Hospital de Sant Pau

The Curative Effects of Beauty

Hospital de Sant Pau Logo

Hospital de Sant Pau is Barcelona's largest Modernista project and its fabulously beautiful design and decorative detail was intended to have therapeutic effects on its residents.

The project was completed between 1902 and 1930 first by Lluís Domènech i Montaner (1902-1918) and then his son Pere Domènech i Roura (1921-30) using money bequeathed by Catalan banker Pau Gil i Serra.

Hospital de Sant Pau was a fully functional public hospital until 2009, and has been recently refurbished and converted into an international centre for sustainability and cultural projects with various organisations occupying different pavilions.

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, the Hospital reopened to the public in February 2014. 


The Story of Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau

Although popularly known as Hospital de Sant Pau, the hospital's full name is Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau - Hospital of the Holy Cross and Saint Paul - and the story of how it came to be built is a complicated one.

From 1401 onwards, Barcelona's main hospital was Hospital de la Santa Creu, which now houses the National Library of Catalonia and is located on Carrer Hospital just off the Rambla.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the hospital couldn't cope with the rapid demographic and teritorial growth of Barcelona and badly needed expanding and modernising.

However, the project only became a reality in 1896, when the Catalan banker Pau Gil i Serra, who had become immensely rich in Paris, died, leaving half of his fortune to his hometown for the building of a new hospital.

In his will, he insisted that the hospital would be called after Sant Pau, and as the Hospital de la Santa Creu was to be moved, the two names were combined.

The picture shows a bust of Pau Gil by sculptor Eusebi Arnau outside one of the main entrances.

Therapeutic Architecture

Domènech i Montaner wanted to overcome the depressing labrinthine character that big general hospitals share with prisons.

If patients were to recover, they needed an agreeable environment with colour, fresh air, greenery and a sense of ground underfoot.

He hit on the innovative idea of excavating the whole site and building all Hospital de Sant Pau's service areas and corridors underground.

Above this hidden substructure, forty-eight pavillions would rise, each one built over an underground system that linked it to the hospital services.

The original project included thirty-six buildings for bed patients and twelve for services and administration, as separate pavillions would make it easier to isolate infected patients and also give the hospital a more village-like atmosphere.

After much argument the project was finally delegated to Lluís Domènech i Montaner in 1902, who as the picture shows projected a group of 48 buildings occupying 9 blocks of the Eixample.

Domènech i Montaner, in collaboration with sculptor Eusebi Arnau and the Jujol i Bausis workshop, managed to complete 10 pavillions until the money from Paul Gil i Serra's testament ran out in 1911.

The City Council dug into its pockets and work restarted in 1914 and two more pavillions were built with the now ageing architect now working alongside his son Pere Domènech i Roura.

In 1921, Barcelona Council committed fully to the project and following Domènech i Montaner's death in 1923, Pere Domènech i Roura took over as head of works until completion in 1930.

Given the relative lack of money and possibly the fact that the son was not quite as brilliant as the father, the buildings from this second period are significantly more austere.

However, they fitted with the tone unlike the buildings added in 1960 during Franco's dictatorship that were jerry-built without any respect for the original project.

The Hospital de Sant Pau was opened by King Alfonso XIII in 1930 and continued serving the city until 2009.

It is currently being refurbished as an international centre for sustainability projects, such as the International Institute of the United Nations University, the European Forestry Institute and the Global Water Operators Policy Alliance.

Breaking With Monotony

Domènech i Montaner disliked what he called 'the eternal monotony of two widely separated parallel lines' and set out to make Sant Pau as different from the rest of the Eixample as possible.

He aligned the buildings on either side of two avenues - each 550 yards long - that crossed in the centre of the site and stood at a 45 degree angle to the Eixample's main grid.

The main surgery building, with its operating theatres and disinfection rooms, stood at the crossing of these main thoroughfares whilst smaller streets that gave access to the pavillions ran off the arms of the holy cross.

The Hospital de Sant Pau was no mere building but a large and carefully controlled environment where a central importance was given to mood.

To keep the spirits of the patients and their families up, and to distance the association of hospitals with death and suffering, Domènech i Montaner lavished his genius on the detail and colour of each of the pavillions.

The accompanying photo of the entrance hall to the administration building just gives a hint of the creative energy the great architect put into the project.

An Atmosphere of Care

An atmosphere of care comes across as soon as you come up the double ramp into the reception block, whose facade glistens with mural mosaics depicting to the history of the hospital from medieval times to the present.

Inside, octagonal columns with Domènech i Montaner's trademark floral capitals - originally adapted from those in the fifteenth century cloister of the Monasteri de Santes Creus - support shallow domes surprisingly sheathed in dusky pink tiles.

A broad staicase rises on the left towards the admistration offices, and the whole spaces bathes in sunlight from an enormous stained glass skylight in the roof.

The impression is at once ceremonious, exciting and optimistic.

The tones shifts to one of intimacy as you enter the grounds of the Hospital de Sant Pau itself, and amongst the pavillions the feeling of sedatious care remains.

Domènech i Montaner appears to have believed that art was literally therapeutic.

Speaking of his father's love of highlighting plain materials with flashes of fine decoration, Pere Domènech i Roura, who finished the hospital after his father died, commented ...

"the material took on nobility even if it was ordinary ... if it was joined to the use of some rich material, even in small amounts, the thing acquired a character of richness, surprisingly so in view of its real price. So it was with the Hospital de Sant Pau, in which he thought that everything that could give a feeling of well-being to the sick was also a form of therapy."

A Profusion of Colour

Nothing else would explain the inventive passion that Domènech i Montaner put into the bright bubbling landscape of coloured pavillion domes or the profusion of sculpture - allegorical, symbolic, or merely decorative - that meets the eye at every turn.

He put the sculpture programme in the hands of two renowned artists - Eusebi Arnau and Pau Gargallo - who in turn employed a whole host of assistants.

Consequently, the hospital buzzes with images of saints, angels, personifications of charity, science and mercy, knights and heroes, and even distinguished Catalan doctors from Arnau de Vilanova to the late mayor of Barcelona Dr. Bartolomeu Robert.

No two pavillions are the same and are further enriched by a profusion of ceramic motifs.

Lizards and snails peep from the foliage of painted orange trees, and flowers - glazed, embossed, sculpted in mosaic - are everywhere; on plaques, within arches, curling round columns, or sprouting from the spikes of finials like hollyhocks from their stems.

The decor is a lexicon of blossoming and recovery.

Even the overlapping ceramic tiles on the pavilion domes are plump, lobular and shiny - not at all like the flat tiles you see in normal buildings.

The ceramic designs on the patients' wards, however, are peaceful portraying cool, repetitious, mildly hypnotic patterns.

Inside we find a space for rest and recuperation whilst outside is a testament to growth and regeneration, whatever the season.

Visiting Hospital de Sant Pau

Where: Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, Carrer Sant Antoni Maria Claret, 167 (the entrance is on the corner of Carrer Dos de Maig), Horta-Guinardó, 08026 Barcelona
Opening Times: Library: Open every day. Closed 1 and 6 January and 24, 25, 26 and 31 December

Metro: Sant Pau|Dos de Maig - Blue L5 Metro Line, Guinardó|Hospital de Sant Pau - Yellow L4 Metro Line

Click Here to Buy Tickets for the Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau

Have Something To Say About This Topic?

Do you have a great information to add or an opinion to express about on this topic? Share it!

New! Comments

Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.