After a convulsive nineteenth century, full of wars and changes in government, the Spanish socio-political situation stabilised to a given point about the time the Bourbon dynasty returned to power in 1875, succeeding the defeated First Republic. Barcelona enjoyed a period of industrial growth and cultural progress, already initiated in the previous decades. This brought forth the socio-economic situation that differentiated Catalonia more and more from the rest of the Spanish State.
Between 1822 and 1888 Barcelona held 14 expositions of Catalan industrial products, with the support of the ‘Junta de Comerç’ [Commerce Assembly] and, when this was terminated, that of the ‘Institut Industrial de Catalunya’ [Industrial Institute of Catalonia]. Meanwhile, the Catalan industrial epoch had begun regular attendances at the universal expositions since the first one, held in London in 1851. At the same time, Barcelona was being remodelled: the demolition of the walls had commenced and, since 1859, Cerdà’s Plan had been put into practise.
On the 25th of November 1885 Alfonse XII died and Maria Cristina of Habsburg, mother of the minor Alfonse XIII, was nominated Queen Regent. On the 15th of December 1885, Francesc de P. Rius Taulet (1833-1890) was elected mayor of Barcelona – having already been nominated three times previously (1872, 1874, 1883), albeit for short periods –. One of his objectives was the full recovery of the Ciutadella for the city. Logically, things being as they were, the project of a universal exposition had to be welcomed.
In fact, the Exposition was born as the initiative of Eugenio R. Serrano de Casanova. He hailed from Galicia and was a Carlist soldier; he was established in Paris and participated in the official representation of the Spanish government at the Exposition of Philadelphia in 1876 and, later on, in all the other expositions up to the one in 1884, in Anvers. As a result of this competition, he conceived the idea of celebrating one in Spain, and specifically in Barcelona, which he believed to be the most suitable city, due to its industrial nature. Serrano put his proposal before the Town Hall, who received it with interest; the mayor completely throwing himself into the idea in a way that soon, would see the Town Hall becoming the organising entity.
The Exposition was situated in the space of the old Ciutadella built by Philip V to punish and control the rebellious city: a symbol of the Bourbon repression, a prison, and place of punishment for crimes throughout the nineteenth century, it was despised by the Barcelonans. After various attempts at its removal, thanks to the advent of the Revolution in 1868, its demolition was commenced on the 16th of October, and the land was slowly recovered. Once various problems had been resolved, a public and international competition was held, and 1872 the Town Hall selected the project of the master of works Josep Fontserè Mestre, to build a park with an enormous cascade. The Ciutadella, thus, was already a park when Rius Taulet decided to turn it into the Exposition’s enclosure.
Planned for the autumn of 1887, it was ultimately left until the spring of 1888. Next to the mayor, the banker Manuel Girona was royal commissioner; Manuel Duran Bas, Josep Ferrer Vidal and Claudi López Bru, Marquis of Comillas were the voices; Carles Pirozzini was the secretary; Lluís Rouvière was the director of public services, and the architect who directed the works was Elies Rogent. These men were the true propellants of the project.
Between the enthusiasm of some, and the mistrust of others, and once the many obstacles had been overcome, the works were completed in April 1888, when the Queen Regent and Alfonse XIII presided over the opening ceremony at the great salon of the Palace of Fine Arts, on the 20th of May.
The principal participating countries, as well as the Spanish representation, were France, Austria, Germany, Italy, Russia, England, the United States and Belgium. Other countries also participated, albeit with a lesser presence: Switzerland, Sweden, Holland, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Japan, China, Turkey, Bolivia, Ecuador, Honduras and Argentina, all of whom were present between the Palace of Industry and the Gallery of Machines.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the Exposition was the architecture, of which we preserve some of the principal testimonies: the triumphal arch at the entrance to the enclosure, a work by Josep Vilaseca, is seen brick and stands out. In second place, the café restaurant, nowadays the Museum of Zoology, a work by Lluís Domènech Montaner, gothic like in nature, also built in brick, and popularly known as the ‘Castell dels Tres Dragons’ [The Castle of Three Dragons]. By the same architect, the ‘Hotel Internacional’, of grand proportions and situated outside the enclosure, was built in only 69 days thanks to the enormous effort and the advances in construction techniques. We must also point out the ‘Hivernacle’ [Green House] by Josep Amargós, constructed of glass and iron, which were in vogue at the time and which is still standing to this day.
The central area of the exposition was presided over by the great Palace of Industry in the shape of a pair of bellows, occupying some 70.000 square metres, and was a work by the architect Jaume Gustà, who was also the author of the reformation of a pre-existent building constructed to shade plants. Other buildings well worth mentioning are the Palace of Fine Arts, by August Font; the Pavilion of the Spanish Colonies, by Gustà; the Palace of Sciences, by Pere Falqués, and the pavilion of the Transatlantic Company, in the maritime section of the Exposition, planned by Antoni Gaudí, in a neo-Arab style that was very characteristic of the eclecticism of those years.
All in all, this architecture which has been qualified today, by specialists, as being proto-modernist, is usually considered the preamble of the architectural vigour of modernism which added the recovery of the autochthonous tradition to the directives of international Art Nouveau.
The show closed on the 9th of December: it had been seen by one and a half million people. The balance, in spite of the reasonable economic deficit of some 6 million pesetas, was positive. It could be considered a historical event because it contributed to the beginning of Barcelona’s international projection as an industrial and bourgeoisie city. At the same time, it brought on the increment of Catalanism in the context of a still encroached society, which began to grown, socio-culturally, as seen in frequently manifested contemporary testimonies. Today, it symbolises the birth of a modern city, well-received by the younger generation which has been responsible for its later development.