Casa Vicens: Barcelona’s new landmark. And it’s set to become the next must-visit attraction for architecture and interior lovers. Something you don’t want to miss.
A 130-year-old house designed by Antoni Gaudí is now open to the public after a major restoration. Everything you need to know is here.
Discover what makes Casa Vicens unique. Let’s explore the history, the architecture and the interior of Gaudí’s first residential project.
Modernisme vs Modernist vs Mid-century modern?
Before we continue, we have to talk about the design movement at that time. So we can picture the house in the right context. The naming of the styles can confuse and, as you’ll see, spelling makes a big difference. Below you’ll find a mini brief of Modernisme (with an “e”) and other unrelated movements that sound similar.
Modernisme or Catalan modernist is an art and literature movement that flourished between the late 1880s and early 1910s. It’s limited to Catalonia. Yet, similar trends appeared all over Europe at the same time. The most memorable being Art Nouveau in France and Belgium.
STYLE TIP: Colour in certain places has the great value of making the outlines and structural planes seem more energetic. — Antoni Gaudí
It was later replaced by Art Deco — think the Chrysler building with all the ornaments. And then came the radical Modernist or Modern architecture in the 1930s. With its clean lines and glass walls. You could say that mid-century modern is a branch of the Modernist movement. In reality, it’s much deeper. I’m just scratching the surface.
But let’s go back in time. Fifty years before mid-century modern was a thing, Casa Vicens was built. The place was the booming city of Barcelona. The movement was early Modernisme. And the architect, a genius that broke all the rules to create his own style
Antoni Gaudí: a creative genius with a unique style
The history of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926) is rather special. He was a talented multidisciplinary man covering architecture, interior and furniture design. Interestingly, he didn’t like to draw plans and elevations. Instead, he preferred to build models of his designs and study them from every angle.
Like a true artist, he went through various design phases throughout his life. He started with an interest in oriental and Arab cultures. Then he followed the popular Neo-Gothic style for a while. Finally, his design skills and craftsmanship culminated in a naturalist style the world had never seen before.
STYLE TIP: Originality consists of returning to the origin. Thus, originality means returning, through one’s resources, to the simplicity of the early solutions. — Antoni Gaudí
My aunt always used to say he died without knowing how great he was. It was not until the 1950s that an interest in his creations resurfaced. Nowadays, all his buildings in Barcelona are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. His stamp is all over the city: from lampposts with snakes to the famous hexagonal pavement tiles which are often the subject of theft!
Undoubtedly, his masterpiece is the Sagrada Familia. And the tourists agree — it’s the most visited building in Spain. We must wait until 2026 to see it completed. The interior is finished, though, and if you haven’t seen it, there’s a handy virtual tour on their website. Today, I will show you the project that started it all. The first house that Gaudí designed.
The history of Casa Vicens
The house was commissioned by Manuel Vicens i Montaner in 1877. Vicens owned his own factory in Barcelona and had fresh money to spend. Gaudí was 31 years old and hadn’t finished his architecture studies. After a few projects, this was his first residential job. Some say this house marked the beginning of Modernisme.
A little house on the outskirts of Barcelona
Barcelona was a prosperous city thanks to the industrial revolution. It was the centre of business, culture and arts. Vicens inherited a plot of land in the nearby village of Gràcia. Now it’s a gentrified neighbourhood within Barcelona. But back in the 19th Century, it was the ideal place to have a little house in the country. Peace and quiet.
I know Gràcia well because it’s where my grandmother lives. It still feels like a little town with narrow streets and little squares. All the buildings have balconies and wooden shutters on every window. And if you get lost you can stumble upon one of the beautiful indoor markets. It’s a fantastic place to live — if you can afford the rent/mortgage.
Inspired by Spains’s rich cultural history
There is not much information about what Vicens wanted. I have the impression the architect had carte blanche and a generous budget. But what Gaudí proposed was right up his street. The style chosen for Casa Vicens was anything but bland. Enter Neo-Mudéjar, a type of Spanish Moorish Revival architecture.
The old Mudéjar style developed in Spain in the middle ages. Aptly described by Wikipedia as “a symbiosis of techniques and ways of creating architecture resulting from Muslim and Christian cultures living side by side.” This style brings striking Islamic geometric patterns, red brick ornamentation, horseshoe arches and arabesque tiling.
Beyond styles and artistic movements, there’s something Gaudí wanted to achieve. Bring nature into the house. This is a subject that appeared on every single project he designed. In the early buildings like this, the connection with nature was achieved through ornamentation. Casa Vicens is full of symbols, colours and patterns that evoke the Mediterranean flora and fauna.
Casa Vicens’ Mediterranean architecture
There’s nothing new about the choice of materials to build the house (stone, brick, tile and iron). Yet, how Gaudi used them was unusual. The walls are covered in stone on the lower levels. So far, a safe option. But then he went crazy with the red brick on the upper levels. The complex brickwork creates pattern, volume — and drama!
The colourful ceramic tiles pop against the red and brown walls. I learned that the tile work represents ivy (green and white tiles) and dandelions (yellow patterned tiles). It’s designed to look like lush vegetation growing on the walls. The final result is more tessellated than organic. But the concept is innovative and fresh.
The quality of the ironwork was not overlooked. The windows and balconies are adorned with elaborate patterns. But perhaps the most striking feature is the gate and grille with a pattern of three-dimensional palm leaves. He used the iron casting technique from a clay model made from a real fan palm leaf.
In Gaudí’s words: “When I went to take the measurements of the site, it was completely covered in little yellow flowers and I adopted them as a decorative theme for the ceramics. I also found a luxuriant fan palm, whose leaves, in cast iron, fill the grilles and entrance gate to the house.”
Architectural modifications of Casa Vicens over 130 years
Believe it or not, the original project was a semi-detached house. In 1925, architect Juan Sierra de Martínez designed an extension to double the size of the building. The new owners thought the country house was too small. Gaudí was too busy with the Sagrada Familia so he recommended Sierra de Martínez — one of his disciples.
In the photo above you can see the split between the original house (left) and the extension (right). To be honest, the work was remarkably respectful of the original design and even received an architecture award. It’s the sort of thing that you don’t notice unless someone points it out. Seamless.
Another key alteration was the position of the entrance. The original door was located facing the street (now the second arched window in the photo above). When the road had to be widened, the entrance was moved to the side, where another arched window stood. Sierra de Martínez managed this too, and the plans had Gaudí’s seal of approval.
In 2014 a bank bought Casa Vicens intending to turn it into a museum to showcase Gaudí’s first project. It took years of study to figure out what the house looked like. Not a simple task after all the alterations. The restoration was carried out in 2017 by Daw Office and Martiñez Lapeña Torres Arquitectes.
Bold and innovative interior
Now, let’s talk about interiors. Even though in the 20th Century Casa Vicens was subdivided into three flats, the house was considered small. After all, it was designed as a holiday home. You’d be surprised to see there are no corridors or hallways. All the rooms are connected to let the air circulate and to maximise natural light.
The exterior had the botanical treatment with chequered and patterned tiles. But how did Gaudí bring nature to the interior? This was done in two ways. Firstly, by using symbols repeated on multiple surfaces. Every room is unique and has a different wall and ceiling motifs. Secondly, by visually connecting the interior to the garden. The main facade overlooks the garden instead of the road.
Terrazzo is the flooring of choice throughout the house. Important spaces such as the dining room and main bedroom also have mosaic details. The interior of the extension has not survived and you may notice some abrupt flooring changes in some photographs.
The walls are no less trendy. They have a quirky mixture of techniques. Stucco on the bottom and… sgraffito on the top? It’s a decorative technique where several tinted coats of plaster are applied and then “scratched” to reveal underlying layers. Sgraffito is commonly used on the exterior walls. But this is the first time I have seen something like that in an interior.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature is the ceiling. Richly decorated with papier mâché plant motifs between the beams. If you look closely no two designs are the same. Every ceiling is different but follows the Mediterranean flora and fauna theme. This continuity is present throughout the house and shows the level of detail Gaudí achieved.
Casa Vicens: the house tour
Enough with the talking. Let’s have a closer look.
The dining room was difficult to photograph. Being the most decorated room it’s also the place where all the visitors gather to admire every single surface. I like the smooth transition from the foyer to the dining room. And the little painted birds by the windows. You can also see the ceiling motif here is the vine tree — perfect choice.
My favourite room is the veranda. It’s technically part of the dining room. But in such a small space the exterior and interior meet. You have the tile used on the exterior walls with painted ceilings simulating a blue sky with palm trees. And don’t get me started on those yellow shutters!
One of the most challenging rooms to restore (and the smallest). The vibrant blue oriental ceiling was painted gold by some confused soul. A small patch in the corner was left untouched to remind people interior decorating crimes happen. The walls combine ceramic tile and papier mâché.
Above the dining room, this decent sized bedroom was designed in a peculiar way. There is a “his” half and a “her” half. When I say half that is literal. The ceiling, wall and flooring colour change accordingly — even the sgraffito pattern. The space is open yet the room is divided.
Bold is an understatement. Forget the typical all-white bathroom. This room design is fresh, uplifting and over 130 years old. I don’t know about you but this bathroom has given me the courage to embrace colour. You got the three primary colours, chequered tiles, floral tiles… and those Gaudí shutters again!
The garden had a decent size, and the house boasted good views of the mountains. After decades of speculation and alterations, the garden became a modest courtyard. Now it’s landscaped with palm trees, terracotta pots and durable concrete surfaces. Mountain views are no more. Instead, you can admire Señora María’s washing on the drying rack in the apartment blocks opposite.
Have you been to Barcelona?
Don’t miss the opportunity to visit Casa Vicens next time. It will become a top must-visit attraction soon. And what is your favourite Gaudí building?
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