Through a deep sense of place, Catalans have long expressed their creativity through exploring distinctive building traditions.
Since legends of the Black Madonna of Montserrat emerged in the ninth century, Catalans have cultivated and celebrated their relationship to the landscape and local variations of their region. The Catalan Renaissance emphasized a familiarity with the countryside. What began as a few intellectuals going on outings to educate themselves about the landscape through direct experience later became scientific and cultural expeditions. In time, organized groups of amateur excursionists began systematically visiting every corner of the country. Even today, young people hike and camp all over Catalonia with the Scouting movement and other excursionist associations.
This deep sense of place also manifests in an appreciation for local building traditions. Dry-stone masonry has a celebrated history, despite its humble origins as a trade linked to farmers who needed low-cost storage for tools and water. Since Roman times, plain-tiled Catalan vaults have been used to create gently arched ceilings. Employed by Modernist architects, guilds of masons still teach this key architectural form.
The Modernists also celebrated decorative exuberance in trencadís, the mosaics of broken tile that characterize much of Antoni Gaudí’s later work. These creative efforts brought together new wealth, national pride, and tireless creativity to create an original and modern style that emphasized the local and the handmade just as it employed innovative materials.
Today artisans pass on the techniques to students who will help restore the hundreds of Modernist buildings entering their second century that still define much of the urban landscape of Barcelona and other Catalan cities and towns.
The Pyrenees Mountains
Creating a natural border with France, the Pyrenees Mountains are defined by their great peaks, many ponds, and rivers. The deep valleys have harbored small communities like Vall d’Aran, which maintains the use of its Occitan language. The winter snows provide water for all of Catalonia, but have made trade to the north particularly challenging. The mountains have long provided grazing land, wood, stone, and other natural materials for people living in the lowlands.
The Mediterranean Coast
With hundreds of miles of coastline, Catalonia has long looked east for food, trade, and expansion. The Mediterranean provides a wide range of seafood that typifies Catalan cuisine. For example, arròs negre (black rice) uses squid and its ink to flavor the rice that people have grown in the Ebro Delta for thousands of years.
In the Middle Ages, Catalans first traded with and then conquered the Balearic Islands and parts of Italy. When they were allowed to invest in the Spanish Empire, they traded extensively with the Caribbean as well. Even today, a popular genre of traditional song is called the havanera and tells of travels across the sea.
The Catalan hinterlands vary in climate and so produce a wide variety of crops: grapes for wine, olives for oil, grains for sustenance, and a wide range of vegetables. Farmhouses called masies anchored rural cultural life and agricultural production; an extended family traditionally lived and worked together in these massive houses that usually had a workspace on the first floor or to one side. In recent years, many of these homes have been turned into lodging for rural tourism or into vacation homes for wealthy city dwellers.
Trencadís: Painting with Tiles
Made famous by Antoni Gaudí and other Catalan Modernist architects, trencadís are mosaics formed from shards of tile and pottery that are cemented together. Gaudí used them extensively as artisans could apply the “chopped” tiles to the sinuous forms that he used in much of his work, most famously in the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família. Most of Gaudí’s mosaics were actually created by Lluís Bru i Salelles, who passed his craft onto his sons. One of them instructed Livia Garreta, the trencadís artist who participated in the 2018 Folklife Festival.
Pedra Seca: Dry-Stone Masonry
This popular, traditional construction technique uses carefully placed and wedged stones to create walls, wells, and other structures without the use of any kind of mortar to bind them together. The stone is worked to different extents, depending on the specific building need. Rural walls often require minimal transformation of the stone, whereas a rustic building used to store farm tools or shelter a shepherd may require more careful attention to the shape of each stone. Historically, most rural communities had a few people who knew this craft well, and now professional stonemasons who can also create other kinds of structures usually carry it on.