Anniversaries are meant to be special occasions. That’s why I celebrated exactly six months of living in Barcelona with a trip to the National Art Museum of Catalonia (MNAC). Even though I’d walked by it at least a dozen times over the summer, I was still in absolute awe the first time I stepped inside.
The museum is home to such a vast collection – spanning Mediaeval, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Modern – that it’s the kind of experience I can’t cover in a single article nor is it the kind of thing you can do justice to in a single day. (That didn’t stop an elderly woman from trying to rush through it as she walked in and out of rooms just to cross them off the map she clutched like it was keeping her alive.) But just as impressive as the art is the building itself. Much like the nearby Mies van der Rohe Pavilion, it was constructed for the International Exhibition in 1929 and stands in contrast to the city’s Arc de Triomf, modelled on the one in Paris, which was built as the main entrance for the Barcelona World Fair in 1888.
The fact that such different styles of architecture can exist in the same city just goes to show the eclectic nature of Barcelona’s style. And one of the leading figures who helped shape that design is Catalan architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner. This year marks exactly a century since his death and has given residents a new reason to discover some of his work, including the Sant Pau Hospital (now the world’s largest art nouveau complex), Palace of Catalan Music (also a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and Casa Lleó i Morera (located on the posh Passeig de Gràcia, the famous boulevard celebrating its 200th anniversary this year). But of course the number one attraction from its number one architect is the Sagrada Familia.
Much like the MNAC, I must have seen it a dozen times in the many months since I’d moved to Barcelona, every one of which left me in awe. By the time I finally made a proper visit inside, I was even more overwhelmed; not so much by the masses of people taking tacky selfies – please don’t be one of them, never mind that your entrance fee is paying for the building cost – but by the sheer scope that you can’t appreciate from the outside. With different colours of light streaming through the stained glass windows, and noise cancelling headphones to listen to my audio guide in peace, it felt like I was both in and out of this world.
Right now the plan is to finish the construction in 2026, which will mark exactly 100 years since Guadi’s death. At that point it will be the tallest building in Barcelona and just shorter than Montjuïc because Gaudí didn’t want anything man created to surpass that of God. Indeed, it’s interesting to see how few skyscrapers there are in Barcelona and how much the Sagrada Familia sticks out when seen from afar. One that does attract attention and cause a few giggles because of its shape is the 38-storey Torre Glòries, which offers panoramic views from its observation deck.
It’s right next to the striking Design Museum, a multi-level space that celebrates all things from fashion to furniture and includes one of the city’s libraries, many of which are architectural gems in their own right. Again, what I find fascinating is how something so modern can still exist comfortably in a city full of such historic gems. More than that, it also speaks to the way that Barcelona is constantly updating and repurposing sites rather than tearing them down. For example, since bullfighting was banned in the early 2010s, La Monumental has become a museum and cultural centre while Las Arenas is now a shopping mall. Similarly, Fabra i Coats went from being a textile factory almost a hundred years ago and is now an artistic and cultural hub.
What does the future hold for the city’s architecture? Beyond the ongoing ‘superblock’ initiative that’s converting major streets into public parks (and pushing to finish thanks to the municipal, regional, and general elections that are also coinciding this year) it’s hard to say but will be exciting to see. The same applies to the art world. Barcelona has several foundations dedicated to various artists, although they all have temporary exhibits for other creators too. Some of my favourites include the Fundació Vila Casas (which includes two museums in the city), the Fundación MAPFRE (a photography centre), and the Fundació Suñol (which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year).
One of the top choices is obviously the Joan Miró Foundation, which pays tribute to the life and works of the famous Catalan artist and is marking the 40th anniversary of his death with a series of special events this year. It will be much the same at the Antoni Tàpies Foundation, which includes an ‘interactive’ video about the building’s epic history as a former publishing house designed by Domènech i Montaner, features a movie about his life, and will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth this year.
But of course the city’s most famous art venue is the Picasso Museum, which hosts the world’s most complete collection of his work. Because this is obviously the year of big anniversaries, it’s been celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Spanish artist’s death and its 60th anniversary as a museum throughout 2023. The first time I visited, it all felt like just another gallery until I was hit by the realisation that all these paintings and sculptures, which showcase just how diverse his style is and how it evolved over the years, were by the same artist (he produced around 25 000 works throughout his life). That’s when you realise what a genius he was, even as his personal life as a womanising brute is making modern audiences take pause.
Speaking of modern audiences, some of my favourites on the more contemporary side include the European Museum of Modern Art (which also hosts intimate concerts over a hundred times a year), the Museum of Contemporary Art (a popular hangout for skaters who never seem to have anything else to do), the Centre of Contemporary Culture (which regularly hosts fascinating talks and debates), the Modern Contemporary Museum (featuring artists like Warhol and Banksy, as well as Europe’s first dedicated exhibition space to NFTs), and La Virreina (a publicly-owned museum that specialises in contemporary art and has the added benefit of being be free). All these showcase an exciting new generation of artists, much like the IDEAL Centre for Digital Arts (which recently presented a fully immersive cybernetic Salvador Dalí experience) is making bold moves in the metaverse and beyond. Anniversary or not, they’re worth checking out.
Disclosure: I was granted press access to visit these sites as a journalist. For the best deal, consider The Articket Passport.