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by Josep M. Huertas and Jaume Fabre

The first decade of the 20th century was remembered by the inhabitants of Barcelona as the years of the bombs and the Tragic Week, the opening up of the old quarter by the Via Laietana and the advent of public transport as a result of electrification ever more visible in the streets. On the other hand, little heed was paid to what now, in the light of the years, we consider left the deepest print on the personality of the city: Art Nouveau architecture. In the political arena, these were the years of the birth of La Lliga and the Radical Party, which banished the former dominating parties from the City Council. These two new parties, at times opposed to each other and at other times working in conjunction, made this one of the most productive decades in the municipal life of the twentieth century. In this report, the journalists Josep Maria Huertas and Jaume Fabre, with contributions from Rafael Pradas, commence a series of ten chapters, tracing the history of Barcelona throughout the present century. Decade by decade, they analyse the main political and social events and also the less evident changes which, little by little, have transformed the daily life of the inhabitants of Barcelona.

The opening up of the Via Laietana

The first decade of the twentieth century was imprinted on the memory of the people of Barcelona as the years of the bombings and the "Tragic Week", the years in which the city's Old Quarters were ripped open by the construction of the Via Laietana thoroughfare, and the years that saw the expansion of public transportation, spurred by the electrification process that had reached many parts of the city's street network, even though its introduction into people's homes would be achieved at a much slower pace. On the other hand, they did not really pay much attention to another phenomenon which, nowadays, assessed from a historical perspective, is considered to have left a deeper imprint on the personality of our city: Catalan "Moderniste" architecture. Besides, those were the years that saw the constitution of the "Lliga Regionalista" and the "Partit Radical", whose emergence caused the City hall's old dynastic parties to vanish from the Catalan political scene and which, through alternating periods of collaboration and confrontation, made that decade one the most productive times in the history of municipal government in the century that is now coming to an end.

At that time, the opening of the new Via Laietana was called "the Reform", and the project was meant to complete the first city-planning remodelling programme that had started in the nineteenth century with the construction of the so-called "Eix Transversal" (Transverse Axis) along carrer Ferran, plaša de Sant Jaume and carrer Princessa, and the development works on plaša Reial and plaša de Sant Jaume.

The Via Laietana, a thoroughfare that crosses the old walled city of Barcelona from the plaša d'Urquinaona down to the seafront, is a testimony of stone to the significance of a period of our past when businessmen chose to hoist the flag of catalanism and succeeded in combining the furtherance of their interests with the rehabilitation of the city's Old Quarters. (...)

In the middle of a dense network of narrow streets that never got any real sunshine, the new avenue brought a welcome rush of air that was fresh then, although it is nowadays loaded with carbon dioxide. However, in the process, the unique architectural ensemble formed by those medieval streets was irremediably damaged. Eighty old alleys were wiped off the city map and street index. This was the darker side of the Reform.

Republicans and Regionalists on the City Council

The political composition of Barcelona's City Council during the first quarter of the twentieth century resulted in a balance of power between Republican parties and the "Lliga Regionalista", constituted in 1901. But none of these two groups has a right to claim exclusive credit for the highly productive municipal activity which characterized that period of time, given that none maintained hegemony over the local government long enough to take all the glory for it, and the best results were achieved under a mixed government in which both groups co-operated. In fact, while the great majority of local councillors were Republicans in 1904 and 1905, over the next three years, the Regionalists from the "Lliga" worked in close collaboration with the Republicans, who still were in a relative majority. From 1989 until 1913, Republican hegemony was maintained, that time headed by Lerroux and his followers, who had constituted their own Party in 1908. The years 1914 and 1915 were marked by collaboration between the Radicals and the Regionalists from the "Lliga", due to the balance of power achieved between them and the recognition by both political groups that their interests were not as divergent as they might have appeared to be at first. Both Francesc Cambˇ and Joan Pich i Pon - who was then deputy mayor (and therefore the most influential man within the City Council, actually holding more power than the mayor himself who, until 1917, was appointed by the government) - were men who maintained close relations with AEG, a company that had a vital interest in the industrialization process that was taking place in Catalonia and that served as the basis for the structural work initially intended for an exposition of electric industries planned for 1914 which, in the end, was replaced by the 1929 International Exhibition at Montju´c. (...)

The Fire Rose

Practical application of propagandist theory linked with the minority violent currents within the arnachist movement, was late to come about in Barcelona. So, while in the rest of Europe the echoes of Ravachol's bombs and the assassinations that had shaken the continent over the previous two decades of the nineteenth century (Alexander II, Sadi Carnot, Sissi, Humbert I, Mc Kinley, etc..) were starting to fade, Barcelona was still being terrorized by bombings after the turn of the century, to such an extent that the city was christened "the Fire Rose".

Firstly, in 1893, PaulÝ PallÓs had attempted unsuccessfully to kill field marshal MartÝnez Campos by throwing a bomb at him and, that same year, allegedly in revenge for PallÓs's execution, Santiago Salvador dropped the bomb that set the Liceu opera house on fire. As a result of the bombing, twenty people were killed and twenty-seven were injured.

In 1896, another bomb attack on the Corpus Christi ceremonial procession's passing killed twelve people and was later used by the authorities as a pretext for arresting hundreds of anarchist leaders. (...)

At the beginning of the new century, bombs still continued to explode in the streets of Barcelona. Among other attacks, three citizens were killed in 1904 on carrer Ferran and a bomb dropped on the Rambla caused two more deaths in 1905. (...)

At the end of july 1909, the events known as the "Tragic Week" brought that bloody decade to a close in Barcelona. No political group was actually willing to assume leadership of the revolutionary movement and, as a result of the army's intervention, one hundred people were killed, five hundred were injured and thousands of arrests were made. Five of the people arrested by the army were eventually executed. (...)


At the turn of the century, the first light bulbs were fitted in the homes of a few privileged Barcelona residents, and the first electric tram line - the GrÓcia Line - was inaugurated on Saint John's day in 1899. It was the beginning of the definitive expansion of public transportation as, before then, city transport facilities were limited to horse-drawn and steam vehicles. Over the next few months, the other lines managed by the tram company that ran the GrÓcia Line were also electrified, namely the Barceloneta Line, the Poblenou Line and the Gran VÝa and Passeig de GrÓcia branch. (...) In Barcelona, electricity had started to become a palpable reality in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. In 1876, the Batllˇ factory was the first industrial facility to be fitted with an electric light system. In 1885, the first trials with electric lighting were carried out on the Rambla and, in 1893, the "Ateneu Barcelones" cultural association adopted electric lighting so as to make their exhibits stand out in sharper relief. Nevertheless, the introduction of electricity in private homes did not progress as easily. In his memoirs, Josep Maria de Sagarra recalls that, in 1899, "our house was fitted with an electric lighting system". But this was quite an expectional case and the use of light bulbs in private homes did not actually spread before the late nineteen twenties and early nineteen thirties, gathering pace after the 1929 International Exhibition at Montju´c. (...)

B-grade "Modernisme"

(...) The 1888 Universal Exhibition and Joan Maragall's death in 1911 mark the symbolical chronological boundaries of the Catalan cultural and artistic movement called "Modernisme"; however, it continued to enjoy a certain popularity over the following decade, as evidenced by a number of architectural works that, confusing stylistic mixtures notwithstanding, prove to be very interesting, such as the Monumental bullring and several other buildings that desplay the mark of early Art DÚco influence. However, the golden age of the movement, when the best and purest works were produced, embraces the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century. It was during that period of time that the "Eixample" district saw the construction of a great number of "Moderniste" buildings, ranging from the stately houses designed by famous architects - nowadays preserved as monuments - to the "B-grade", more modest works directed by unknown master builders who vaguely derived inspiration from the patterns in vogue at that time. More particularly, the left side of the "Eixample" district abounds with buildings of this type, defined by Hernßndez-Cros as "a clear-cut case of epidermal assimilation of the chief formal features of "Modernisme" into an uncultured architecture". Such an improvised brand of "Modernisme" was still in fashion in the thirties, influencing the design of the smaller houses that multiplied in the different housing estates then being built on the periphery of Barcelona.

And this is precisely this "B-grade Modernisme" - as Carles Sindreu labelled it - which shapes the character of the "Eixample" district, possibly to a larger extent than the celebrated buildings that appear in all the guidebooks as places no self-respecting tourist should fail to visit. Even though, as an architectural style, it was frowned upon and widely criticized in the past. (...)


Everyday life in Barcelona, 1900-1910
by Rafael Pradas 

In 1900, the inhabitants of Barcelona had few comforts at home. At the turn of the century, the upper middle classes lived in villas, mansions - they had not yet abandoned the Ciutat Vella district completely - or in the most luxurious blocks of flats in an "Eixample" district that was still under construction at that time, as only forty years had passed since the approbation of the CerdÓ Plan. Affluent families favoured the ground-floor flats, given that living on the "Principal" (main floor) was then an obvious sign of wealth. The first decade of the twentieth century saw the appearance of the first lifts in some buildings in downtown Barcelona, but the new devices aroused more idle curiosity than real interest. However, the passing of time would eventually bring a complete reversal of this tendency, and living on top floors, especially in penthouse flats, would be considered a sign of distinction.

Ordinary people's dwellings did not boast comforts of any kind, which made their life rather harsh in extreme weather conditions, particularly on cold winter days. They did not have any of the devices which nowadays make life at home at least bearable if not pleasurable, not even a modest gas fire or electric heater, or a plain fan. The "brasero", a small home brazier in which coke was burned, was one of the most appreciated objects in the house and, in wintertime, the whole family used to gather around it for warmth. Similarly, bed warmers, filled with coal embers, were used to mitigate people's discomfort in cold and damp bedrooms. The dining room and the kitchen were the places where family gatherings usually took place. (...)

If there is an aspect of our everyday life that has changed radically within this century, it is personal hygiene. Between 1900 and 1910, the bathtub was gradually introduced into newly constructed or renovated wealthy houses (the introduction of the bidet, considered to be an exotic object tainted with erotic connotations, would take much longer), but the working and middle classes had to make great efforts in order to be reasonably "clean". Suffice it to say that, at the point in time we are referring to, many houses had no direct water supply and city dwellers had to fetch buckets of water from the nearest fountain on an everyday basis. It was undoubtedly one of the hardest and most tiresome tasks to be performed and, as most other drudgeries, it was part of the housewife's duties. (...)

With the passing of time, such discomforts were gradually tempered, for example thanks to the appearance of a rather rudimentary shower that looked like a large watering can and had to be attached high up to a wall; the container had a capacity of several litres, enough for two sprays of water: one used for wetting your body before soaping yourself and one used for rinsing it. It is not hard to imagine the sorry state of the kitchens, galleries or any other room used as a makeshift bathroom as a result of such an operation ... It is also true that, until the late nineteen sixties, Barcelona boasted municipal public baths where, for a moderate amount of money, people were provided with toilet soap, a clean towel and a place to take a hot shower. It was quite a handy solution for many people who had no way to take care of their personal hygiene at home for lack of washing facilities, as was the case of many houses in the oldest sections of the city, a fact confirmed in practice by the many renovation works which have had to be carried out in the Ciutat Vella district. (...)

We cannot say that the inhabitants of the Barcelona of the first decade of this century moved a lot around the city. Let's recall that people did not go on holiday at that time (with the exception of some families of high social status), and that people's place of work and living quarters were often located next to each other. Both facts greatly reduced the need to move around. Shopkeepers, for instance, used to to live on the first floor, above their business premises where apprentices lived in - in the strict sense of the word, as it was where they slept, ate and worked -. Most industry workers lived in the immediate neighbourhood of the factories that employed them. (...)

At the end of the nineteenth century, a few horse-drawn tram lines covered the citizens' requirements for transportation within the city, connecting downtown Barcelona with the outlying districts (...). From 1899 onward, tram lines were gradually electrified and, in 1906, the first petrol-powered buses - pompously christened "automobiles-omnibus" - were running on a not yet asphalted Passeig de GrÓcia. However, four years had still to elapse before the appearance of the so-called "automobils de lloguer amb parada fixa" (i.e. automobiles for hire at fixed stops), (...) the ancestors of the modern taxi. Between 1900 and 1910, there were still very few motor vehicles in the streets of Barcelona, where they coexisted with more traditional means of transportation. Stagecoaches carried passengers between Barcelona and the neighbouring smaller towns that were not yet served by the railway system, and horse-drawn coaches were still waiting (..) for those who travelled to Barcelona by train or by boat. Heavy goods were transported in wagons pulled by horses, but smaller parcels were usually carried in handcarts by men who hired out their services. (...)