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  • Writer's pictureSonia Cuesta Maniar, PhD

A Brief History of Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau

What is Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau?


Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau is an Imposing Modernist hospital in Barcelona that was designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner in the early 20th century and was originally founded in 1401, then was renamed the 'Recinte Modernista' in 2014.


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Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau


Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau History


In the early 15th century, six small medieval hospitals merged to address the twin crises of famine and an outbreak of plague in Barcelona, forming the Hospital de la Santa Creu. At its height in the Middle Ages, it was considered one of the best in Europe. Its premises did not only serve as a hospital but were also central to scientific enquiry. Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal developed his Nobel Prize-winning theories there during the early 20th century. Yet as the population soared the hospital became limited in scope: its splendid gothic buildings in La Raval were starting to show signs of fatigue. A new complex was required to cater to Barcelona's growing medical demands. In a curious stroke of fate, one of the old hospital’s last patients was Barcelona's most famous architect Antoni Gaudí, who was rushed there following the tram accident that eventually led to his death in 1926.


The hospital changed location at the start of the 20th century, partly thanks to Catalan banker Pau Gil i Serra's legacy. In his will, Gil i Serra left a sizeable amount of money to the hospital. The only stipulation was the new institution’s name, and thus the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau was born.


The sizeable Modernist complex you see today was designed by the architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner and completed in 1930. Before undertaking the project, the architect travelled around Europe to learn about trends in hospital design and construction. Following his travels, he designed a medical complex based on the ‘garden city’ model – as had Gaudí for the Park Güell. Domènech i Montaner designed an urban network including an administration department, a library, a modern church, and 27 isolated pavilions, divided by medical speciality. All areas were distinctly decorated and linked together by a series of underground passages.


At the centre of the architect’s design was a philosophy of nature. He believed that sunlight and fresh air were of vital importance to patients and doctors, and this is reflected in the design: Domènech i Montaner oriented the main gate 45 degrees from the Eixample district’s grid of city blocks. It’s thought that he deliberately chose this to allow the sea breeze to ventilate the hospital and prevent diseases. The architect believed in addition that pleasant, green environments played a key role in the recovery process. To this end, he attached green spaces to each pavilion, and arranged for specific plants and trees associated with purification to be planted in these gardens.

The structures themselves were built in red brick, inspired by 19th-century European industrial architecture. However, avoiding the functionalist austerity of some Modernist thinking, Domènech i Montaner covered the roofs with yellow, red and green clay tiles and adorned the pavilions with decorative panels and mosaics. His ornamental motifs are mostly inspired by flora and fauna and represent regeneration, healing and the triumph of life over death. The rooms' lighting, ventilation, and decoration made the hospital a pioneer in successfully illustrating the importance of open space and sunlight in patients' treatment.


The Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau remains one of the most significant works of Catalan Modernism, as well as the architect's personal masterpiece. It became a World Heritage Site in 1997 for its singular beauty and sensitivity of design. However, it’s the philosophy that underpinned Domènech i Montaner’s work that makes the hospital genuinely inspiring. Over a century on, the setting remains central to European history, art, and medicine.


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