The Catalan architect's first big commission is considered his 'manifesto house' and the genesis of his distinctive style. So discovered Steve Powell on a recent trip to Barcelona for the South China Morning Post

What is it?

Casa Vicens was the first house designed by Antoni Gaudí, better known for his unfinished masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia. The Catalan architect built it for stockbroker Manuel Vicens between 1883 and 1885, in Barcelona's Gràcia district, which was then a village. As his first big job after graduating from the Regional School of Architecture, 33-year-old Gaudí consider­ed Casa Vicens his "manifesto house", a daring declaration of artistic principles.

Vicens had commissioned it as a summer house, where his family could escape the suffocating heat of summer in the city. Rising to the challenge, Gaudí set about creating a dreamy oasis that would transport the occupants to another world.

 'La Sagrada Familia' cathedral, Gaudi's masterpiece, still remains unfinished in Barcelona. Photo/ David Ramos, Getty
'La Sagrada Familia' cathedral, Gaudi's masterpiece, still remains unfinished in Barcelona. Photo/ David Ramos, Getty

Why is it in the news now?

For the first time in its 130-year history, last November this four-storey mansion opened to the public. Two years of exhaustive restora­tion had returned the house, as far as possible, to its original state. "It's an essential work for understanding Gaudí's unique architectural language and the development of art nou­veau in Barcelona," says Marta Antuñano, cultural manager of the project.

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It has been called "the house where it all began", contain­ing many of the seeds that would blossom in Gaudí's later works, such as Casa Batlló or Casa Milà. The design made it one of the first art nouveau buildings in Europe and the house was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2005. It was the last of the six such sites by Gaudí in Barcelona to be opened to the public.

Stand out: the exterior is unlike anything else in the Carrer de Stanta Agata. Photo / Pol Viladoms
Stand out: the exterior is unlike anything else in the Carrer de Stanta Agata. Photo / Pol Viladoms

What can we expect to see?

Nothing that you've ever seen before. From the asym­metrical exterior, clad in colourful ceramic tiles, to the rooftop turrets and domes, Gaudí infused elements of Moorish and Oriental architecture with his highly personal vision of Modernisme (Catalan art nouveau).

Nevertheless, nature was always his chief inspiration, particularly Mediterranean flora and fauna. The small yellow flowers that decor­ate the tiles, like the wrought-iron palm leaves adorning the fence, were inspired by plants Gaudí found growing on the plot before he started work on the house. "Everything I design," he said, "comes from the great book of nature."

The first interiors designed by Gaudi are in parts Moorish, and parts mathematical. Photo / Pol Viladoms
The first interiors designed by Gaudi are in parts Moorish, and parts mathematical. Photo / Pol Viladoms

What's it like inside?

A natural riot, where plant, bird and seashell motifs crawl up the walls, creep above the fireplace and droop from the ceiling, making the interior a continuation of the garden. "The house is the nation of the family," said Gaudí, meaning that a house should be both comfortable and beautiful.

After passing through the ground floor welcome area, visitors enter the main floor, consisting of a central dining room (with the original Gaudí-designed furniture), a smoking room and a covered porch with a marble fountain to keep the area cool.

In the smoking room, Gaudí gave free rein to his Orientalist fantasy, creating a 19th-century chill-out room with a ceiling bearing multi­coloured plaster replicas of palm trees hanging thick with clusters of dates.

The first floor houses the bedrooms, full of exuberant leafy decor, and a covered porch from which to contemplate the garden. On the second floor is a permanent display about the house's history.

Up on the roof, follow a walkway around all four sides and get a close-up view of the small dome, clad in green and white tiles, just like the facade. By now, you're probably wishing you could take a souvenir home with you. Down in the basement, the La Capell Store and Bookshop has that covered.

For the first time in its 130-year history Casa Vicens opens to the public. Photo / Pol Viladoms
For the first time in its 130-year history Casa Vicens opens to the public. Photo / Pol Viladoms

Is there anything to eat?

There is. In the Hofmann Cafeteria, at the end of the garden, you'll find not just croissants, but the "Best Artisan Butter Croissant in Spain 2010", filled with mascarpone, as well as a selection of scrumptious bocadillos (the classic Spanish baguette) made with home-baked bread.

What's the bottom line?

Entrance costs €16(NZ$27) or €19 if you want the guided tour. For over-65s, students under 25 and children aged seven to 18, it's €14. Entrance is limited to 550 visitors a day, so it's best to book in advance.