Understanding historical structures: Gaudí and the Palau Güell

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  • STRUCTURAL ANALYSI$ OF HISTORICAL CONSTRUCTIONS li P. Roca, J.L. Gonzlez, E. Oi'la te y P.B. Loureno (Eds.)

    ClMNE, Barcelona 1998


    J. L. Gonzlez MorenoNavarro, Escula T. S 'Arq/lileclura e Barcelona Ulliversital Politecnica de Calalullya Barcelona, Spail1

    The Palau Gell

    Eusebi GelJ i Bacigalupi commissioned Antoni Gaud to build the Palau Gell in 1885 when the Catalan architect was only 34 years of age [1]. It was his first major work, since the buildings that he had already built, several ofthem also for the Gell family, certainly reflected his strong personality but they had neither the volume nor lhe social imponance Df the projected Palau Gell residence.

    Eusebi Gell fonned part of the powerful, cultivated and enterprising bourgeoisie of the industrial Catalonia Df the second half of the 19

    th centuI)'. Through the Gell Palace he

    sought to rea.ffinn his personality and position within lhe Barcelona bourgeoisie. Gaud was six years younger. He hailed from a family of rural craftsmen and was at the outset of his career. According to Rfols[2], Gaud presented 25 different proposals for the Palau Gell faade and it was Eusebi Gell himself who, in his eagemess to achieve notoriety, chose the one most likely to cause the maximum vi sual impact at that time, which was, with cenain minor variations, the one that was finally built

    The building pennit was granted by the Barcelona City Council in November 1886 and the building was completed towards the end of 1890.

    Regarding the Palace's value in the architectural context ofthe time, "it is important to point out the pioneering role played by that early renovative Catalan architecture, not only in relation to the earlier local Ar' Nouveau but in the corrtext of European architecture in general. Let it suffice to mention the dates of some of the key works Df European Art Nouveau: 1893, the building ofthe house ofPau\ Hankar in Brussels; 1894, the construction ofthe Vienna Metro by Otto Wagner; 1896, the Elvira House in Munich by August Endell; 1898, the Glasgow School of Art, by Mackintosh, and the Sezession Palace of Vienna, by Olbrich; 1900, the Paris Metro designed by Guimard. As can be seen, aJl these were built after the early work of Gaud. [ ... ] at that time, Gaud was, without any doubt, a pioneer within European architecture. "[3]

    The building was to be the Gell residence until the 1940s, when it became the


    property af lhe Barcelona Provincial Council (Diputaci Provincial de Barcelona), which since then has been canying oul an ongoing programme Df maintenance and restoration work. The hause, sei in lhe building Df lhe "Institut dei Teatre". did nOI require any major transfonnations, 50 Ihat we can safely say lhat it is coe of lhe few Df Gaud' s works to have come down to us almost as he created i1. The restoration work Ihat was carried out, in lhe first phase in 1945, and lhen 1aleT between 1971 and 1977. served to correct lhe wear and tear of lhe passing of time and restore lhe building to its originaJ splendour. A series af Preliminary Studies began to bc carned OUI in 1981 under lhe auspices af the new management Df lhe Loca1 Architectural Heritage Service. These Studies have since been in progress interspersed with partial restoration projects, such as the restoration ofthe roof[4].

    With regard to the building's structural behaviour, these Studies included an assessment of the building's structural solidity. an analysis of its seismic resistance and its wooden flooring. a detailed study of downward load transmission and a comparative study of the structural rramework in the original design and the present-day structure of the actual building [5). This present paper is based directly on Ihese last two studies, but it would not have been possible without the eartier studies which provided the indispensable preJiminary infonnation.

    The Relationship between the Building.'s Function~ Space and Load-Bearing.Struc.ture

    As can be seen in lhe diagrams 1 to 10, the building consists ofa total ofseven floors from the basement up to lhe 10ft. The tille assigned' lO each floor indicates the original uses for which il was destined.

  • J. L. GONZLEZ I Gaud and lhe Palau Gell

    , - ...... .

    Fig. I General rear view of the Pa1au GelJ

    Fig. 2. Main faade

    [r CJ




    Fig. 3. Thc OOsement: lhe stables

    Fig.. t 1be ground floor: cntrnncc for ClITagcs.

    Fig. 6. PUlnO noblle: on lhe stroet sidc salons for sociaJ life. in lhe interior the grand saIon and privalc rooms, l...ocation for lhe 1000 plans in figures 14-17,

    anel officcs Fig. 7. lntcrfloor area: extcosion cf lhe grand sa1on, servicc quancrs.

    Fig. 5. Thc mC7..zarUne: GclJ's librnry andofficcs. Fig. 8. Main bcdrooms.

  • J. L. GONZLEZ I Gaud and the Palau Gell

    Fig. 9. Transversal section.

    ft J l ~l

    Fig. 10. Longitudinal section.

    .. , . , .... " "" .. , .... "",,-1,,1 I I I J





    pillars, and wl!ed off aI lhe levei cf lhe mezzanine. The other uses reserved for these tWQ floors (lhe ground Iloor and mezzanine), coach house and oftices. respectively. also fil in with a structure built around pillars, as lhe pillars cnsure flexibility as regards use af space. The brick pillars and arches and vaults employed in lhe basement are therefore a direct consequence cf lhe conception of lhe other two floors, lha! is, lhe ground tloor and lhe mezzanine, and their uses, and, ofcourse, they did no! c1ash with lhe use aflhe basement as a stable,

    In contrast, lhe three upper floors, deslined lor domestic uses, have lhe more usual load-supporting mechanism cf load-bearing walls, which also have to SUpPOll lhe powerful central space. The entire syslem which provides structural support for lhe dome, the difficulty of which is heightened by the fact that its dimensions are smaller Ihan those af the grand salon, is based on the walls parallel to the main faade (a standard solution for supporting the faade bay in Barcelona) and lhe shear walls, by means of large-scale melai beams. This arrangement also altows for the inclusion of a conidor around lhe central space providing access to the rooms, which was one of Gaudi 's preferred solulions, and it can also be seen in his La Casa de lus Bu/ines in Len and in La Pedrera.

    In ils general conception. we can dearly see lhe building's structure as the positive outcome ofa dialogue between ali three ofthese diflerent spatial compositions. which are in tum lhe resu!! of lhe different uses planned for the various floors and Gaudi's precise architectural intenlions.

    Nevertheless, there is a general opinion, based on lhe analysis of bOlh general and specific issues, which holds lhat the struclure ofthis building is somewhat "confused".

    Enigmatic and Puzzlillg Elements

    Ali lhe studies carried out on lhe Palau Gell, both structural and more general in nature, have coincided in pointing out the complexily of lhe building's structure and the existence of a number 01' elements which are rather enig.matic viewed ITom lhe perspective of slandard construction practice.

    Thus for example, Bassegoda claims that one of lhe most oUlslanding features of the Palau Gell is its structural originality: ' \vhal were Ihougbl to be simply decorative or crafted ceilings tum oul lo be supporting structures" [7]. While this area is not lhe concem of lhe pcsenl papc, il is ncvenheless an opponunity to poim out lhal lhe ceiling panels ofthe piano lIobile are a mastepiece ofwooden structure-building [8].

    Bassegoda goes on lo claim: In lhe mezzanine, where Gell had his library and oflice, there is a famous pillar which has ofien becn lhe source of comments, for it does nOI correspond to any oflhose on lhe ground floor and is supported directly on lhe fioor"

    This is perhaps lhe mOSI suprising featue ofthe stmcture. However it is nol only the pillar mentioned by Bassegoda lhat is sUprising; there are also a number of others: a pillar supported directly on the flooring is found over and again.

    The study which deals in most deplh with Ihese enigmatic features, indeed these features which seem to dei)' logic, is that carried out by the Professors of Stmcture of lhe

  • J. L. GONZLEZ I Gaud and lhe Palau Gell 211

    School of Architecture of Barcelona, Joan Margarit and Carles Buxader that is mentioned above. This study also fonned the basis for an articJe which was published in a number of joumals ofwide circulalion [9]

    Given lhe recognised authority ofthese professors and lhe fact that to date no studies unearthing new data have appeared, the concJusions presented in those articJes can be taken as representing lhe CUrTent state of general opinion on the maUer

    Let us now examine live controversial structural solutions in more detail, and Ihen we will move 00 10 consider the various assessments of them that have been made by the two authors mentiooed above. Almosl ali of lhe features in question are situated in four of the different load transmission plans [10] which, we can call A. B, C, and D, as seI out in lhe altacheFirstly, analysis of ali these features enabtes us to see that~ despite the facl that lhe load being bome by lhe ceiling of the basement does nOI increase significantly, oevertheless lhe diameter of lhe basement pillars is much greater than Ihat of lhe ground Ooor pillars. Furthennore, load plan A enables us to see lhe tirsl surprising feature lha! lhe basement pillars receive considerable l