What I learned about design in Spain
I recently returned home from my honeymoon in Spain. Somehow, I managed to have the most architectural honeymoon ever, and my lovely husband indulged me in all of the goodness. We were in Barcelona first for a week, which was much heavier on the culture + architecture, and then we were in Mallorca, which was much more about the beach and the mountains and crazy roads where you think you are definitely going to die. It was all beautiful, inspiring, and romantic—basically all of the best things for a honeymoon. It was definitely not relaxing, which was maybe the one missing element, but there was a lot to pack in and we both were set on having zero FOMO. Here are some of the things I learned during our FOMO-free honeymoon.
1. If you’re going for a theme, really commit to it
Themes aren’t for everyone. Maybe they’re a little over-the-top. Maybe you’re someone who likes to keep things neutral so you can change things around. That’s hard to do when you’ve got a theme. But if you do decide that you’re going to design around a theme—and if you are that bold, then I applaud you—then go full theme. Commit to the bit.
Case in point is Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Batllo in Barcelona. Gaudi was commissioned to redesign what was a rather typical house (really more of an apartment building owned by 1 family). Barcelona’s patron saint is St George who slayed the dragon, and the whole house pays homage to him. The building facade became organic, the roofline was given an undulating spine made of broken tiles to represent the dragon’s scales, and the balconies were made into human skulls to represent the victims of the dragon.
Even inside, these organic forms continue, most dramatically with the staircase that curves upstairs with the banister of a dragon’s spine. The attic is supported by parabolic arches that feel like you’re inside a rib cage.
Not everyone can pull off a theme this strong, but Gaudi has, and it’s one of Barcelona’s best examples of Modernisme architecture.
2. Find inspiration in nature
Gaudi was highly religious, and he said he felt most inspired by God through nature. He transferred that inspiration into his architecture, creating organic forms and spaces that look like their source. These columns supporting the Sagrada Familia are inspired by trees, and you feel very much like you are a tiny human standing inside a giant Lord of the Rings forest, especially with the dappled light shining through the stained glass windows.
The exterior of the Sagrada Familia was inspired by Montserrat, a mountain nearby that just sort of juts out of the ground out of nowhere, and monks built a monastery way at the top of it because Spanish people love building things on impossible hillsides.
3. If you want to stand out, find your niche
In 1929, Barcelona hosted the Barcelona International Exhibition to feature temporary pavilions from countries around the world, and it led to a lot of additional building development in Barcelona. It was kind of the equivalent of hosting an olympics today; you build a lot of structures that may or may not ever be used again to show off to the world.
It was said that the only remarkable feature of that Exhibition was the German Pavilion, now known just as the Barcelona Pavilion. Even now, it’s so obvious why it would have made such a statement and impact. In a city full of ornate, symbolic, highly decorated architecture, which starts with Gothic churches and ends with Modernisme, it was the most refreshing, palette-cleansing space I’ve ever been to. It felt like a hidden gem, because there was hardly anybody there, and it was so peaceful and lovely.
The original pavilion, which was designed by Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, was actually destroyed, so the one here today had to be meticulously recreated by a lot of architects of whom I am SUPER jealous. They even had to go on an epic quest to find the stone that would match this:
I just know that I am SO GLAD they went to the trouble of recreating it.
4. Stone everything please
So I live in California. I’ve been to Spain. I’ve seen Spanish and Spanish-style architecture before. But on this trip, I just couldn’t get enough of stone for some reason. Stone buildings! Stone streets! Stone walls that I’m trying not to scrape our rental car along! There is something that is JUST SO CHARMING about stone, and I now want it everywhere. Maybe this is less than practical on a fault line, but I intend to make it work!
Not pictured: all of the irritated tourists at the top of this massive staircase eating popsicles and actually being kind of annoyed that they all climbed this just for some dinky little church. Again, Spain loves putting important town buildings at the top of serious hills/mountains.
5. Never settle
It’s easy to feel less than accomplished when you see works of such unique style from geniuses like Gaudi and Mies Van Der Rohe and get a little sad about it. Inspired, but also a little discouraged. Will I ever do anything this cool? Probably not, but it has given me a little more incentive to at least try. To not settle for good enough.