Gaudí’s Palacio Episcopal

Astorga presented with us an unexpected delight: Gaudí‘s Palacio Episcopal. as I mentioned in my previous Gaudí-related post, I only realized we’d seen his work in León after I saw pictures of the building while researching. in Astorga, however, there was no missing it — even if we hadn’t gotten a map from the front desk of the hotel with all the sights highlighted. we came up a side street, past the Museo del Chocolate and into the plaza — with Astorga’s cathedral at the other end with the Palacio Episcopal beside it.

along with the Casa de los Botines, the Palacio is one of three buildings Gaudí designed that stand outside of Catalonia (his works in and around Barcelona make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and was constructed between 1899 and 1913. after a fire destroyed the previous building, the bishop of the time (name Grau) and a friend of Gaudí asked the renowned architect to take on the project of designing a new structure. Gaudí agreed though his work on the Palau Güell prevented him from leaving Barcelona to visit Astorga to get a sense of the city and terrain; instead he relied on photos and other pertinent information sent by Grau to complete his building design.

the supervisory council approved Gaudí’s design in February 1889 and work began in June (on the feast day of St. John) of the same year. following Grau’s death in 1893, however, Gaudí and the council began to disagree — perhaps over Gaudí’s decision to use Catalan workers with whom he’d contracted previously and upon whom he could rely to follow his vision during his absences or perhaps because the modernist building didn’t fit the council’s vision of appropriate religious architecture or perhaps because the project was getting expensive  — and Gaudí ultimately resigned. he took his workers with him when he left construction halted for several years. several of the architects subsequently hired to direct the project came and left without making much of an impact on progress; the last one resigned before the completion of the fourth (and final) floor. the project finally wrapped up between 1913 and 1915. during the Spanish Civil War it served as headquarters for the Falange but in 1956 restoration work (really aimed at finishing up the planned final details) began, aimed at converting it (back) to its intended use as a bishop’s residence. today it serves as a religious museum dedicated to the Camino — the Museo de los Caminos.

Casa de los Botines

I’d heard of Gaudí before going to Spain but had no idea what his buildings looked like. so much so that when we walked past the back of this interesting building in León it didn’t occur to me it might be one of his — even though I knew he’d designed one that stood somewhere within the old city walls near-about where we were wandering. when we saw the Palacio Episcopal in Astorga I began to suspect we might have passed what I now know is the Casa de los Botines in León and after seeing pictures of it I know we did, even if it was just the back side.

after he completed of the Palacio Episcopal in Astorga (about which more later, once we’ve made it to Astorga), businessmen Simón Fernández and Mariano Andrés commissioned Gaudí to design a multi-use structure — as a warehouse and department store on the ground floor with residential space on the three floors above. in a notable contrast to surrounding buildings, Gaudí designed the Casa de los Botines in a neo-gothic style with a distinct medieval air to it, complete with turrets on the four corners and a kind of moat on two sides that allows sunlight and ventilation into the basement. a sculpture of St. George slaying the dragon stands watch over the main entrance. the small granite blocks of the facade resemble those used in the Palacio Episcopal (probably due to their local source), though that did not have six skylights to illuminate the attic. one of the characteristics I found more remarkable is how the size of the windows diminishes with each floor; the shape remains the same but the smaller width emphasizes the size and design of the building.

Gaudí signed off on plans the last day of 1891 and preparations for the building began in January of 1892 after the property owners won a dispute with the municipal government over use of the property. during the project, Gaudí faced opposition from local engineers who believed the design for his foundation — a continuous base like the one found in the city’s cathedral — completely inappropriate for local conditions. they insisted that pilotis were necessary, which would require excavating much deeper than Gaudí envisioned. when they could not produce persuasive proof of the necessity of their plan Gaudí went ahead with his; because of this people feared the building would collapse on itself upon completion. after waiting with bated breath (or not) during the 10 months of construction, Gaudí was vindicated and his building did not collapse. the building officially opened in November of 1894.

inside the building, Gaudí left much of the floor plan open by transferring weight to internal pillars and the exterior walls. when purchased by a bank in 1929, several of the interior pillars were removed. when the Caja España obtained the property, they renovated the building back to Gaudí‘s plans and re-installed the removed pillars. during restorations in the 1950s, workers discovered a tube of lead concealed under the statue of St. George that included original plans signed by Gaudí, as well as press clippings from the time of construction. today, as I mentioned, it’s offices for a bank.