The architectural power of medieval Girona dwarfs everything built there since, say, the completion of the huge cathedral’s tower. That is unfortunate in a way because although there is hardly any building of distinction created between the late 18th and the early 20th centuries, Girona contains some very fine examples of early modernist architecture, and those are the houses designed by local architect Rafael Masó .
Rafael Masó started as a follower of Gaudí but his mature style has more connections with what was going on in Vienna at that time – the style known as Sezession. Masó can be described as a (excuse the contradiction), romantic rationalist advocating a sensible compromise between clear structural principle and finely crafted decoration.
In 1913 Masó, alongside some other artists, founded the artistic society Athenea. He also built its headquarters that incorporated public showrooms as well as studios with the intention to establish an art school there. The building (a very original statement of severe though beautifully ornate classicism), was shamefully demolished in 1975. The nature of Masó’s cultural enterprise can be better grasped by a foreign visitor if we remember that 1913 was also the year when the Omega Workshops opened in London’s 33 Fitzroy Street to show the work of the Bloomsbury Group. As far as I know, there wasn’t any connection whatsoever between the artists of Athenea and those of Omega; the Catalan architect had a Germanic more than British inspiration and Roger Fry and his friends did not need any external input; they were following the path opened by William Morris decades before. But although the Bloomsbury Group was basically interested in painting and the Girona artists were centered on architecture and had a more classicist drive, there are obvious coincidences. In both cases the main intention was to incorporate the new formal inventions of the avant-garde into the social bloodstream through textiles, furniture and all sorts of applied arts. The Athenea posters and book covers are deliciously refined, the tile designs are gorgeous and at least one of the artists of the group, sculptor Fidel Aguilar who died at the shockingly young age of 23, was an artist of real distinction -a Catalan Eric Gill, one might say.
Athenea closed down its doors in 1917, Omega Workshops followed one year later.
The end of Athenea didn’t prevent Masó from designing a number of very fine buildings in Girona. The most spectacular of all is La Farinera Teixidor (the premises of a flour company), still reminiscent of Gaudí in its very organic flow of curved shapes and concealed eroticism, it shows a much more restrained and refined use of color. This expansive sensuality of La Farinera is an exception in Rafael Masó’s oeuvre. Following his artistic ideals, Masó teamed up with other artists and craftsmen to find his true artistic self in a soberly compact but very lucid blend of architecture, sculpture and decorated tiles with a distinctive Austrian aftertaste. This northern severity looks surprisingly adequate along the sturdy stone streets of Girona’s old quarters. The Casa Masó is in one of those streets and now holds a museum dedicated to the legacy of Rafael Masó. It is a large family house with a luminous façade hanging over the river and beautifully crafted interiors in which Masó achieved a perfect balance between sophisticated artistic taste and bourgeois respectability; not quite the libertarian flair of old Bloomsbury but a very interesting parallel to it nonetheless.