Caught between the island’s beach resorts and the better-known landmarks in nearby Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca flies under most visitors’ radar. Yet the city is an oasis of incredible architecture. Along with its lush gardens and historic patios, Palma holds some of the greatest Modernista structures outside of Barcelona – including works by Antonio Gaudí and Lluís Domènech i Montaner.
In Catalonia, the advent of Art Nouveau architecture merged with a cultural and political resurgence of regional identity to make an especially fertile style. Known as Modernisme in Catalan or Modernista in Spanish, the movement began in Barcelona towards the end of the 19th century.
Palma, like Barcelona, underwent massive social changes in the late 1800’s. It, too, laid out a large addition to the old city in a progressive, orderly gridded layout. And while Mallorca’s industrialization wasn’t as pervasive as Catalonia’s, the island’s economy benefitted from a lucrative trade in citrus products.
In other words, Palma was ripe for Moderisme. The city’s bishop convinced Gaudí to renovate the cathedral, and the eminent Domènech was lured over to design the Gran Hotel. These two projects – and the potent ideas of their creators – would influence a generation of Palma’s architects and artists.
All buildings listed below can be found on our Google map.
Gaudí and the Cathedral
Around the end of the 19th century, Pope Leo XIII spearheaded a movement to modernize the Catholic Church by making it more accessible. This meant clearing out many of the additional altars, chapels, and shrines clogging up Spain’s Gothic cathedrals. Barcelona’s Santa Maria del Mar, for instance, opened up its interior to bring the masses into closer contact with rituals of worship.
The supervisors of Palma’s cathedral had already approved plans to renovate the structure when its young bishop encountered Gaudí on a trip to Barcelona in 1899. Two years later, the architect travelled to Mallorca to take over the project.
Initially the work progressed smoothly. Gaudí moved the choir out of the central nave and shuffled other pieces around to open up the space. He designed new light fixtures and restored the stained glass windows using a new method for superimposing layers of color. Later he would use the same technique to create rainbow swathes of light in the Sagrada Familia.
An 18th century altar was removed to reveal the Gothic version underneath and a baldachin (canopy) was placed above. This fixture, originally meant to be temporary, became Gaudi’s most tangible mark on the cathedral.
Gaudí adopted symbolism from the Catholic liturgy, filtered through his imaginative use of form. For example, the canopy’s seven sides represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, while the fifty lamps stand for the fifty days of Eastertide. None of this information prepares us for the strangeness of the final product.
Eventually, the visionary architect’s increasingly radical plans unsettled the cathedral supervisors. When Gaudí and his protégé Josep Maria Jujol i Gibert started painting the choir stalls and adding modern ceramic tiles in the apse, church officials began to worry about losing the character of the original structure. Tensions increased, and Gaudi finally quit in 1914, vowing to dedicate himself exclusively to the Sagrada Familia. Gaudì’s other protégé, Joan Rubió i Bellver, took over work on the cathedral until the following year, when the bishop died and the project came to a full stop.
Highlights of Modernisme in Palma
Gran Hotel (Fundacio la Caixa)
While Gaudí was beginning to influence younger architects, Domènech’s Gran Hotel marked the definitive arrival of Modernisme in Mallorca. With his singular command of overall design, Domènech created a wraparound façade with a dramatic corner element. Domènech’s other strength was his ability to collaborate with a veritable army of artists and craftsmen, blurring the line between architecture and art. Sculpture, mosaic, stained glass, ironwork, and countless other decorative arts melded into a single, exuberantly beautiful package. Although this building doesn’t use as much color as his Catalan Music Hall in Barcelona, it nonetheless bursts with surprises and creative details. Domènech regularly incorporated heraldry into his work, and he topped the Gran Hotel with mosaic dragons in a deep blue.
When it opened in 1903, the Gran Hotel became a hot spot for high society in Palma. If the architecture wasn’t enough, the hotel’s amenities – running water, electricity, and an elevator – were the height of luxury. Some historians credit the building with sparking the rise of tourism on the island.
Spain’s Civil War followed by World War II effectively wiped out travel to Mallorca, and the hotel closed in the 1940’s. A stint housing the National Social Security offices resulted in disastrous renovations on the interior. Finally, in 1993, the bank La Caixa acquired the building, providing major restoration work and transforming it into a cultural center. Although much of the original interior has been lost, visitors can tour the building with an exhibition ticket. (Admission €6, daily 10-8. See the website for exhibition schedule.)
Forn des Teatre
Across the street from the Gran Hotel, this bakery features one of the most iconic façades in Palma. The business dates back to the 1800’s, but the exterior was renovated in 1916. (The designer remains unknown.) With its whiplash lines and floral motifs, this is classic Art Nouveau – with a dash of Catalan fantasy in the dragon over the door.
The current proprietors offer traditional baked goods, including the sweet pastry spirals known as ensaïmadas. We started our first day in Palma with a coffee just outside the bakery, basking in the shade of the gigantic plane trees and admiring the buildings on both sides.
Can Casasayas & Pensión Menorquina
Old Town Palma seems to offer atmospheric squares around every corner, but our favorite was probably the Plaça de Mercat – largely because of the twin buildings adorning its side.
It’s hard to imagine now, but the corner began with just one building. Local architect Francesc Roca i Simó, designed the Can Casasayas in 1908-10. In 1909 another architect, Guillem Reynés, built the Pensión Menorquina directly across the tiny street – as an exact copy. We could only wonder about the first architect’s reaction.
Roca deserves credit for the sinuous lines and playful details. Like Gaudí, he drew inspiration from the natural world. Traditional Mallorcan shutters unfold around curves, echoing animal joints or a plant unfurling its petals. The balconies manage to simultaneously evoke butterflies, bat wings, and cobwebs.
Reynés may not have designed any new elements, but his decision to mirror the first building was a brilliantly simple way to create a dynamic new series of spaces between the buildings. It also taps into a deep-rooted human fascination with doubles, not to mention adding even more playfulness to the spot. Both buildings have storefronts on the ground level and residences above. I’d like to think the neighbors share a special bond.
Can Forteza Rey & Almacenes el Águila
On a tiny square just off the Plaça Major, pedestrian traffic swirls around clusters of people who have stopped to gape at the Can Forteza Rey and its neighbor the Almacenes el Águila. This is Palma’s equivalent of Barcelona’s Block of Discord, with the Can Forteza Rey standing in for Gaudí’s whimsical, colorful Casa Batllò.
Built sometime between 1902-11, the Can Forteza Rey is generally credited to its owner, goldsmith Josep Forteza Rey. Besides a residence for his family, it also included a rather glamorous dental clinic for his son-in-law on the second floor. Gaudí pioneered the use of trencadis, collages of ceramic shards, used extensively here.
Next door, the former department store Almacenes el Águila (1908) is a more rectilinear foil to the Can Forteza Rey. Younger architects began embracing a more international, rationalistic style in lieu of early Modernisme’s regional vocabulary. The timing of Gaspar Bennàssar i Moner’s career as Palma’s preeminent architect from 1901-1933 would have encouraged him to draw from Vienna as much as from Barcelona.
Strictly speaking, the Can Corbella is more of a precursor than an example of Modernisme. During the second half of the 19th century, architects experimented with eclectic combinations of regional styles. In southern and eastern Spain, these included Mudéjar architecture from the medieval Islamic and post-Islamic periods. (For more on this style, see our post on Seville.)
Architect Nicolau Lliteres used horseshoe arches, intricate geometry, and an octagonal tower with a playfulness which would also become a hallmark of Modernisme. Constructed at the end of the 19th century, his design united three buildings behind a single façade.
More Modernisme in Palma
Modernista buildings are everywhere in central Palma – we found plenty of captivating lesser-known designs in addition to the ones listed above. Here are a few favorites:
Left: Francesc Roca i Simó’s 1907 Can Roca, 1907. Right: Edificio Paraires, architect and construction dates unknown.