In Barcelona, on any given morning, you will see crowds gather at the corner of Carrer Provença and Passieg de Gràcia. They are huddled into groups, smart phones at dawn, flashing selfies in front of the Casa Mila; an astonishing apartment building that seems to have erupted from the pavement of the city’s most upmarket district. Just around the corner, inside a second entrance to the Casa Mila that has no ticket office or queues, a petite, fashionably dressed woman with strings of silver curls opens the door of a carved wooden lift after descending from the upper floor.
Her name is Ana Viladomiu and she is one of the three remaining residents of the Casa Mila.
The Casa Mila was the last completed work by Antoni Gaudí, Barcelona’s most famous creative son and an architect that defied our accepted ideas of form, function and even physics. It was built between 1906 and 1912 (Gaudí, who died in 1926, spent his last remaining years desperately trying to advance La Sagrada Familia temple, which lies a few blocks away) as an apartment building for the city’s nouveau riche.
At that time, Gaudí’s name was well respected as harbinger of the modernista (aka art nouveau) style of architecture that the Barcelonese upper crust embraced. But, even within a style famous for its craftsmanship and bling, the Casa Mila was a unique beast. Its rippling façade, sculptured in limestone, echoes Middle-earth.
Its Juliet balconies are encased in tangled knots of forged, metal ribbons and the rooftop, which has a nausea-inducing undulating surface, features an army of chimneystacks donned with futuristic helmets. (Antonioni thought it weird enough to film a scene there for his 1975 art film The Passenger). These avant-garde touches overshadowed the Casa Mila’s more forward-thinking features, such as Barcelona’s first underground car park and the circular layout of apartments, where all rooms harnessed natural light. After completion, the Casa Mila was nicknamed La Pedrera (‘the stone quarry’) and the moniker stuck. The building was considered an eyesore among many locals, languishing unloved for decades, much like the rest of Barcelona, until the city was rediscovered and revamped as host city for the 1992 Olympic Games.
“I moved in here for love,” admits Ana Viladomiu from the reading room where she wrote her third book La última vecina (The last tenant); a fictionalised account of her experience living in La Pedrera. Back in the mid-eighties, her object of desire was Fernando Amat, one of Barcelona’s champions of contemporary design and owner of the legendary home wares store Vinçon, situated next door to La Pedrera. Amat was already living in the Casa Mila when they met, as a tenant with a life-long rental agreement. Viladomiu moved in pregnant with their first child and after raising two daughters together, she now occupies the 350-square-metre apartment alone. Well not quite.
As we speak we are vaguely aware of gaggles of tourists peering into her apartment from the rooftop, fascinated to find a domestic scene in a building that has been almost exclusively opened up to public viewing. “The tourists don’t really bother me,” she says. “In some ways they keep me company.”Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Ana’s apartment is its purity.
Unlike Gaudi’s other domestic buildings – the Casa Batlló with it’s sinuous carpentry and bone-like columns, or the Casa Vicens which resembles an indoor garden in tiles and frescoes – her home oozes serenity. Gaudí’s references never waived from nature and his love of curved surfaces is palpable. The doors and cupboards feature fine frames that resemble forest trees, while the ceilings look like drifting sand dunes. Brass knobs and door handles (Gaudí occupied himself with every last detail) bare the architects advanced sense of ergonometrics, well before the concept was acknowledged.
When Amat moved out in 2015, Ana had the entire apartment painted white (her husband preferred dark, theatrical colours) and décor followed suit. Colour comes in the form of artwork baring the signatures of the couple’s fellow travellers in La Movida – the creative counterculture that swept Spain in the 1980s. A painting by Miguel Barceló and Nani Marquina rugs mix casually with family portraits, ethnic knick-knacks and post-modern paraphernalia from the 1992 Olympic Games, designed by the graphic artist Mariscal.
Like many other locals, Ana had considered La Pedrera to be a bit of a white elephant. “It really took the passing of time for me to appreciate it,” she admits. “And the attention it started to get from Asian tourists, who understand Gaudí’s love of nature and made us see his work in a different light.”Ana admits she has lost fear of the space over the decades, making it work for her and her family while being aware of the responsibility of living in one of the handful of manmade UNESCO World Heritage sites.
“Now I love everything about it,” she says. “It’s impossible to be in a bad mood when you are in this apartment. All the curved surfaces; they envelope you. I find beauty in every corner.”
Image Courtesy: Gregori Civera
From the Winter 2019 issue of Harper's Bazaar Interiors