates large financial figures to construct the buildings that today decorate the city, the working classes put their bodies and their lives on the streets for a dignified existence.

We speak with Juan José Lahuerta about the Barcelona of the time, about the foundations of the design culture in England and about the controversial character of Antoni Gaudí, considered a genius of ‘modernisme’, maximum representative of the movement, and today a key figure to maintain the tourist model of our city.

Is it fair to consider Barcelona a "modernist city"? Where are the other architectural styles to be found?

Barcelona is a "modernist city" because the period that coincides with what we call "modernisme" represents the greatest material development of the city: it is the moment when the Eixample is built and the bourgeoisie acquires a political consciousness of itself and, thus, a "style" of its own. If we walk through the city we will find many other types of buildings with varied languages ​​that, certainly, have not been sufficiently valued. But it is undeniable that modernist architecture had an exceptional importance because it arose at the precise moment of the great growth of the turn of the century, and it is then that the image of Barcelona that we still recognize as such is built.

Do you think ‘modernisme’ today serves as a marketing strategy?

Totally. ‘Modernisme’, and Gaudí in particular, are sold as symbols of a happy and harmonious Barcelona, ​​when in fact they arise in a historical moment that was not at all like that. Back then, Barcelona was known as "the city of bombs" –for the Liceu bomb, the Corpus bomb, etc.– or as the "Fire Rose", as a result of the events of the Tragic Week. The proletariat began to organize beyond the direct action of attacks: in 1902 we have the first general strike, and in 1909, when Gaudí is building Park Güell or Montaner is working on the Palau de la Música, we have the Tragic Week. There is an absolute coincidence between the diffusion of the language of ‘modernisme’ and the violent city, and it is not by chance, but quite the opposite: ‘modernisme’ symbolizes a synthesis –Park Güell as an image of an essential Catalan land, the Palau de la Música as an image of a people united as if it were a choir– which, in reality, does not exist.

Do you mean that the people who articulate ‘modernisme’ do so in an intentionally elitist way?

Evidently. The cycles of the elites always make what is at the top and what is at the bottom dance at the same time. ‘Modernisme’ does exactly that: it transforms the city into a show. At the Discord Square, in the Eixample, there are three houses made by great architects, one next to the other, like paintings in an exhibition. The people of Barcelona recognized them, and they were talked about in the press and made fun of, because people knew who the architects were and who were the clients who had commissioned them. This is how competition arises not only between architects but also between clients –bourgeois– and everything is exhibited before the people, transformed into an anonymous audience.

‘Modernisme’ is elitist because no one but the bourgeoisie has the means to build these expensive houses, but at the same time, the language that these houses use is understandable to everyone. This coming and going from the highest to the lowest, from the elitist to the popular thing, constitutes the essence of fashion, of the modern market, of power. And it is one of the principles of consumer society: the city transformed into merchandise, and the individual position of the ruling classes spectacularized before the anonymous masses.

In what neighborhoods did the working classes of the late nineteenth century live?

In the old part, in the Raval, in Poble Sec, in Poblenou. There were also towns that were being integrated into the city, such as Gràcia, which was a working class village. However, the Eixample was not a bourgeois neighbourhood but there was a bourgeois nucleus in the central part, and very cheap houses and factories were built on the margins, which no longer exist.

Now that we have settled in that Barcelona, ​​do you think we can place the beginning of design culture in the modernist movement?

In Barcelona, ​​yes, but in general, we must locate ourselves in England and a few years before, in the middle of the 19th century. There were a series of characters with a very clear awareness of what what we call design meant as a means of promoting mass industrial production. One of them was Henry Cole, for example, who founded the Victoria & Albert Museum and ran the first magazine properly dedicated to design in the current sense, the Journal of Design and Manufactures (1849-1852). There were also others like Owen Jones, Christopher Drexler... and they all belonged to the same circles: those that promoted the International Exposition of 1851.

What did they propose?

While the upper bourgeoisie could continue to pay for the work of artists and artisans, the middle classes could not afford it, although they had more and more purchasing power and their houses were furnished with carpets, wallpapers and objects of all kinds, produced by the massive industry. According to these English renovators, there had to be a person –the one we call today a designer– who would act as an intermediary between industry and society, and who had to combine industrial production, utility and beauty, given that mass production wouldn’t go backwards. Characters like Cole or Jones were not redemptorist moralists like other contemporaries -Pugin, Ruskin, Morris– but had a pragmatic vision of what design should mean for industrial production: it was not about redeeming society from the "sin" of ugliness, but about offering the industry tools to facilitate production and –literally– make it as functional as attractive. They were not nostalgic for a craft that had already disappeared, but rather firmly believed in the capitalist division of labor, in which the designer occupies a new role and from which the craftsman is expelled.

So does craftsmanship disappear?

At this moment the artisans are sentenced to death, because there is a large market to occupy and the industry is increasingly capable of meeting the needs of cities that are also growing and becoming massified. Industry destroys crafts, but at the same time architects and artists invent an imaginary, utopian craft that does not exist in reality: the myth of the medieval craftsman, lover of work. But it is nothing more than a myth, full of nostalgia, of a society where the norms of production and the capitalist division of labor did not exist.

Does the industry democratize access to beautiful objects?

In a way, yes. At the same time, we mustn’t forget that the conditions for accessing them are set by the market: for example, when Montaner –or any other architect– designs a flooring for the Escofet company, he does so in the abstract, without knowing which house it will end up in, or how many houses will have the same pavement. At the time of the "invention" of "design" in the modern sense, it was understood as an intellectual exercise –a project– linked to industry and destined for the anonymous market. There is no direct relationship between designer and user, such as the one that had always existed between the artist or architect and their client.

Does the 'what' become more important than the 'how'?

In 1881, Gaudí published a chronicle on the Barcelona Industrial Arts Exhibition in the newspaper La Renaixensa. In his writing, he says that the piece that has interested him the most is an old cypress box, very beautiful, but so simple that any apprentice could have made it. With this you are implying that the important thing is the design and not so much the execution. Gaudí belongs to the first generation of artists and architects who design floors, door locks, rugs, furniture... and who do so with industrial production in mind.

Can Gaudí be considered a designer, apart from an architect?

Gaudí is a character with a heuristic mentality, based on trial and error processes, on experimentation. This fits very badly with the most strict idea of ​​design. To begin with, 'design', disegno, means drawing and, therefore, project. It is something that has been thought out, that is prior to the execution, and that has an intellectual value: before painting a picture, the disegno is made. Gaudí, on the contrary, works upon the work itself, makes rather few drawings and many models, which are in constant transformation. He went to the work in person and changed things on the spot with the builders, the industrialists, the artisans. Furthermore, he conceived his works as infinite processes, which could never be finished, something that also goes against what we properly understand as design.

And what about his doors, knobs, chairs, and hangers? Isn't that the job of a designer?

Many times Gaudí did not even draw it but did it directly. What has always been said, for example, of the Calvet House shooters is that Gaudí takes a piece of clay, puts his fingers in it, squeezes it with his hands and the shape comes out. And that is not design: it is something else. He understood his work as something that came directly from action, from his hands, from his being there. And there was never a first document that defined the work from top to bottom, nor a last moment in which the work was considered finished.

There seems to be a certain egocentricity here.

Of course! Gaudí was convinced that he was a kind of alter deus. He embodied the idea of ​​the artist as someone who has a power, an inspiration that comes from divinity. Testimonies of the time say so, and he never denied it, either. The culminating point in this way of understanding himself comes with the construction of the Sagrada Familia: he renounces practically to all the works that have to do with the earthly world, and his client is no longer a bourgeois –with whom he always ended up in a fight– but God.

In addition to Gaudí as a figure of Catalan ‘modernisme’, do you think there are others who should have been more valued?

It is obvious that Gaudí's figure and work are extraordinary, and this has caused many other characters, already at the time, to remain in a relative shadow by his side. Montaner or Puig i Cadafalch were much more conventional architects, in every way; they cannot be compared to Gaudí. Furthermore, they had an important public presence, because they were part of Barcelona's social and political life. Gaudí, on the other hand, consciously adopted the figure of the intransitive genius: no one could even remotely guess what he would do after five minutes. That said, I do believe that a more articulate study of architecture and design in Barcelona should be carried out, including all these other figures.

What influence does Gaudí have on the later design?

It is not very clear that this even exists. On the one hand, there is a "recovered" Gaudí in the 60’s and 70’s through the reproduction of his designs, especially those made by BD. The revaluation of ‘modernisme’ and Art Nouveau –which had passed a long period of contempt– occurs through Gaudí, but I would not say that Gaudí had an influence on later design, basically because his forms have a uniqueness closely linked to the context in which they are made, so it is difficult to transfer them. It's hard for me to imagine an influence in the most traditional sense of the word.

Do you think that our Gaudí heritage is well managed?

Gaudi's heritage is fundamentally in private hands, except for the Palau Güell and Park Güell, which is the only work that could "compete" in size and presence with the Sagrada Familia, or with others such as Casa Batlló or La Pedrera. Instead of creating their own model of use and enjoyment for the people, the City Council and Park Güell have followed the same model of stark commercial exploitation that we see in private works. Therefore no, I do not believe that Gaudí's heritage is well managed, because it has been taken from us, the Barcelona people. It is no longer ours, if it ever had been.

Ajuntament de Barcelona