Lluís Domènech i Montaner was Barcelona’s leading architect at the end of the 19th century. His enormous prestige was only matched by Gaudí. One of his earliest projects was an extraordinary looking Neo-Medieval building in Parc de la Ciutadella popularly known as Castell dels Tres Dragons (“Castel of the Three Dragons”). It is a perfect example of the day dreaming quality of Modernista (Art Nouveau) architecture in Barcelona .
This building was famously praised by local architect Oriol Bohigas as an early example of rationalist architecture . And it certainly is if you manage to mentally erase its crown-like shaped mayolica battelments decorated with painted ceramic shields, the four extremely fanciful towers and the extraordinary wrought iron and coloured glass pinnacle that shoots from one of them.
It is difficult to escape the irony that such a rationalistic space has had so many difficulties in finding a steady, sensible use . It was conceived as a restaurant (Café-Restaurant is its original name), for the World Fair of 1888, a momentous year that marks the beginning of Modernisme in Barcelona. The name Castell dels Tres Dragons (Castel of the three Dragons) comes from the coincidence of its opening with the première of a very popular play of the same name in 1888.
The restaurant did not outlived the excitement of the Fair; few years later became a music school: After the Spanish Civil War it housed a charity dining room and, ever since the decade of 1950, the Castell has been the city’s Natural History Museum. That is what it was when I first visited it as a kid and I think it was a very good building to house such an institution: an old fashioned, strange looking brick pile containing precious minerals, exotic shells and all kinds of scary looking stuffed animals in large glass cabinets. It was perhaps less educational than a David Attenborough video but had the right mysterious atmosphere to fire a child’s imagination about the strangeness of our world.
The Castle has been closed to the public for more than a decade now and its collection of old fashioned marvels have been removed. Local authorities have been considering many possible uses but nothing seems to fit this extraordinary building. The interior space is not an easy one: a large hall beautifully lit by natural light but with an enormous volume of overhead space that was great to hang a skeleton of a white whale but can hardly be given any other use if one must leave the original architecture intact. And that is the whole point: to find something to match the architecture
The latest idea sounds like a rather good one: a children’s books museum. The problem is that the Castle could have been too large for a restaurant but it is definitely far too small for a mass audience. And who wants a museum without a mass audience today?