Barcelona - “When you grow up here, it’s your house; you see it as normal. It’s only later you realise you live in a house by Gaudí,” says Pol, a journalism student and member of the Guilera family, about the Torre Bellesguard, their house on a hilltop overlooking Barcelona.
It has watchtowers, ramparts, secluded bowers, winding staircases, plumbing made to look like ivy and a baronial hall. It must have been a great place to be a kid.
With its football club, Gaudí architecture is Barcelona’s international calling card. Attention, though, often focuses just on how odd these buildings are, especially the eternally crowded Sagrada Família basilica, which, thanks to the bizarre campaign to finish it, has gone beyond Gaudí’s work to become a strange hybrid of its own.
Far more fascinating are his less bombastic works, and the great Gaudí paradox: here was a man seriously at odds with the modern world, so austerely religious that even other devout Catholics found him hard to take, but also forever gripped by what Robert Hughes called “insatiable inventiveness”, experimenting with new materials, techniques and forms at every step.
It’s especially rare to see Gaudí’s imagination in a more intimate context, and without crowds. Bellesguard is one of only two houses he built in Barcelona, scarcely mentioned in books and hidden behind high walls.
Now, however, the house will be open to visitors, a fresh addition to the Gaudí itinerary.
I find Bellesguard by wandering uphill from the end of the Tibidabo rail line through the steep, tranquil streets of the Sant Gervasi district, past art nouveau villas and sleek modern homes.
The location is the stuff of legend. In 1408, King Martí “The Humane”, last of the native Catalan-speaking kings of Catalonia and Aragon, sick and obese, was told to move to the mountains for his health.
Bell Esguard, meaning “beautiful outlook”, was said to be the spot with the purest air on the great ridge of Collserola above Barcelona; so it was chosen for his fortified manor house.
Here he received the news that his only son, Martí the Younger, had died fighting in Sardinia. Desperate for an heir, he took a beautiful young wife, Margarida de Prades, but to no avail, for he died within a year. With that, Catalonia’s own royal house ended.
These stories were in their minds when the Figueras acquired the ruined manor in 1900 and commissioned Gaudí to build a summer retreat.
Given a free hand, Gaudí created his most complete medievalist fantasy, an intricate sentimental hymn to Catalonia’s first golden age. Inside the gate, where Pol meets me, he rebuilt bastions and battlements on top of the ruins.
Like all Gaudí structures, Bellesguard is a mass of symbols and metaphors – evocations of King Martí and Catalan history in the bright, broken mosaic or trencadís benches, obscure references to nature.
Religiosity and Gaudí could never be far apart: house and tower are 33m high, the reputed age of Christ at his death, and three balconies correspond to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Jaume Figueras died shortly after Gaudí began work and it went on for his widow, not the only one of Gaudí’s clients to find themselves near-bankrupted by their architect’s obsessive perfectionism.
The current clan acquired Bellesguard in 1945 when Lluís Guilera Molas, a distinguished cancer specialist, set up a clinic here with his son, Lluís Guilera Soler. Since the 1960s, it has just been the family home.
Eighteen in all, over three generations, the Guileras are a close-knit family, meeting regularly at the house, and all deeply attached to it.
Years ago, Sra Amèlia, family matriarch and widow of Dr Guilera Soler, tells me, they used to leave the gate open so locals could enjoy the garden, but never thought of opening the house to paying visitors.
In 2009 the building of a main water system nearby caused damage that required expensive restoration.
“We realised,” Pol says, “we had a gem, that it was threatened, and that we had to take care of it.”
The grandchildren took the initiative in opening up the house. They will now offer small-group guided tours for up to 15 people. – The Independent
Torre Bellesguard, Carrer Bellesguard 16, Barcelona (torrebellesguard.cat) is open Monday to Saturday. Guided tours of house and garden, in Catalan, Spanish or English, cost e16 (R220) a person. English tours are usually at 11am but other times are possible by reservation.