Palau de la Música Orfeó Català – Barcelona

'The Sun' Concert Hall - Palau de la Música Orfeó Català

‘The Sun’ Concert Hall – Palau de la Música Orfeó Català

If you have any interest at all in Modernisme (the Catalan name for what is called Art Nouveau in Britain) then any visit to Barcelona has to take in the unique Palau de la Música Orfeó Català at the Via Laietana end of the narrow Sant Pere Més Alt. The work of the Barcelonan Moderniste architect, Lluís Domènech i Montaner (whose other great monument to Modernism is the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau) this one building encapsulates all the aspects which arose time and again in the short 20-30 year period of Moderniste dominance which straddled the 19th and 20th centuries. Love it or hate it you can’t ignore it!

Here I don’t intend to give a history of the building, facts and figures and all the rest. Others have done that before with more authority and knowledge and all I would be doing is paraphrasing what they’d already written. Here I want to address a few matters that came to me after my visit in February 2014.

If Modernisme was to have a revival in Barcelona in the 21st century it could never take off in the same way that it did in the 1880s. Most of the skills that were used in the buildings that litter the Eixample district (and which appear in other locations in the city and Catalonia in general) have been lost in the intervening years and bringing together craftsmen with such a variety of skills would be a Herculean task in itself.

The lack of skills is one thing, the lack of materials is another. All the materials that were used in buildings such as the Palau de la Música were sourced and manufacture locally. At the end of the 19th century Barcelona had become a centre for ceramics and provided the Moderniste architects an inexhaustible supply of materials for the trancadís (which means broken) style of using tiles on curved surfaces so beloved by Gaudí – as is seen in Park Güell – and by Domènech i Montaner’s construction for the Orfeó Català.

The other materials used extensively included wrought iron, bricks and coloured glass all again major industries in Barcelona and the surrounding areas at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries. The de-industrialisation that Barcelona (as have so many other European cities) has undergone in the last 30 years or so means that all such material would have to be brought in from abroad, most likely from China. And China is now probably the only country in the world which could produce such buildings and I wouldn’t be surprised to read that some opportunistic capitalist in the once great Socialist country is planning to open a Moderniste theme park.

When I had the opportunity to go inside the Palau de la Música in the late 90s there were only something like one or two chances a week. If you didn’t book well in advance there was little chance of getting in. I also think, but can’t be sure, that the numbers in those groups were relatively small. Now there are tours on the hour and they take up to 60 people at a go. At €18 a go that adds up to a lot of money.

One of the consequences of this huge rise in visitors is a dumbing down of some of the history of the building. When it was started in 1905 Catalan nationalism was big and as well as the influences from nature, the moving away from the man-made straight line with a greater use of curves and the depictions of women as an integral part of the designs this nationalism became a fourth strand in the Moderniste architects armoury.

This meant the repeated representation of the Catalan flag, the yellow and red, and the red cross on white, symbolising St Jordi (St George) especially in glass but also in ceramics. The shield of the Catalan lines also appears carved into both wood and stone. But come the victory of the Fascists under Franco in 1939 this all became a no no.

Franco was for a ‘united’ Spain at any cost and imagery that contradicted that ideology was removed from view. That meant that the Catalan flag that appears on the top half of the windows on all three levels of the main concert hall were blanked out. Why they weren’t just destroyed and removed forever I don’t know. Presumably the Fascist in charge had an uncharacteristic sense of culture. This was mentioned as part of the tour some years ago but is not considered to be of relevance now, or so it seems.

This de-politicisation of the past, more significantly the period between 1939 and Franco’s death in 1975, is something which none of the regions of Spain that I’ve had the opportunity to get to know seem prepared to face. Just ignore it and it will go away, seems to be the hope. But that won’t happen when parties like the PP (Partido Popular, a mish-mash of proto-Fascists and head banger Opus Dei Catholics) are around and even in power at a national level at the moment.

On a completely different tack, and something which I can’t remember occurring to me in the 90s, is how Domènech i Montaner was able to design a structure which uses so much hard material (such as marble, ceramic tiles and glass, as well as a not insignificant amount of wrought iron) was able to produce a concert hall that has been used for solo singers to full-blown orchestras and no one complains about the acoustics.

I’ve never attended a concert in the building (which must be difficult for those who either love or hate the design – one group would be forever looking around in admiration and the other with their eyes closed) but just experiencing the voice of a female guide, talking quite normally in a large space, I had no impression that sound quality was an issue.

This I find difficult to understand. Most concert halls I’ve been to seem to be buried in the deepest heart of the building away from any outside influence but here the main concert hall, on three sides, has the outside world just the other side of the glass windows. (OK they are now ‘double glazed’ but that’s not making much of a difference from the original arrangement.) It even gets lit in the day time by the light provided by the sun.

If I compare this place with the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, for example, they are so completely different. In the Liverpool Phil there’s nothing harder than the brass instruments (if you ignore the heads of some of the patrons) to interfere with the acoustics – soft wood and highly technological design of the padding is the order of the day there. All missing from the Palau de la Música Orfeó Català, which has been around for considerably longer.

Finally, everything must change, nothing stays the same, but why is it that so much change is for the worse?

Although I’ve been to Barcelona over the last few years (there was a gap in the early 21st century when I wasn’t in Catalonia at all) for different reasons I hadn’t been around the Sant Pere district, where the Palau de la Música is located. So it was with an element of shock that I returned to find that someone, in their infinite wisdom, had decided on a modern extension to the building on its western side, the one facing Via Laietana.

I might have known, but hadn’t remembered if I did, that the building had been given a World Heritage Building status in 1998. I can go with that. It’s unique and seems to deserve that level of recognition as a form of protection – but that hasn’t been the case.

I fail to understand what ‘World Heritage’ status really means.

I’m not, I believe, against modern architecture. In fact just the opposite, it’s just that where I live we seem to get the worst of the results. If ‘planning’, as we’ve got to know it in the 20th century and subsequently (even though the Tory philistines are seeking to claw back what little we’ve gained in the UK), means there are restrictions on what and where developers can build this should be supported by international bodies.

If cities and, in the case of the Palau de la Música, buildings are going to boast about and promote the fact of their World Heritage Status (it’s even on the entrance ticket) then the awarding body has to take some action if, after the designation of such an accolade, the city/building then goes and does something which, for any normal, thinking and concerned individual, seems to go against the principles of the award in the first place.

For example: the building of three totally inappropriate buildings on Mann Island, between the Albert Dock and the Pierhead in Liverpool.

For example: the building of a huge (though almost certainly impressive technologically) road bridge over a valley close to Dresden, Germany, and destroying the classic view of the city, known as the Waldschlösschenbrücke.

For example: the building of a high-tech extension to the Palau de la Música.

When I first saw the building I’m sure I came from the direction of Via Laietana. That’s how most people arrive. When it was planned,and then built, in the first years of the 20th century it was on a limited space, a church being on the west and apartment buildings already on the north, east and south. Some years ago the church was knocked down which opened up a square so that by turning the corner from the main road you would, all of a sudden, be confronted by this wonder/monstrosity – depending upon your attitude.

Now that’s all gone.

The western façade is hidden behind a glass walkway and the part directly joined to the main entrance of the original building has been totally obliterated. So what at one time was an opening up of the view of the building has been lost behind modern concrete, glass and brick.

The rounded brick corner that follows the line of the main entrance is a clever piece of brick work and design, but it’s in the wrong place. On the corner there’s a representation of a tree and if it had been anywhere else I would have had nothing but praise for the architect/designer. As it is this structure houses a smaller concert hall – if one was really necessary in the centre of Barcelona did it need to be there? – and, I’m sure, of more importance to the owners/managers of the space, a fancy corporate entertainment space. The day that I was there was the day before the opening of some the Mobile World Congress conference/jamboree/blowout/extravaganza.

Now in all these cases the owners/managers/politicians would have said that this was vital for the economy of the building/enterprise/economy/employment/etc./etc. I’m not from Barcelona but I’m not aware that all this wealth has ‘trickled down’ to those who are facing dire consequences due to the bankers/politicians created ‘crisis’. (How can it be a ‘crisis’ if the rich continue to get richer and the poor get poorer?)

But my final comment/question is: Why does World Heritage continue to go against its stated aims? If the organisation doesn’t care about these places and puts the dollar/pound/euro before any historical or cultural considerations then at least be honest and say so. Don’t maintain the moral high ground and then fall at the first hurdle.

Next we will read that Coca Cola has put a flashing neon/LED sign on top of the Taj Majal and McDonalds are serving their special, unique and nourishing creations to visitors as they behold this monument to love and devotion.

And no one will care a toss.

Practical Information:

Location: From Via Laietana the Palau is at the beginning of the narrow Sant Pere Més Alt. The ticket office is in the new part of the building, at the opposite end to the main entrance, and after the corporate entertainment section – few of you will be invited there.

Getting there: From Metro L4 (the yellow line) on the Via Laietana exit it’s only a few metres from the beginning of Sant Pere Mès Alt,

Entrance: €18 at the Palau ticket office (but for some bizarre reason it’s a Euro cheaper if you book online at Barcelona Guide Bureau. There’s a 20% discount if you book in advance on the Palau’s website. Children go free. Pensioners, over 65, get a reduced price of €11, but only at the ticket office – bring proof.

The tour is offered in the following languages: Catalan, Spanish, English, French and Russian – check the screen beside the ticket office for the times when your choice of language is being offered. The guided tour is about an hour long, entering and leaving at the same place, the original main entrance in Sant Pere Mès Alt.

Le Nou – Restaurant – Barcelona

Le Nou - 93 Carrer Nou de la Rambla - Carrer de l'Est

Le Nou – 93 Carrer Nou de la Rambla, Barcelona

If you’re going to eat one main meal of the day in Catalonia the best you can do, in terms of value for money and often in terms of quality, is to go for a ‘Menu’. Although in a place like Barcelona they are used to foreign tourists the pronunciation of this is phonetic, no fancy messing around with the ‘n’ as if it were a Castilian ‘ñ’.

This is a set meal, normally of three courses, that is: starter, main meal, and the 3rd which is often given as a choice between a dessert or a coffee. Check to see if the bread (pa) is part of the deal, as well as the beguda (drink). The drink can be something soft, like the ubiquitous and disgusting sugary drink that comes in a red can, a beer, water or wine. Decide at the beginning as if you change your mind that goes outside of the arrangement.

I had been exploring the area of Montjuic, an area I had been to before but many years ago, looking for a common grave that was supposed to exist of those who had been murdered by the Franquista Fascists during and after the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39.

By 14.00 I was getting hungry and passed a place that was busy (always a good sign) and had a ‘Menu’ on a blackboard outside that looked reasonable. (If you want the menu, in the English sense, then you ask for the ‘carta’.) Here it’s perhaps worth while saying that you can spend your time looking for a cheap Menu – and they do exist – but you get what you pay for. Pay little and the main course will be a hamburger and your drink will be served by the glass.

I chose Le Nou, at 93 Nou de la Rambla, a long, narrow street that runs west from La Rambla. It’s the street that has the Palau Güell at one end, the London Bar somewhere towards the first third and, if you keep on this road, just after passing Refugi 307 on your left, you’ll eventually pick up a path and then steps that take you alongside the diving pools of Montjuic – which older readers might remember from the 1992 Summer Olympics – (now sadly left to go to rack and ruin and with seagulls being the only patrons but I suppose that’s better than the situation in the late ’90s when dogs and children were swimming in the stagnant water).

The 1992 Olympic Diving Pool in 2014

The 1992 Olympic Diving Pool in 2014

But back to the meal.

I choose the fish soup as a starter and lamb cutlets for the main, which came with potatoes strongly influenced by garlic. There’s a lot of fish served in this restaurant so there’s no excuse for an infinite supply of good, fresh and strong fish stock, and that was what this soup was all about. Added to that stock were some shellfish, mussels and clams, as well as a large king prawn/Dublin Bay prawn/Langostine, choose your definition – I can’t always keep up with the gradations.

As I sat there waiting for my food what convinced me that my choice of restaurant a good one was the fact that although there were a few tourists, including myself, the majority of people were locals having their lunch break. If a place can provide a silent recommendation it can do much worse than indicate that local people keep on coming back. Whilst waiting for the first course, and during it, I heard a number of paella orders being called for the starter. This also seemed to go down well but as I make one of the best paella’s outside of Valencia (the home of the dish) it made no sense for me to go for it here.

As a drink I chose the red wine. This came as a bottle opened in front of me and basically you can drink as much as you want. One or two glasses, or the whole bottle, the damage when it comes to pay is the same. This used to be the case when I first started travelling around Spain/Catalonia 20 years ago but wasn’t sure if this was still the case now that we’re in the middle of the supposed ‘economic crisis’ but was glad to see that the tradition still continues.

Not that it was a great wine. Let’s be real here. We’re talking about a bog standard house wine and at 11% it was a bit young and thin and I won’t be looking for it in the shops in the future – I’ve already forgotten the name – and it tasted no more appetising at the bottom as it did at the top but I had to try for the sake of the blog (how I sacrifice myself for the internet?).

For the main course I had three thin, lamb cutlets – but not that thin you felt yourself being given short change. Well done, so if people like their lamb a bit raw perhaps this should be mentioned on ordering (don’t know what would be the result but my experience at this restaurant gives me the impression they would at least consider what was asked for) and the dish was more than adequate for my needs at midday after 4 or so hours walking around.

(It was my misfortune to sit next to a couple of young tourists. That’s not really a problem but they were of the generation that takes a picture of their food and posts it on some of the social networks. That’s not really my scene so you’ll just have to take my word about the food. Sorry!)

These places are also good for people watching, especially if you travel alone, and it’s fun to work out who are the regulars and who the newbies and perhaps one-timers. However the staff were quick and efficient without rushing the diners. They understood when the next course was needed and the orders were processed in an unhurried and competent manner.

A TV was showing music videos in the corner but not obtrusively. For me it was interesting as although I might know the names of these groups/individuals not having a tele I wouldn’t recognise them if the walked past me, in the same way as I wrote about the politicians I saw on the TV when I was just about to start the Coast to Coast walk at St Bees Head. The jury’s still out about whether I gained from seeing the tele during my meal or not but the experience hasn’t encouraged me to get one on returning home.

I went for the dessert instead of the coffee and was presented with a slice of cheesecake. Perfectly adequate.

I wasn’t rushed. I entered at about 14.00 when it was busy and left about an hour and a half later when it was quiet. A few people were coming in for the Menu and still getting, at least as far as I could see, the same options quite late in the afternoon – from my experience most Menus will finish around 15.00.

Menus (in the English sense) were in English for those who were obviously not Catalan/Spanish. I came in wearing a short-sleeved shirt so that put me in the camp of the foreigners right away as it was the middle of February. Although it was a pleasant spring day to me it was still winter for the locals.

If you’re up this end of the city, not exactly in the centre of the tourist attractions, I think you could do much worse than taking in the ‘Menu’ at Le Nou.

Practical Information:

Menu €9.90 – lunch time, more or less, 12.00 – 16.00

Address: Le Nou Restaurant and Bar, 93 Carrer Nou de la Rambla/Carrer de Santa Madrona


The Railway Man (2013) – dir. Jonathan Teplitzky

British POWs on Burma Railway

British POWs on Burma Railway

The Railway Man concerns a surviving POW of the Japanese who was forced to work on the Burma Railway (of Bridge Over the River Kwai fame) and his post traumatic stress at his treatment, manifesting itself more than 35 years after the event.

As one of the other survivors says ‘war leaves a mess’. A bit of an understatement but obviously true but our realisation of that fact doesn’t make us any less likely, willing or even enthusiastic to send an ever-increasing numbers of men and women into conflict zones.

If the autobiography upon which the film is based, as well as the film itself, was arguing, if nothing else, that ‘war leaves a mess’ then surely we should be doing all we can to prevent such a mess from being created in the first place. This is especially so in a country that has been playing fast and loose with war since the disgrace and national shame of the Malvinas War of 1982.

Since then another Prime Minister, with an equal eye on history, has indulged his fantasy of long-lasting fame and, faced with gutless, opportunist and pusillanimous politicians and a weak population who oppose initially but support when ‘it’s our boys (and girls)’, has taken us along a road of never-ending conflict. When GW declared (probably the only true thing he ever said) that the ‘war against terror’ doesn’t have an end even he, I’m sure, didn’t expect that conflicts would be sprouting throughout the globe like poppies on the pockmarked, once agricultural, areas of Belgium.

So, I suppose, I’m asking what’s the purpose of this film (or any such like), this story of a personal tragedy?

Is it to ‘remind us’ that the British were the ‘good guys’ in the 1939-45 war? Is it to say, in the long-held Hollywood tradition, that the love of a good woman will bring resolution and redemption? Is it to say that revenge isn’t necessary and would probably have an even worse effect on he who perpetrated that revenge (as was the main point of the most recent film about South African apartheid, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom)?

Because the whole idea of forgiveness is ludicrous if we allow the circumstances where such acts of barbarity can be committed to exist in the first place.

It’s the same about post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In WWI it was described as shell shock and treated as a weakness and very often as an excuse for cowardice. This was the case even in the years following the war when damaged men were seen and written about throughout Western European society (I’ve never read or heard about the effects the war might have made on those soldiers from the British colonies of the time, from India and Africa).

Now it’s a recognised illness and has been (although grudgingly by the state) accepted as a consequence of conflict since the United States invasion of Vietnam in the 1960s. However, in those major wars the majority of the soldiers involved were conscripts, not all, but the majority. For me that paints a different picture. To forcibly take a young man from his home environment, send him to a strange and exotic land where he’s invariably like the proverbial fish out of water, expect him to kill, commit atrocities in the name their particular State, and put his own life on the line it’s not then surprising if some of them go doolally.

However, what I do find difficult to accept is the present tranche of the military that have, are or will be fighting in this never-ending war against terrorism. OK, it might be acceptable for the first to have gone into Afghanistan in 2001 and even some of those who were part of the invasion force in Iraq in 2003 but the ‘War on Terror’ has been going on for near on 13 years now.

As most private soldiers on the front line are in their late teens or early twenties some of those would have been in their first years of primary school when the wars started and when the first casualties of PTSD they would have been in their first years of secondary school. Before they joined up weren’t they aware that ‘war leaves a mess’? Were they so blinded by state propaganda and their bloodless experience of playing video games that wars hurt people? That their friends might not make it back? That innocent men, women and children are often casualties of war? That they might see done, or even do, things they would not have thought themselves capable before leaving home?

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have relations of the military killed in these conflicts declaring, proudly, before the press (and in that way justifying the military aspirations of the State) that their son/daughter ‘died doing what they loved’, when what they did was kill people. Psychopaths and serial killers can’t get away with that excuse so why can State sponsored killers? On the other hand some will say that they have been permanently scarred psychologically by their experiences of war. They should have known better BEFORE taking the Queen’s shilling. They should have gone into it with their eyes wide open.

In some respects by their supposed ‘suffering’ they are negating the real horror and suffering of those who were forced, against their will and better judgement or conned into believing in a greater ideal of King and Country and whose mutilated bodies became part of the mud of Flanders fields. The adverts appearing on TV and cinema screens at the moment romanticise the military and have the same effect of deluding the young people who are still lining up to join the army.

One the other things this film sparked off in me was an investigation into the roots of waterboarding. Due to the publicity of its use in the last 13 years or so, primarily against Al-Qaeda suspects but probably against anyone the Americans don’t like, I held the general idea it was a relatively recent innovation in the treatment of people over which you have absolute power. It couldn’t be further from the truth and, if you think about it, the roots had to lie in the past.

Why? Because it’s low tech, cheap and needs only a few items which are always to hand.

It’s use is documented by the Spanish Inquisition, which began in the 15th century, but there’s no reason to believe it wasn’t used long before that. It was used by the Inquisition to extract confessions of consorting, fornicating and generally being a servant of the Devil and, as is the nature of torture where people will say anything to make it stop, thousands admitted to whatever they were being accused. This fact, however, didn’t stop the United States Army from institutionalising this treatment as a form of ‘enhanced interrogation’.

In the Spanish-American War, which started in 1898 and which spread to war over the control of the Philippines, it was a regular form of treatment of prisoners and a sketch of the procedure was even carried on the front page of Life magazine, dated 22nd May 1902 – so no real reason for the Americans to be shocked about its use. There was even an army manual about it.

And the Americans took the practice to those places it sent soldiers during the 20th century. I thought I knew quite a bit about the invasion of Vietnam but I hadn’t come across mention of the practice before. (Notice, in the picture below, the smiles on the faces of the perpetrators.) So waterboarding became torture just for the fun of it more than 40 years ago and continues as such to this day.

Water boarding in Vietnam

Water boarding in Vietnam

One of the ‘niceties’ of waterboarding is it doesn’t actually cause any physical harm. If the body is angled so that the head is lower than the body it’s impossible for a person to drown. The trick is the victim thinks they are. It’s this fine distinction which allows the likes of Donald Rumsfeld to have made typically contradictory statements over the procedure and its effectiveness as a means of gaining information, specifically about the whereabouts and eventual assassination of Osama Bin Ladin.

But it all depends on who is being waterboarded in the first place. The now replaced Republican officials of the Bush-era have been reportedly joking at their parties about all sorts of war crimes. However, in 1947 a Japanese soldier was sentenced to 15 years in gaol for waterboarding a US citizen – I don’t have any more information. The British Army used it against Republicans in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and its inconceivable it wasn’t used against anti-colonial movements in Africa prior to that.

Finally on this matter. Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times for his supposed involvement in the September 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. It is reported the US intelligence forces gained 10 pieces of information from Abu Zubaydah, but nothing that was world shattering showing either he knew nothing or he was really tough.

Tougher, it seems, than US Navy Seals. Someone with a sense of humour in the US Defence Department thought it would be good to introduce waterboarding into the training programme. On average the recruits lasted 14 seconds. After a while it was decided this part of the programme was not particularly good for morale.