On a quiet street in Barcelona’s Gràcia district, Casa Vicens has long been an off-radar landmark. The first major project by Catalonian modernist Antonio Gaudí, it attracts curious looks from the sidewalk, with passersby peering though the forged iron gates at a façade of rich red brick and fanciful tile work. This is set to change, as after three years of meticulous restoration by Barcelona based architecture practices Daw Office and Martiñez Lapeña Torres Arquitectes, Casa Vicens will open to the public.
The project has been financed by the Andorra-based MoraBanc. Although the promoters found the UNESCO-classified building in relatively good condition (it was a private residence up until purchase in 2014) the biggest challenge was converting the home into a ‘house-museum’. This has been cleverly attended to by adding a sculptural white staircase through the home’s vertical axis and converting the basement and attic into exhibition spaces and a library-shop.
Casa Vicens was commissioned in 1877 as a summer home for a rich financier. Although now surrounded by residential apartment blocks of a much later period, it once stood on a verdant estate. As is evident in the corbels and pinnacle-shaped windows, Gaudí was heavily influenced by Arabic architecture for the project, but he used colour and decoration as a starting point – as opposed to the sinuous, organic forms that he experimented with in his later projects.
Bringing nature to the interior was his overall objective. The decorative detail in the home’s original living areas (a copycat extension was added in 1925) is dazzling. Olive branches, marigolds and daisies cover wall friezes and ceilings, now resplendent in their original polychromatic hues; while wall murals depicting bucolic fin de siècle scenes have been restored and the famous smoking room cleaned of 130 years of nicotine stains to reveal the depth of its lapis lazuli Mudejar vaulting – crafted, like many of the decorative elements, in papier-mâché.
‘We had to remain entirely flexible throughout the process as each intervention required a different solution,’ says David Garcia, head architect at Daw Office. ‘Our aim was to return the home to its original state 100 per cent. We avoided interpretation at all costs.’