Seeking medical care nearly always involves stress, and most facilities don’t help with their bland interiors. In fact, hospital décor has turned into a cliché: the endless corridors of linoleum, the fluorescent lighting over swathes of gray or beige, the industrial storage and disposal units, and of course plenty of signs because no one could navigate without them.
It hasn’t always been like this: from the 1920’s to 2009, the Hospital of the Holy Cross in Barcelona incorporated beauty and nature into the healing process. Patients spent most of their time in the gardens at the heart of the complex. Architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner surrounded them with a series of small buildings, richly ornamented and easily distinguishable from one another. Organic curves and vegetal motifs mingled with natural light playing across vibrant tiled surfaces.
The Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau is more than just the largest complex of Art Nouveau buildings in the world; it’s a testament to an era when people believed in the transformative power of architecture.
Context: Modernisme in Barcelona
Throughout Europe, the Industrial Revolution jolted architecture out of revivals like Neo-Classical and Neo-Gothic. Designers experimented with new materials and construction techniques. Emerging theories about the influence of physical environment on well-being gave buildings a new significance and expanded architects’ scope. Architecture became important.
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, Barcelona underwent radical changes. Catalonia’s economic prosperity combined with migration to urban centers created a building boom. A master plan for expanding the city created the Eixample (Catalan for “addition”). In this vast new district, citizens commissioned structures in the new Modernisme style. (Note: Catalan “Modernisme” and Spanish “Modernista” are interchangeable.)
At the same time, the explosion of science and technology prompted a reconsideration of traditional crafts like stone carving and tilework. The distinction between artist and artisan all but disappeared, as designers collaborated to create a “total environment.” The increasing mechanization of daily life may also have spurred the preoccupation with forms based on nature. Throughout Europe various local movements developed a common vocabulary, grouped under the term Art Nouveau.
Catalonia’s unique heritage inspired an especially rich variation on Art Nouveau. Moorish architecture, particularly its tile work, was a huge influence on young Barcelona architects such as Lluís Domènech i Montaner, Antoni Gaudí , and Josep Puig i Cadafalch. They incorporated local traditions in their work as a way of celebrating Catalonia’s cultural achievements.
An Enlightened Hospital for an Enlightened City
As Barcelona transformed from a medieval to a modern city, it needed a new hospital. The Hospital of the Holy Cross, dating back to 1401, was simply inadequate for Barcelona’s exploding population. Its location in the Gothic Quarter made it hard to access, and it lacked the infrastructure to provide the latest innovations in patient care.
When a banker by the name of Pau de Gil bequeathed a sizable sum towards a new hospital building, local leaders saw an opportunity. They wanted to create a showpiece for the city, demonstrating Barcelona’s sophistication. After reserving a large plot in the Eixample, they commissioned Lluís Domènech i Montaner to create a model hospital: beautiful and technologically advanced enough to boost the city’s worldwide reputation.
The Concept: A Hospital Centered Around Gardens
Domènech began the project with exhaustive research, including a study of no fewer than 234 hospitals around the world. His first challenge was organizing the site. On one hand, recent medical studies strongly advocated the benefits of natural light and ventilation. On the other hand, the best modern hospitals featured a series of smaller buildings rather than a single massive structure. Domènech’s solution created underground service tunnels to connect different buildings, opening the grounds up to restorative landscaping.
With gardens as the hospital’s physical and metaphorical core, Domènech shifted the site’s main axis from the urban grid by 45 degrees in order to maximize light and ventilation, as well as to set the grounds apart from the streets around it. Patient ‘pavilions’ and nursing areas occupied the center, surrounded by specialized facilities and areas for research. On the perimeter, generalized services could be accessed independently from the street as well as from the hospital grounds.
The Design: The Beauty of Nature as Healing
The Sant Pau hospital is the perfect venue for Art Nouveau architecture, because the style’s trademark organic forms actually match the complex’s concept and function. Domènech intended for patients to spend as much time as possible in the fresh air outside – and he also brought the outside in by using the colors and forms found in flower gardens….
In keeping with the predilection of Modernisme for a “total environment” – architecture often included furniture, artwork, textiles, and even homewares as well as buildings – Domènech said “the structure, construction and decoration of all the rooms of the Hospital are considered so linked that they form a single concept.” He celebrated local materials and construction techniques, particularly the wide use of tile. He stressed the practical benefits of tile for hygienic purposes as well as the “rich range of expressions” it offered, so that each space could be unique.
The Administration Pavilion
The front Administration Pavilion provided a transition space from the city to the hospital, funneling traffic as well as housing offices, an assembly hall, and even a library-museum dedicated to the history of health care. Not surprisingly, it contains some of the most spectacular spaces in the complex.
The Patient Wards
Domènech’s progressive vision came to the fore in the patient wards. His design allotted a significantly higher amount of space per patient than any other hospital at the time. He kept openings high to bring in light and fresh air without subjecting patients to drafts. In addition to the central space, each pavilion also contains a “day room” for patients unable to go outside, plus “health service rooms” and auxiliary offices with independent access from outside. He even added drinking fountains so everyone could have easy access to fresh water.
The Sant Pau hospital served the city for 80 years, but by the end of the 20th century, Barcelona needed something even larger. In 2009, a new facility opened and the Domènech complex closed for restoration and renovation. More than 30 teams of architects and specialists worked on the project, which won several prizes for its sensitivity and sustainability. In addition to making repairs, they also converted some of the building for new uses. The Administration Pavilion now houses an event venue as well as a large archive of historic hospital documents. Other structures contain offices for various health organizations such as the WHO.
Visiting the Hospital de Sant Pau
Domènech’s complex might not have the global recognition of Gaudí’s most reknowned works, but as a hospital it likely had a greater impact on the community. Contemporary visitors will find it especially intriguing in the wake of COVID. If nothing else, it’s a change from typical historic buildings like palaces and churches – and it’s less crowded than many of Barcelona’s other Modernisme sites.
Several bus and metro options make getting to the hospital straightforward, and the hospital’s website gives directions. The pedestrian Avinguda di Gaudí cuts diagonally through the city from the Sant Pau to the Sagrada Familia, a beautiful 10-15 minute walk.
Self-guided tours of the hospital cost €15 per person and currently require reserving a time slot in advance. Guided tours are also available. See the hospital website for details.
The Foundation Lluís Domènech i Montaner’s website is an excellent resource for all of the architect’s work. It includes posts with extensive excerpts from his project report for the hospital.
For more on Catalan Modernisme, see our other posts: