If you walk around Barcelona, don’t forget to look down from time to time: you may be standing on a marvel of design.

The City of Marvels is how writer Eduardo Mendoza called the coolest city of the Mediterranean in one of his novels. The book is set at the turn of the 20th century, a time in which Barcelona boomed and became what it is today. A time in which factories’ chimneys grew side by side with the Sagrada Familia’s towers. That tumultuous era left its signature on thousands of floors in the city – one of its marvels. Pavements laid in churches, palaces and avenues form an amazing mosaic. “These floors are addictive”, says José Jóvena, creator with Elisabet Martínez of Tile Addiction. The two have uploaded hundreds of pictures of Barcelona’s floors on Instagram. Recently, they discovered that a German photographer, Sebastian Erras, shared their passion for floors. Erras had done projects on Parisian floors and Venetian floors. They thought he would go crazy with Barcelona’s floors and invited him to see them.
Casa Lleo Morera
Casa Lleo Morera
Casa Amatller
Casa Amatller
Casa Batlló
Casa Batlló
Casa Amatller
Casa Amatller
Casa Amatller
Casa Amatller
Casa Lleo Morera
Casa Lleo Morera

The block of discord: Artistic Hotspot

José and Eli suggested I start my walk at the Block of Discord. The name comes from the rivalry in early 20th century Barcelona among the city’s three best architects, who each designed a building on the same block. My jaw dropped at the sight of Gaudi’s Batlló house. Its balconies looked like Venetian masks, its walls a rain of confetti, and its roof a giant Harlequin’s hat. “In fact, the balconies and columns are believed to be the skulls and bones of humans devoured by a dragon – the roof – killed by Saint Jorge’s sword – the chimney”, pointed out Alma Andreu, who handles communications for Batlló House. Entering the homes, I saw the two different floors that were competing for clients’ favour. The architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner’s hydraulic tiles in the Lleó Morera house are like amazing tile carpets. On the other hand, the Amatller house features the Nolla mosaic, a combination of stoneware square and triangles, matched to form colourful patterns.
Casa Thomas
Casa Thomas
Casa Thomas
Casa Thomas
Recinto Modernista de Sant Pau
Recinto Modernista de Sant Pau
Casa Thomas
Casa Thomas
La Pedrera
La Pedrera
Recinto Modernista de Sant Pau
Recinto Modernista de Sant Pau

A modernist cornucopia: Mansions

As I strolled around Barcelona, I stepped into tens of houses made in the modernist style, the local version of the Art Nouveau. Beginning in the 19th century, as Barcelona experienced its industrial revolution, the city’s population grew quickly. In 1861, it was decided to multiply the size of the city, building a brand new neighbourhood, called the Eixample (expansion). It’s the square-shaped section anyone can spot on a map of the city. In the subsequent building boom, factory owners wanted their flats to look like palaces and hired local modernist architects. Suddenly, a curious change happened to the pavements. Until then, floors were simple, at most with some white and blue ceramic tiles here and there, in the old Catalan style, such as the Sant Pau Hospital. For the most part, floors were covered with carpets. But then carpet design was transferred directly to the floor. The modernist pavements, like those by Josep Pascó in Thomas House, look like real carpets, with their repeated patterns, frames and borders.
La Sagrada Familia
La Sagrada Familia
Parroquia de Sant Pacia
Parroquia de Sant Pacia
La Sagrada Familia
La Sagrada Familia
Parroquia de Sant Pacia
Parroquia de Sant Pacia
Parroquia de Sant Pacia
Parroquia de Sant Pacia
Parroquia de Sant Pacia
Parroquia de Sant Pacia

Churches and rebellion: Religion

Some of the finest floors I found in Barcelona were in churches. Among them, there is the gorgeous Sagrada Familia, of course. Here I saw the famous trencadís, a mosaic mastered by Gaudí, made by assembling broken pieces of ceramic, tiles or even dinnerware. If you see trencadís around, you can be sure that you are looking at a modernist piece. Despite the beauty of modernist design, all was not sunshine and roses during those times. “The rise of the bourgeoisie led to terrible social conflict, which exploded in summer 1909, in the so-called Tragic Week”, said Josep Bracons, the collections director at the Museum of History of Barcelona (MUHBA). One of the churches with the nicest floors I’d seen, the Parish of Sant Pacià, was burned and looted, and used as a warehouse until 1924.
Palau Casades
Palau Casades
Saló de Cent, Ayuntamiento de Barcelona
Saló de Cent, Ayuntamiento de Barcelona
Círculo del Liceo
Círculo del Liceo
Círculo del Liceo
Círculo del Liceo
Saló de Sant Jordi, Palau de la Generalitat
Saló de Sant Jordi, Palau de la Generalitat
Palau de la Música
Palau de la Música

The hydraulic tile kingdom: Palaces

As I visited one palace after another, I realized that the battle between the Nolla mosaic and the hydraulic tile was ultimately won by the latter. The Nolla mosaic (whose name comes from its creator) is laborious to lay down. The hydraulic tiles are much more practical, capturing the perfect fusion of “art and industry”, an ideal of the modernists. First, they are easier to make. Since they are made of Portland cement, a new technology at that time, it’s enough to just let them dry rather than bake them. Second, they can be decorated richly, including the typical modernist swans, lizards and flowers I saw on the floor of the Liceu Opera House Club. The drawings are applied on the wet tile by a metal mould filled with pigments. Third, they are easy to lay down because of their regular shapes. They are called hydraulic either because of the use of water in cement, or because they were originally formed with a hydraulic press.
Farmacia Ferrer Argelaguet
Farmacia Ferrer Argelaguet
Papelería Villena
Papelería Villena
Casa Calico
Casa Calico
Germanes García
Germanes García
Farmacia Velasco
Farmacia Velasco
Zelinda Milano
Zelinda Milano

Buy with style: Shops

The advent of hydraulic tiles transformed Barcelona’s floors into a lavish carpet. I peeped into old shops and found awesome decorations on the pavement: geometric shapes, vegetable motifs or stylized organic shapes. Animals and humans were rarer, to avoid the unpleasant sensation of walking on them. The typical colours were maroon, green, pink, yellow, brown, cream, grey, white and black. But I could also spot some examples of red, blue, orange and even purple. The most common shape is the classical 20x20cm square, but there were all sorts of forms: hexagons, triangles, diamonds and combinations of them. Many pavements were patterns of identical tiles. But I especially loved those in which the drawing emerged from the combination of tiles: for example, four square tiles combined to make a larger pattern.
Granja M. Viader
Granja M. Viader
Café Tenorio
Café Tenorio
Entrepanes Díaz
Entrepanes Díaz
Marítim Restaurant
Marítim Restaurant
Toto Restaurante
Toto Restaurante
Restaurante Cátedra
Restaurante Cátedra

Foodies’ tiles: Restaurants

As a foodie, I know well that food is much more than what you eat. It’s also what you see around your dish. Or in this case, the floor that’s the background of your table. Many of which are beautiful in Barcelona. This is why José and Eli of Tile Addiction have started a parallel project, Foodie’s tiles, where they combine cool food and cool pavements. Maybe this combination attracted the young Pablo Picasso to the beautiful Granja Viader. Here you can have one of the best cups of hot chocolate in the city, along with the view of a gorgeous floor. “The daughter of Picasso said to Glamour magazine that her father brought her to have a chocolate here”, said Mercè Casademunt Viader, the owner of the granja. “He told her about his youth, when he came here with his gang to have a snack and conversation”, she said.
Generator Hostel
Generator Hostel
Alexandra Hotel
Alexandra Hotel
Generator Hostel
Generator Hostel
Praktik Hotel
Praktik Hotel
Axel Hotel
Axel Hotel
Praktik Hotel
Praktik Hotel

Pavements old and new: Hotels

Barcelona’s archetypical flooring is not mainstream anymore. The trencadís was not used much after modernism. The last catalogue of Nolla mosaics dates from 1920. And the hydraulic tile did not survive the 1960s building boom, when it was supplanted by cheaper options. However, they are having a second youth in special spaces, like hotels. Those that I visited were like a big catalogue of styles for you to walk across. Sometimes hotel owners restore original floors. Or they even order newly made hydraulic tiles with modern designs. Finally, there is a whole business of recycling old tiles from refurbished flats or demolished buildings. In the Generator Hostel, for example, I walked on a beautiful patchwork of different tiles. Their contrasting colours and mixed patterns made me think of how many different stories had taken place in their original homes, and are now brought together in a single place.
Jardines del Mirador del Alcade, Montjuïc
Jardines del Mirador del Alcade, Montjuïc
Jardines del Mirador del Alcade, Montjuïc
Jardines del Mirador del Alcade, Montjuïc
Paseo de Gracia
Paseo de Gracia
Vía Layetana
Vía Layetana
Avenida Diagonal
Avenida Diagonal
Jardines del Mirador del Alcade, Montjuïc
Jardines del Mirador del Alcade, Montjuïc

All the city is a parlour: Streets

Walking along Passeig de Gràcia, Barcelona’s most splendid boulevard, is like sinking your feet in an aquarium of strange creatures: snails, starfish, jellyfish and maybe even demons. These are the shapes formed at the junctions of the hexagonal tiles that cover the passeig. Those tiles, called panots - a simpler variant of the hydraulic version - were designed by Gaudí himself. “You can see the face of the demon in the pattern of the pavement: according to legend, Gaudí hid it among the sea elements to express his masonic faith”, the journalist Josep Maria Carandell told me. What is not a legend is that Gaudi’s panot was one of the first products of industrial design to revolutionize the traditional model. This is why it is currently exposed at the MOMA, in New York. Carandell had another revealing anecdote. The panots were not designed to be laid outside. Instead, Gaudi planned to use them in the Batlló House, but they were not used because of a delay in the delivery. In 1971, the design was chosen to cover the sidewalks of the passeig: Barcelona’s passion for lavish floors is so deep that even its streets are paved like a parlour.
License: Creative Commons Attribution No Derivatives 4.0
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