Of the countless steps that can be taken through the alleyways and avenues of Barcelona, how many are contemplated in terms of their historical significance? Some of the most subtle history of Modernista Barcelona is not in the obsessive details of the towering Sagrada Familia, nor in the undulating façades of the decadent monoliths of Passeig de Gràcia. On the contrary, a rich story can be found humbly underfoot on nearly every faded, cracked, or worn street corner of central Barcelona.
To understand the importance and trajectory of panots—decorative concrete slabs used to pave much of Barcelona’s sidewalks (baldosas in Spanish)—one must step back to a period between 1834 and 1860 when the city was enclosed by high stone walls and the population of Ciutat Vella was so dense that epidemics killed off about three percent of the population with each outbreak.
Something had to be done, so in 1854 the city began tearing down the old wall and announced that they were holding a contest for urban planning proposals to expand Barcelona and bring it into the modern, industrial age. The City Hall’s contest was won by Ildefons Cerdà i Sunyer, Catalan engineer, urbanist, economist, and politician. Originally entitled Plan Cerdà, the proposal—launched in 1859—sought to expand the city with the new area of the Eixample (the ‘Widening’). Above all, Cerdà wanted the Eixample to provide space for people to breathe, with 45-degree-angled corners at every street intersection, and interior gardens to be shared by neighbours. His grid pattern further sought to eliminate status and create an egalitarian community with space for workers and wealthy alike.
However, this mission was lost to the grandiose works of Gaudí, Domènech i Muntaner, and Puig i Cadafalch (among others), who were commissioned to build homes by Barcelona’s elite. Their spectacular buildings branded the zone in the vicinity of Passeig de Gràcia as the high-rent district and property prices throughout the area were impacted by their proximity to the opulent avenue.
A tiny interior design element of one such building, Casa Amatller, would lead to the now-emblematic aesthetic symbol of Barcelona’s largest neighbourhood and the entire Catalan Modernista movement itself. Built for the famous chocolate-producing family Amatller, by Modernista architect Puig i Cadafalch in 1900, the house features a carriage entryway paved with small stones with the form of a rose engraved on their surface. This was a small, insignificant element of a spectacular work of architecture and design, but it served as inspiration several years later for designers when various companies bid to carry out the paving of the newly-created Eixample. Today, the ‘Rose of Barcelona’ is one of the most visible icons of the Modernista Era.
In 1907, the Barcelona Ajuntament began accepting bids for the paving contract of this rapidly growing neighbourhood. Originally, property owners would pave the 2.5 metres in front of their buildings themselves, using asphalt, stone or concrete, upon approval. This unregulated, unorganised paving led to chaotic, mud-filled streets and the nickname of Can Fanga (‘The Mud House’) for Barcelona, leading to the derogatory term, fanguers, still used occasionally to refer to the city’s residents.
The Ajuntament specified their needs to the potential developers: 10,000 square metres of paving stones, each 20cm x 20cm x 4cm, for a total cost of less than 50,000 pesetas. The bid was won by the company Escofet-Tejera y Cía, whose catalogue of products featured contributions by the most famous designers of the times (Gaudí, Domènech i Montaner, and Puig i Cadafalch, among them). The Ajuntament also included 18 design ideas for the city’s paving stones in their project outline, from which came the six principle patterns that we see today, including the rose, now seen on everything from bags, purses, clothing, jewellery and chocolate bars to local business’ logos.
The paving initiative got underway in 1916, and over the last 100 years, the continuous development of Barcelona and the surrounding areas has led to over five million square metres of panots in the city. Besides the principle six, there are many other designs used throughout the urban environment for both aesthetic and functional purposes (such as the version with four raised bars that indicates pedestrian crossings and bus stops to the blind).
The paving tiles themselves are made from what is referred to as ‘hydraulic cement’, also known as Portland Cement, named for the Isle of Portland in Dorset, England, a region known for its limestone building stones. A mixture of concrete, mortar, and stucco created in the 19th century, the cement was classified as hydraulic because of the material’s quality of extreme hardening through chemical reaction when mixed with water, which provided the strong, cheap, consistent product still used today.
While Escofet-Tejera y Cía was the first, and sole, producer of these original paving stones, a handful of companies now share equally the task of producing the city’s six principle paving stones, plus many additional models for urban and suburban use.
No talk of tiles in Barcelona would be complete without a nod towards the legendary Antoni Gaudí. If you have ever walked on Passeig de Gràcia, you would recognise in an instant the intricate, swirling, under-the-sea-themed mosaic motif that blankets the expansive sidewalks all the way from Plaça de Catalunya to Jardinets de Gràcia. These identical hexagonal tiles—which require seven individual pieces to be laid to complete the full pattern—were originally designed by Gaudí and produced by Escofet in 1904 for the interior of his iconic Casa Batlló. However, they were instead placed, two years later, inside the nearby Casa Milà (La Pedrera).
In 1976, Gaudí’s indoor tiles were redesigned—again by Escofet—for outdoor use, resulting in the paving of the entire Passeig de Gràcia in blue-green beauties. Due to their high risk of breakage and general wear, the city upgraded the tiles in 1997 and fully replaced them in 2001 with smaller, thicker, more compact versions that were sturdy, cheap, and non-slip. Sadly, the magical hue and detail of the original pieces was lost. Nevertheless, this simplification of the Gaudí tile hasn’t stopped regular theft of these little gems of design history by those who want to lift a bit of Barcelona.
In fact, between 2009 and 2011, the city spent a stunning €150,000 to replace stolen or broken street tiles along Passeig de Gràcia, with an interesting result. Early in 2014, a group of five art history students from the University of Barcelona began a campaign pressuring the city to fix all instances of incorrectly-laid Gaudí tiles along the famous street. Turning to social media to pinpoint the exact location of the tiles that disrupt the intended seven-piece pattern, the students’ #SOSPanotGaudi campaign resulted in real action by the city. By May 2014, replacement of the offending tiles began.
Next time you are out for a stroll, glance downward. In this bustling city, nothing beats walking the wide sidewalks of the Eixample and the narrow lanes of the Gótic, taking in Barcelona’s rich history from the ground up. Throughout the past century, the city has changed immensely and, just like the Roman ruins, Gothic churches, Medieval alley ways, and Modernista masterpieces we cherish, the paving stones of Eixample are a historic treasure, right below our very feet. With countless years of use, numerous design innovations, and many generations of local producers, the panots of Barcelona may not make your steps lighter, but they certainly give them meaning.
5 PLACES TO GO TILE SPOTTING
1. Passeig de Gràcia between Gran Via and Diputació (on the right side of the street if going uptown) is where you can see some of the last original Gaudí street tiles.
2. Diputació has pretty much all of the tiles. If you walk from Passeig de Gràcia towards Plaça d’Espanya on Diputació you are bound to see even the oldest ones, (on the side of the street closest to Gran Vía).
3. Escofet 1866 was at Ronda Universitat 20. It’s now a Woki Organic Market but you can see the original Modernista-era façade.
4. At Passeig de Gràcia 41, you can see the original rose tiles in the entryway of Casa Amatller. Open to the public.
5. At the Jaume 1 metro stop, by the Laietana pedestrian crossing between Plaça de l’Àngel and Carrer de la Bòria, you can see the old street name tiles, on the Gótic side.