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Photographic Essay on Modernism Opens in Glasgow
"La sagrada Familia". Photo: Michael Thomas Jones.

GLASGOW.- Modernista: Gaudí and his Contemporaries in Modern Day Barcelona, a personal photographic essay by Michael Thomas Jones, will open in The Lighthouse building, Glasgow, on November 14, 2009 running until February 28, 2010. Commissioned in the context of Scotland’s developing cultural links with Catalonia and marking the centenary of Mackintosh building at the Glasgow School of Art, the exhibition and associated publication are a personal response to Modernisme and how the architecture now sits within the context of 21st century Barcelona. The project documents work by Antoni Gaudí i Cornet along with buildings by Lluís Domènech i Montaner and Josep Puig i Cadafalch.

“Gaudí’s buildings are principally centered on his response to human behavior: understanding the way people sit on a bench, his control of intimacy in rooms facing the narrow streets of the old city; his handling of natural light; his knowledge that a steel frame as opposed to concrete would allow a free distribution of different floors; and the recognition that the traditional Mediterranean city home uses the roof,” writes David Mackay in an essay accompanying Jones’ images. It was the human in the architecture that attracted Jones - the way people inhabit the spaces of these historic places, cherishing their history and shaping their future. Given rare access to many of the buildings Jones’s images present a very personal journey through one of the richest architectural landscapes in Europe, one which offers a glimpse into the daily lives of these masterpieces of Modernisme.

“The refinement of a modernist style was so fertile and prevalent that it still permeates the heart of present-day Barcelona. The city is a living witness to the energies of Modernisme.” - David Mackay

When approaching this rich legacy Jones selected to concentrate on a number of key buildings - including Gaudi’s Park Güell, Torre Bellesguard, Casa Vicens, Casa Mila (La Pedrera) and Sagrada Família, and through them offer an insight into Modernisme as it now sits within the broader landscape of 21st Barcelona. Rather than focusing purely on the original buildings, Jones has broadened the perspective to capture context - how the buildings sit in the contemporary city and the people who animate them.

“Jones’s photographic account is extraordinarily precise and truthful. He does not conceal the adjoining buildings and their questionable elegance, the air-conditioning units, the communal rubbish carts, the litter bins, the traffic signals, the zebra crossings and the various obstacles that ward off one of the most widespread and least appreciated elements of today’s cities, the car. They are all elements that a century ago, in the age of Modernisme, just did not exist. “ - Daniel Romani I Cornet

The essay begins at Tibidabo, the highest point in Barcelona with its uninterrupted views over the city and the surrounding Mediterranean coastline. “Tibidabo represented a starting point for the project,” says Jones. “A natural vantage point for the city as a whole, it is one that is so often overlooked by the first-time visitor to Barcelona.” In the first image the viewer glimpses Enric i Villavecchia Sagnier’s Templo del Sagrado Corazón, emerging from the trees on the approach to Tibidabo. From the vantage point at Tibidabo Jones offers us a view of Fabra’s domed Observatory with the city spreading out beneath it. The Observatory had initially been destined to sit on the highest point, but in a triumph of religion over science, the church was finally accorded the most prestigious place.

From Tibidabo we move on to Park Güell, the proposed “garden city” overlooking Barcelona, in which over a 14-year period Gaudi created an eclectic mix of buildings that set up a dialogue between architecture and nature. Jones gained access to the adjacent Collegi Baldiri Reixac for his image of the celebrated colonnade. Taken from the junior school playground it captures the quintessence of modern day Barcelona with its juxtaposition of contemporary and historic. Meanwhile in a celebration of the human presence that animates the architecture Jones captures a gardener , one of the unsung heroes who maintain what has now become one of the city’s most popular public parks.

A private mansion built adjacent to the medieval ruins of the summer residence of King Martin I of Aragon (1356–1410), Torre Bellesguard was designed to resemble a neo-Gothic castle. Its importance to Gaudí’s œuvre is that it announced the arrival of the architect’s later, more mature work. Over a century after its commission Torre Bellesguard remains a private residence and, as with many of the photographs, it was through special access that Jones was able to capture views rarely available to the visitor to Barcelona. “Torre Bellesguard was a highlight for me,” says Jones. “I was afforded wonderful access and hospitality from the family. There is a magical quality to the grounds, the house, and the light. The spirit of Gaudí himself is almost palpable here.” Jones’s images show both the exterior and interior of the building from the attic, where plans for the continued development of the building are laid out, to the cellar where, rumour has it, the matter-of-fact table still in the room had been used historically for the dissecting of cadavers!

One of Puig’s last architectural commissions Casa Muley-Afi has a light, playful design with brick and tile decorations, emphasising an almost oriental influence. Built for a Moroccan sultan (Muley-Afid) exiled in Barcelona, the house now sits somewhat uncomfortably between its more modern neighbours and is one of the very last private residences in the area to have escaped the developers. It is currently home to the Mexican Consulate. Granted special access to the building Jones was able to photograph the historic clock, Hanging in the offices of the original Mexican Consulate it had stopped working at the very end of the Spanish Civil War, as Barcelona fell to Franco’s troops. When democracy was finally returned to Spain and diplomatic relations between Spain and Mexico restored, the clock was reinstated, but as a mark of history it is set at the time it had stopped back in 1939.

Jones next takes the viewer to Lluís Domènech i Montaner’s Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau. Designed by Domènech, and later his son, the pavilions were over 30 years in the making. Considered to be amongst the finest Art Nouveau complexes in the world, the buildings are set among beautiful gardens and connected underground through an extensive network of service corridors. Until recently part of a fully functional hospital, the historic pavilions now sit alongside a new building into which the departments are being relocated. The difficulties of running a 21st-century hospital in an early 20th-century building are all too clear - the air-conditioning units could have been more sympathetically positioned and a once elegant space has been shamelessly split into two with the introduction of a modern mezzanine floor to create a seminar room - the need for extra space taking a clear precedent over architectural heritage. The task facing Barcelona, as the pavilions are now almost empty, is to find long-term, sustainable roles for the Domenech masterpiece.

The Collegi de les Teresianes is one of Gaudi’s earliest works, started in 1888. The building illustrates his growing confidence as an architect, evidenced in his use of two large skylights and a series of tall, slender Gothic-inspired parabolic arches that flood the interior hallways with natural light. Contemporaneous with the Collegi, Casa Vicens was Gaudí’s first major commission from a wealthy individual. Stylistically designed to emphasise the potential of the glazed ceramic tiles manufactured by the Vicens family, Gaudí’s design shunned historic revivals and drew inspiration from Japanese, Indian and Arabic architecture. On the façades, a chequerboard arrangement of green and white tiles was used in contrast to the exposed brickwork, while the introduction of decorative towers and turrets added a playful touch to the exterior. An example of how Jones has contextualized his work, he shows us the historic Casa alongside its more mundane neighbours “I really liked the juxtaposition of old and new: elaborate, Modernista ironwork on Casa Vicens, plainer mass-produced and more contemporary railings on the small balcony above the shop; highly decorative window shutters on Casa Vicens and functional roller shutters for the shop.”

La Pedrera, is one of the crowning glories of Modernisme, and the last private residence designed by Gaudí. Built for Pere Milà, a property developer with an unlimited budget! Gaudí created a residential building that fully merged architecture with sculpture. Located on one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city, La Pedrera now overlooks a seemingly endless stream of people and traffic. Although now a major tourist attraction, in keeping with Gaudí’s original intentions, it is still home to a number of private residents including Señora Sastra who has become something of media figure, appearing regularly in Gaudí-related films and documentaries, meanwhile at the top of the building Jones photographs Daniel Giralt-Miracle, the creator of the Espai Gaudí and one of the most influential voices in the promotion of Gaudi and Modernisme.

No encounter with Modernisme can pass by Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Familia, a building site which is also the most visited place in Barcelona. Jones’s journey thus brings us to the finest example of Gaudi’s art. He once again captures the essence of a living building: scaffolding covers the exterior and the detritus common to any building site encapsulate the on-going process of a masterpiece in the making; stonemasons pose in a atelier where sculptures that will adorn the completed cathedral are being crafted; all the while hundreds of tourists flood into the building.

The Lighthouse | Modernista | Michael Thomas Jones | Gaudí |

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