Els Encants Vells, Barcelona

Els Encants Vells from Jardin de los Elsines

Els Encants Vells from Jardin de los Elsines

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Els Encants Vells, Barcelona

There’s been an open air, general and for a lot of the time unorganised and unregulated market in the area of Las Glories of Barcelona for centuries. Even though I’ve been to Barcelona many times over the last 20 plus years I’ve never made it to that place until this year (2015) – which might be a shame (in retrospect) but then shopping and markets ave never been my thing and my experiences of walking through the Madrid Rastro (never with any serious negative consequences (it’s a pickpockets and general thieves paradise) but coming away wondering why I had gone through the experience of jostling through thousands of people when there was never anything I might have wanted to buy). But I was glad that on my most recent visit to Barcelona I made it an effort to go to Els Enacants Vells, at Plaza de Las Glories.

Not that I am any more interested in the market itself. There might have been a bit of twisted ‘romance’ about walking through a dust ridden, rubbish strewn, unorganised and chaotic location designed to extract the greatest amount of money for the smallest amount of value but I had missed that (no tears) and have to relate to the building itself. Which, I consider, to be a minor architectural marvel.

By all accounts the remit of the tender was to provide a modern environment for an ancient market and I think that the architects (b720 Arquitectos, based in Barcelona but with offices in Madrid and also in San Paulo (Brazil)) have provided what was asked for in spades.

What they have basically produced is a very interesting roof, supported by slender metal columns (new technology allowing for some innovative ideas to be brought to fruition) and underneath an environment that takes into consideration the original, in a field, in the mud when it rained, shabby and chaotic environment of a street market of yore.

Now, I have no doubts that there were many people who didn’t like this change of venue – it moved across the Las Glories huge roundabout – or the introduction of regulations. There are, at the very bottom of the building, more or less in the basement, the same sort of stalls that would have been common in the ‘traditional’ market, i.e. all the bits and pieces up for sale on the ground, getting dirty and losing value every time they came out of the box. But they are in the minority. The overwhelming majority of the stalls are of a semi-permanent type and some are no different from the shops you might encounter on any (dying) local town.

And that’s a problem, especially when you consider the genesis of the idea of a flea market. That was a market where anybody could go and sell what little they had. Now there’s a problem with that sort of heritage. Many people went to these types of markets in the past to sell what they had to eat or pay the rent. It’s a mark of disgrace on our western societies that that situation is still with us in the 21st century.

It also meant that those not too honest people, the thieves and robbers of old, could dispose of their ill-gotten gains quickly, providing the unscrupulous poor of a way of acquiring those goods that had been stolen from their even more unfortunate peers.

The new ‘old market’ is now a place for the up and coming petite bourgeoisie. The poor have been even more marginalised in selling their chattels and the profit goes to the middle-man. Rents here will be, undoubtedly, much higher than before and would have excluded all but the more prosperous thereby making a mockery of the idea of continuing the tradition of a ‘flea market’.

Does that make the new building ‘classless’? Probably not. There’s a mix of small, pod-like shelters which can be locked up a night, next to which are basically shops, some big some not so big, but at least permanent. It’s only on the lowest floor where there is space for ‘arrive on the day with all the goods you want to sell’ space. If the poor are waiting for the state and other official capitalist institutions to bring them out of their poverty they will wait forever, and we’ll see no cultural advance, proletarian or bourgeois.

To the structure itself.

It’s a light-weight, yet must be very strong, metal roof structure supported by relatively thin, yet also strong, pillars which provide shelter for the stalls beneath but still allows for the impression of it being an open market, their being no walls.

This roof I consider to be an amazing structure. It’s made of reflective metal but it’s also fractured and in that way, each time you look up, and move even a short distance in any direction, the reflection is different. The roof is not complete in that there are areas where the sky is visible but they must be overlapping otherwise even ‘cheap seats’ in the basement would get the rain on occasions, which would create a certain amount of animosity.

How that metal doesn’t tarnish and therefore mitigate the reflection is (at present) a mystery to me. Barcelona is on the coast and Les Glòries is not that far from the Mediterranean and I would have thought that the salt in the atmosphere would have had an effect, but 18 months after opening the reflective capabilities of the roof seem unaffected.

The structure was officially opened for business on Wednesday 25th September 2013 and it cost €52,659,814, which seems a lot for a roof and a few pavements, but it’s nice work if you can get it – and as it’s the public who are paying then, obviously, money is no object. We all know that land speculators, banks, and even environmentally friendly architects are suffering in the present climate of austerity.

The roof is the most interesting aspect of the structure but the way the different floors seem to merge into one another is also unique, almost creating one of these optical illusions where you are on an endless road. You can get an idea of this from the maqueta.

Els Encants Vells - Maqueta

Els Encants Vells – Maqueta

Now to the details.

It is the result of the work of a group of architects known as ‘b720 Arquitectos’, headed by Fermín Vázquez. (The number 720 comes from the way in which architectural materials are codified – I know, I’m not really that much the wiser either.) This promotes itself as being, more or less, a collective where all ideas are considered equal but as the practice has been involved in a number of really big, multi-million Euro/Dollar projects, in Barcelona and other parts of Spain as well as Brazil, I would have my doubts about that.

The practice has an ecological principle and seeks to design buildings which are in harmony with their surroundings as well as sing locally sourced materials. Among the other projects they have completed in Barcelona are the Torre Agbar (Barcelona’s smaller version of what is known as ‘The Gherkin’ in London – which I’ve never seen in reality), the Hotel Santos Porta Fira in L´Hospitalet de Llobregat (a seemingly top-heavy structure which is situated mid-way between Barcelona’s airport and the city itself) and an office building at Avinguda Diagonal 197.

Torre Agbar from Els Encants Vells

Torre Agbar from Els Encants Vells

How to get there:

Les Glòries is a stop on the Barcelona Metro, on L1, Les Glòries, Encants station on L2 is not that far away. You can also get there by Tram on line T5.

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Mies van der Rohe Pavilion, Barcelona

Mies van der Rohe Pavilion

Mies van der Rohe Pavilion

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Mies van der Rohe Pavilion, Barcelona

If, after a few days in Barcelona, you’re suffering from a surfeit of Modernism (too much Gaudi or Domenech i Montener) then you could do much worse than visit the Mies van der Rohe Pavilion in the exhibition and conference area, between the Plaça de Espanya and the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.

Many, many thousands of people walk close-by but the overwhelming majority of them – unless they are specifically looking for it – won’t even know of the existence of this building or know of its importance in the development of 20th century architecture.

The German Pavilion and the International Exhibition of 1929

The present building is on the same spot as the original (designed as the German Pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona International Exhibition) but for more than 50 years nothing was there, just an empty space, an even more extreme example of minimalism.

Although it appears to be a house there’s no accommodation, kitchen or bathroom. I don’t understand why, it just wasn’t part of the requirements of the commission. I would have thought that creating a realistic living environment would have been more useful in promoting the Minimalist argument but Mies didn’t think so and just created ‘a space’ through which the people visiting the pavilion couldn’t just use it as a shortcut to the Pobla Espanyol, they had to see all of it.

The structure followed those tenets of Minimalism established a few years earlier: angular in appearance (no ‘softening’ of the structure which was taken for granted by the Modernists); a flat roof supported by simple iron columns; large, plate-glass windows – virtually forming the exterior walls; and limited, and purely functional furnishings.

When the exhibition finished attempts were made to find a buyer for the structure, and there was even a proposal to establish a restaurant in the location, but that all fell through and the German government decided to sell the iron for scrap and sent the travertine, marble, onyx (the types of stone used in the original) and the sculpture of a female nude (Der Morgen, ‘Morning’), by George Kolbe, back to Germany.

‘Less is more’ – the Mies van der Rohe motto

The Minimalists arose as a reaction to the over decoration that had been a dominant force in European architecture and was heavily influenced by traditional Japanese design. The Minimalists sought to reduce buildings (as well as objects and art) to their necessary elements, eschewing decoration that was over and above what was used, in a practical manner, to achieve the desired result. In the Mies Pavilion this is shown by the use of colourful and imaginatively pieced together slabs of marble and onyx for the walls or the travertine used on the floor.

Entrance - Mies van der Rohe Pavilion

Entrance – Mies van der Rohe Pavilion

The Bauhaus – the inspiration for Mies

Mies van der Rohe was one of the triumvirate of Minimalist architects which were to have a considerable impact upon the architecture of the 20th century, although this is not always that obvious. The other two were the Swiss Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, but always known as Le Corbusier, and a fellow German,Walter Gropius.

It was Gropius who had designed the Bauhaus in Dessau, in the Weimar region of Germany, which was completed in 1926. This established some of the ‘ground rules’ for Minimalist architecture with its angularity, use of iron columns, concrete and a lot of glass, as well as dividing the building up (it originally functioned as an art and design college, together with accommodation for students and staff) so that the design reflected the use of each section.

However, the Bauhaus complex exposed problems (I’m not going as far as to say failings) of the Minimalist approach, something which the Pavilion in Barcelona never would as it was never ‘used’ in a real life context, only ever being an exhibition space, a concrete realisation of the ‘idea’.

To some extent these problems arose due to the use of glass and the openness that this implied. In the Bauhaus, aligned as it was to make maximum use of natural light, the students would be cooked as the sun shone through the windows in the summer – if the Bauhaus had been constructed in Britain this would not have been a problem. In order to survive the ‘solution’ was to put up curtains, a total anathema to Minimalist thinking. In the winter the problem was the reverse. Any heat created inside the buildings just dissipated through the not very insulation efficient windows with their iron framework.

Privacy perhaps wasn’t a major issue for the classrooms but it was for the teachers in their homes, situated a short distance from the college building – or at least for one of them, the Russian born painter, Wassily Kandinsky.

It seems he didn’t like living in a ‘goldfish bowel’ and painted over the glass windows to his house. He also didn’t like the minimalist decoration of the house where the walls were painted in plain colours to reflect the function of that particular space. He was reputed to have used a palate of hundreds of colours in counteracting the original, simple selection.

This situation, didn’t, couldn’t and will never arise from the Mies Pavilion as it has no real function, perhaps yet another ultra-minimalist statement.

The Pavelló Mies

After the death of the Fascist Franco the Barcelona Municipality decided to attempt a reconstruction and as all the plans, together with photographs of the original, were to hand the project was completed and the ‘new’ building opened on 2nd June 1986.

The statue of Morning, by Kolbe, had found a permanent home in a public square in the Schöneberg district of Berlin so a copy was made and that now stands where its original had in 1929, on a plinth in the small pool.

'Der Morgen' - Morning - George Kolbe

‘Der Morgen’ – Morning – George Kolbe

The Barcelona Chair

Minimalists tried, when at all possible, to not only design the building but all the interior fittings within the structure. At the Bauhaus, for example, Gropius designed the light fittings, power sockets, door and cupboard handles to mention just a few. In this way they were very similar to the Modernists the result of which can be seen in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, at the top of the steps above the fountain a few minutes walk from the Pavilion.

For Mies this resulted in the design of what is still known as the ‘Barcelona Chair’, a simple padded chair for one person based upon a tubular steel structure. This is still made and bought in their thousands today and is one indication of the longevity and reach of Minimalist ideas which might not be recognised by those who sit in those chairs – which are said to be quite comfortable. Don’t try that at the Pavilion or you’ll be thrown out on your ear.

'Barcelona' Chair - Mies van der Rohe Pavilion

‘Barcelona’ Chair – Mies van der Rohe Pavilion

Just as an aside, another well-known everyday design from that period of the 1920s is the anglepoise lamp.

A breath of fresh air?

Although in no way as extensive as the Modernist buildings in other parts of Barcelona and Catalonia the Mies Pavilion is still worth a visit but it might be worthwhile doing a little bit of research before a visit so you know what you are looking at and the intentions of the architect. At the same time only a real aficionado of Minimalism would be there for more than a half an hour – if that.

Location and contact details:

Pavelló Mies van der Rohe

Aviguda Francesc i Guàrdia 7

Parc de Montjuic

08038 Barcelona

Tel: +34 93 4234016

Internet: The Mies van der Rohe Foundation

How to get there:

The nearest Metro station is at Plaça de Espanya – this is also a major bus intersection. From there take the exit directing you to the Palau de Congressos and the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. Walk along the right hand side of the avenue, go up the first set of escalators and then turn right alongside the sandy park space. The building is just in front of you but remember it’s minimalist so you have to look hard.

Opening times:

Everyday between 10.00 – 20.00

Entrance: €5

(At 10.00 on a Saturday a free guided tour in English is advertised. You still have to pay the entrance but there was no information of having to book in advance.)

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Santa Creu i Sant Pau Recinte Modernista

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau - Administration Building

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau – Administration Building

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Santa Creu i Sant Pau Recinte Modernista

The largest, and in many ways the most impressive, of the Modernist sites in Barcelona, indeed in all of Catalonia, is probably also one of the least known and visited. This is the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, designed by the architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner who was also responsible for the Palau de la Música Orfeó Català.

Although it’s always been possible to get an idea of the place (I first had the chance to walk around in the late 1990s) it was still used as a working hospital up to 2009 so access was limited to what you’d find in any hospital in the UK. Following its closure as a medical facility it has undergone a clean up and restoration and all I can say is that they have done a magnificent job – it looks as if it had just been completed rather than having the first stone laid on January 15th 1902.

The history of the hospital itself goes back a long way. The first Santa Creu (Holy Cross) was established in the Raval area of Barcelona with the foundation stone being laid on February 13th 1401. This became a large Gothic structure designed along the lines of an ecclesiastical cloister. However, after 500 years it was showing its age and not really up to the demands of ‘modern’ medicine and was also taking up space in the centre of an expanding industrial city. (The Raval area includes what is presently known as the ‘Barrio Chino’, for some a no-go area on the southern side of La Rambla, more or less the area behind the Liceo Opera House.)

The money to kick-start the development came from a bequest in the will of a Catalan banker, Pau Gil i Serra, who made his ill-gotten gains in Paris – it’s his statue that stands above the fountain on the steps up to the main entrance, with Charity looking after the sick and poor in front of him and huge frogs on either side (I don’t know what they signify). He stipulated that the hospital should take up the challenge of the rapidly increasing advances in medical science and also that it should be dedicated to Sant Pau (Saint Paul), so his name was added to the original Santa Creu.

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau - Pau Gil i Serra

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau – Pau Gil i Serra

There was a competition but none of the three submissions were considered adequate so the commission was given to Domènech i Montaner (obviously no hint of nepotism or cronyism there!).

By all accounts he did his research and studied what was happening in hospital architecture throughout Europe and came up with the arrangement which had separate pavilions, devoted to different aspects of medicine, and then connected them all together with an extensive underground passageway system, providing access without having to go outside. That idea has gone out of fashion now and most modern hospitals are huge all-encompassing buildings, few of them seeming to have been designed with a scintilla of imagination.

The complex seems vast now but it’s only just over half of what was in the original plan as Domènech i Montaner planned 48 buildings, only 27 were actually constructed. He died, in 1923, before even that number was completed and the work was continued by his son to make the hospital ready for its official opening in January 1930.

The jewel is definitely the main building on the corner of Carrer de Cartegena and Carrer de Sant Antoní Maria Claret. The building embraces the corner of the two streets and the approach is up the wide steps in the centre (with the statue and fountain). If you scan the façade of the building you start to notice those signature elements of Catalan Modernism: nature, the female form and Catalan nationalism as well as the use of the locally produced (then) building materials of brick, tiles, glass and wrought iron.

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau - Entrance Hall

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau – Entrance Hall

Once inside you’re greeted by intricate and colourful tile work which continues as you walk along the passageways and into the rooms off them. When there’s a natural break, a doorway or a corner, there’s a different style and/or colour. I’ve still not really understood why this all works. In other buildings (most notably the Palacio Real in Madrid or the Baroque Basilica de San Juan de Dios in Granada) when I’ve been faced with such extremes of ornamentation I’ve felt physically sick and have to leave to get some fresh air (or a beer) but that isn’t my reaction to Modernism. Something ‘softens’ the attack of colour and design and the overall effect becomes less of an assault on the senses.

The plan is to use the Administration Pavilion as an event/conference venue and that has meant that some of the spaces have been adapted for a future use but as far as I could see this had all been done whilst at the same time maintaining the integrity of the original designs.

A couple of spaces are worthy of special mention. The first is what would have been the chapel which is now called the Montaner Hall. You really have to look for Christ as he’s on a cross on the back wall of a first floor balcony. There’s no obvious altar now so I assume that it would have been a table structure on the ground floor underneath that crucifix. There’s the words of a short prayer (in Catalan) forming the balustrade of the balcony on three sides of the hall; an image in relief of Sant Jorge (Saint George) slaying the dragon above one of the doors; and a large mosaic which is more geometric with stylized plants and flowers rather than anything religious – this mosaic is underneath the crucifix.

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau - Chapel

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau – Chapel

These mosaics, made from small pieces of ceramics and called ‘trencadis’ in Catalan, is very much a feature of Domènech i Montaner’s style of working. His style is much more in the tradition of the Roman mosaics where it’s possible to discern an image, be it of a plant, decorations on columns or pictures of choristers (as it is in the Palau de la Música). On the other hand Gaudí’s style was to break the tiles into larger pieces and creating a colourful design without necessarily wanting to represent anything identifiable – as is the case on the benches in Park Güell. His use of the smaller pieces on the Dragon on the fountain is to create colour rather than form as the creature is made out of stone onto which the tiles are fixed.

The other area of special note is the main stairwell immediately to the left as you enter the administration building. Here the supporting arches are covered with ceramic tiles and the spaces in between contain geometric mosaics made again by smaller pieces of, this time, white and beige tiles. Also interesting here is the skylight that’s very reminiscent of ‘The Sun’ above the main auditorium of the Palau de la Música. The large wrought iron lamp on the banister half way down is also a one-off in the building.

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau - Main Stairwell

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau – Main Stairwell

In order to get to the other buildings you head down into the basement and then along part of the network of underground passageways that unite all the separate parts of the original hospital. You can’t explore all of these as the pavilions that are out in the garden are either used by different organisations or have yet to be restored. Nonetheless you do get an idea of what Domènech i Montaner was aiming for, keeping all the servicing of the hospital’s requirements underground and creating the ability to get to all the pavilions without having to pass through or disturb any of the others.

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau - Basement

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau – Basement

Once outside the main administration building it’s easy to see why Sant Pau was sometimes referred to as a ‘garden hospital’. In fact, if you didn’t know the different buildings were part of a medical complex you would be hard pressed to come to that conclusion. Used, as we are now, to generic, functional and normally boring and uninteresting structures where we go to have our medical requirements fulfilled (the new hospital in Reus being a noteworthy exception to this ‘rule’) the buildings seem to be more like homes for the rich than wards and laboratories.

Although I find their exteriors fascinating I wouldn’t have liked to have spent any length of time either working in them or being a customer (what used to be called a ‘patient’). Photographs of the wards make them seem cold and austere, however much they might have been ‘state of the art’ on their completion in 1930.

Only a few of the buildings have been fully restored and now have a new lease of life as offices for different organisations that look for attractive pictures to put on their publicity. When I visited it was part of the open days and some of these organisations allowed people to look into their space but I assume that on a regular basis it would only be the outsides that are part of the tour. But the outsides are enough and stylised plants and fruit made from colourful tiles sits well with the orange trees below.

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau - Garden Pavilions

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau – Garden Pavilions

Also worth looking for whilst out in the garden are the different mosaics which decorate the sides of some of the pavilions. There are a couple of Sant Jorge and also (just above the entrance to the obligatory souvenir shop cum exit) depictions of the planning of the project and the laying of the first stones.

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau - Mosaic

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau – Mosaic

At the moment only eight of the buildings have been fully renovated. The initial plan, for which a budget of €100 million has been allocated, takes in 12 buildings and they are those around the central building of the garden as well as the administration building itself. That still leaves 15 (assuming they have all survived into the 21st century) and some of them are very large indeed so whether the finance will be there in the future must be in some doubt. The present funding was secured before everything went down the pan and we are now rewarding the bankers with ever-increasing bonuses means there’s less for other projects.

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau - Pavilions

Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau – Pavilions

I’ll finish this introduction with a couple of anecdotes.

During the Spanish Civil War the hospital was taken over by the Republican local government of Barcelona. As in all civil wars things get dirty and the antagonism between the Catholic Fascists of Franco and the atheist Republicans was intense. Church buildings were burnt by the Republicans and Catholic Priests blessed and gave absolution to the Fascists as they murdered those who were fighting in defence of the legitimate government. So it’s no surprise that this had an effect on the hospital.

The religious name was changed from Santa Creu I Sant Pau to the General Hospital of Catalonia. All the pavilions had been given religious names based on Saints and the Virgin Mary (as they are now) and these were replaced by numbers. This was the case until February 9th 1939 when matters reverted to the pre-war condition with the entry of the Fascists into the city of Barcelona.

The young Pablo Picasso was friendly with one of the surgeons of the hospital and for some reason when he went to Sant Pau to meet his friend in 1903 they decided to visit the mortuary. A women that he saw there inspired Picasso to paint La Dona Mort (The dead Woman) which is an example from his ‘Blue Period’.

Although the queues were literally around the block between February 25th and March 16th, 2014 when it was free to enter as a celebration of the completion of a significant part of the restoration the Sant Pau Recinte Modernista (as it is now called) still hasn’t got into the guide books and won’t be attracting the same crowds as other Modernist sites in the city. It’s still possible to get tickets at very short notice so go there soon before it gets swamped. As the plan is to make money from the likes of conferences and exhibitions in the newly renovated space you would be well to check the news section on the website to make sure access is possible when you might want to visit.


Sant Pau Art Nouveau Site
C. Sant Antoni Maria Claret, 167
08025 Barcelona


Sant Pau Recinte Modernista

How to get there:

Metro (L5): Sant Pau / Dos de Maig



Cost and Timetable:

General: €8

Over 65, Aged 16-29 and Disabled: €5.60

Under 16: Free

November – March

Monday to Saturday          10.00 – 16.30

Sundays and holidays       10.00 – 14.30

April – October

Monday to Saturday           10.00 – 18.30

Sundays and holidays        10.00 – 14.30


Cost and Timetable:

General: €14

Over 65, Aged 16-29 and Disabled: €9.80

Under 16: Free

November – March

Monday to Saturday        12.00, 13.00, 16.00

Sundays and holidays     12.00, 13.00

April – October

Monday to Saturday         12.00, 13.00, 16.00, 17.00

Sundays and holidays      12.00, 13.00


1st and 6th January, 25th and 26th December


25th January, 12th February, 23rd April, 24th September, first Sunday of the month

Book Online HERE

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