As you are no doubt aware, Domènech i Montaner is one of the greatest exponents of Catalan Art Nouveau architecture, together with Antoni Gaudí and Josep Puig i Cadafalch, among others. However, Domènech was much more than the creator of great works of architecture, such as the Hospital de Sant Pau or the Palau de la Música, both of which are listed as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO; he was also an eminent politician, a great communicator of Romanesque art and a lecturer at the Escola d’Arquitectura (Barcelona’s school of architecture).
The dragon-shaped museum installation that stands in the Sant Salvador Pavilion is much more than the recreation of a motif that features prominently in Catalan Art Nouveau works; above all, it is a tribute to Domènech, showcasing both his architectural work and the contributions he made to other disciplines. In this article we’d like to reveal ten curiosities about the architectural genius that you may not know.
A family dedicated to publishing
The architect’s father, Pere Domènech i Saló, was one of the leading binders of the first half of the 19th century. When he died, Lluís Domènech, who had only just completed his architectural studies, decided to help out his brother in the family business. He designed book covers, ornamental and historiated initial letters, borders, bookplates and end sheets. He also designed headers for magazines and newspapers. Under his direction, the Domènech i Simón publishing house produced the Historia General del Arte, the first section of which was written and illustrated by Domènech himself. The other volumes were produced by Puig i Cadafalch.
A history buff
Throughout his career, Domènech showed a great deal of interest in history and archaeology. He used his historical knowledge in the ornamentation of his architectural works. The Sant Pau site is a clear example of this. Domènech himself designed the mosaic that decorates the sides of the Administrative Pavilion, which offers an illustrated history of the Hospital de La Santa Creu i Sant Pau, as well as the coats of arms that are dotted around this Catalan Art Nouveau site, showcasing his in-depth knowledge of heraldry.
The Jocs Florals and the Ateneu Barcelonès
From early on in his life, Lluís Domènech i Montaner became involved in two of the key platforms for the promotion of Catalan culture: the Jocs Florals (Floral Games) poetry contest and the Ateneu Barcelonès, a cultural association. Domènech attended the Jocs Florals from a very young age. In 1878 his family’s publishing house published the winning poem, L’Atlàntida, by Jacint Verdaguer, and in 1895 he presided over the organising committee of the contest.
Meanwhile, he became a member of the Ateneu as a young adult. In 1898 he was elected president for the first time and held the position for seven alternate years, becoming the first person to hold the position so often.
A foundational article on Catalan Art Nouveau
Domènech was not only a publisher but also a contributor to several publications. His most famous publication is an article entitled “In search of a national architecture”, published in 1878 in the magazine La Renaixença. At just 28 years old, before his architectural career took off, Domènech wrote an article which has not only been regarded as the foundational treatise of the Catalan Art Nouveau movement, but which also placed Catalonia at the centre of the European debate. In the text, the architect discusses eclecticism, which is one of the main characteristics used to describe Catalan Art Nouveau. Indeed, as you stroll around this Catalan Art Nouveau site, you can perceive the influence of the Gothic and Mudejar styles, among others.
The European Tour that influenced his career
Domènech completed his studies in Madrid in 1873, immediately embarking on a journey around Europe that took him to cities such as Vienna, Rome and Paris. His biographer and great-grandson Lluís Domènech i Girbau wrote in Domènech i Montaner, un home universal, that the architect of Sant Pau considered the Ducal Palace, the Alhambra and the Sainte-Chapelle to be the world’s best buildings. Domènech never stopped studying and for the Hospital de Sant Pau project he embarked on another European journey in order to see at first hand the latest innovations in hospital architecture, such as independent blocks to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.
Domènech i Montaner, member of the Spanish Parliament
Domènech became politically active at the tender age of 18. The architect was one of the leading political figures of his time as one of the founders of the League of Catalonia (1887). Later on, he was involved in founding Unió Catalanista, becoming its president in 1892, with Enric Prat de la Riba as party secretary. In the same year, the so-called Manresa Bases document (a draft statute for the self-government of Catalonia as a regional entity) was drawn up. As a result of political differences, the Regionalist League was founded in 1900 and Domènech was elected to the Spanish parliament for two terms of government.
Domènech became disenchanted with politics and decided instead to focus on his career and studies.
The stress of building future World Heritage sites
Between 1897 and 1910, Domènech built the Hospital de Sant Pau, the Palau de la Música and the Fonda Espanya (a hotel). During this period he also designed Casa Lleó Morera, Casa Thomas and Casa Fuster (all in Barcelona), the Grand Hotel in Palma (Mallorca) and Casa Navàs in Reus, among other projects. This huge amount work stretched the architect to the limit, as he confessed to the president of the Orfeó Català (choral society) in a letter included in his biography: “I find myself unable, on doctor’s orders, due to life-threatening health issues, to attend or take part in discussions (…) since the last heart attack I suffered (…)”
Designing houses with first-hand knowledge
In addition to major works such as the Palau de la Música and the Hospital de Sant Pau, Domènech i Montaner designed houses for well-to-do middle-class families. According to his biography, the architect would live for a certain amount of time with the family by whom he had been commissioned to build the house in order to discover its tastes and needs. This rather unusual practice was later inherited by his son, Pere Domènech Roura. Incidentally, the first and last houses to be designed by Domènech, namely Casa Adela Domènech and Casa Fuster, respectively, are located right next to each other on Barcelona’s Passeig de Gràcia.
Canet, his retreat
Both the mother and the wife of Domènech i Montaner were from Canet de Mar. This town in the Maresme region, home to the Lluís Domènech i Montaner Study Centre and the Lluís Domènech i Montaner House-Museum, was the architect’s retreat. His family would spend the summer there and Domènech would commute to Barcelona every day. He always travelled second class in order to avoid acquaintances, thus making the most of the train journey to get some work done. One day, however, someone recognised him and wanted to chat. The architect’s response was blunt: “Listen, some of us have work to do!” This anecdote notwithstanding, Domènech was an approachable person who enjoyed chatting to the local fishermen and farmers on his strolls around Canet.
The Escola d’Arquitectura and dispute with Puig i Cadafalch
Domènech i Montaner enjoyed a close association with Barcelona’s Escola d’Arquitectura for 45 years, starting out as a lecturer and ending up as its director. Between 1901 and 1906 he organised trips for his students in order for them to learn about Romanesque architecture. It would appear that the drawings and notes put together by the students were used by Puig i Cadafalch in order to produce a book on Romanesque art. In an article published in El Poble Català in 1909, Domènech made public accusations against his fellow architect. The disagreements between the two architects, the master (Domènech) and the disciple (Puig i Cadafalch), were also of a political nature.
Domènech i Montaner was a fascinating and multifaceted character. In his masterpiece, the Hospital de La Santa Creu i Sant Pau, you can discover more details about the life and work of this brilliant man. What are you waiting for?