Hospital de Sant Pau: the largest 'Modernista' precinct in the world | Cultural Heritage. Goverment of Catalonia.


Hospital de Sant Pau: the largest 'Modernista' precinct in the world

The history of medicine, architecture and art, all in one unique place

The origins of the Hospital de Sant Pau reach back to 1401 with the creation of the Hospital de la Santa Creu in the Raval district of Ciutat Vella. For five centuries this was the only hospital in Barcelona. In the 19th century, due to the increase in population, new standards of public health, sanitation, and advances in medicine, it became necessary to build a new hospital, the Hospital de Sant Pau.

A banker with a moustache

The history of the Hospital de Sant Pau is closely associated with the name of Pau Gil. In fact, if it hadn't been for the wishes of this Catalan banker, born into a family devoted to finance, the centre would probably never have existed, at least not with its present characteristics.  
At the age of 75 he drew up his will and, amongst other considerations, he left 3,060,000 pesetas from his large fortune for the construction of a new hospital in Barcelona to replace the Hospital de la Santa Creu. The legacy came with clear and concise instructions: the new hospital was to reflect the highest standards for public health and sanitation, it was to incorporate the most advanced innovations, and was to bear the name of his patron saint, Sant Pau. Furthermore, he established a committee, named by his executors Josep Ferrer and Vidal i Edmond Sivatte, to direct the works, while commissioning the project from the prodigious architect and outstanding figure in Catalan Modernisme, Lluís Domènech i Montaner.
  • Monument to Pau Gil at the entrance to the Hospital de Sant Pau (Josep Bracons / Wikipedia)
  • Portrait of Pau Gil (Historical Archive of the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau)
  • Plan of the side façade of the Medicine Pavilion drawn between 1901 and 1903 (Historical Archive of the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau)

Architecture at the service of health

Domènech i Montaner planned a Modernista building without precedent, with a capacity for 1,000 patients. His designs took account of other leading hospitals, such as the Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore, the Am Urban hospital in Berlin, the Lariboisière in Paris, the Stuivenberggasthuis in Antwerp and the Institut Pere Mata psychiatric hospital in Reus, which he himself had designed. His plans were for a building on a plot covering 2,200 square metres to the north of Barcelona, beyond the limits of the Eixample district.  
In accordance with the desires of Pau Gil, his designs incorporated the highest standards of public health and sanitation possible at that time. The hospital was organised into independent pavilions, lying east-west to take full advantage of the sunlight. They were surrounded by gardens and open spaces, but connected to each other by means of underground corridors. The entire surface area was arranged around two diagonal avenues that form four quadrants: north for infectious diseases, south for non-infectious diseases, east for men and west for women. The central pavilion, housing the convent, the kitchen and the pharmacy occupied the intersection where the two main avenues crossed. 
On 16 January 1930, 28 years after construction work had begun, king Alfons XIII opened the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau. It became a paragon, not only because of the medicine practised there, but also because of its architectural quality and the beauty of its decorative elements, such as the ensemble of sixteen mosaics that depict the hospital's history and the sculpture dedicated to Pau Gil, that presides the main staircase at the entrance to the precinct.
  • Plan of the underground corridors (Historical Archive of the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau)
  • The underground corridors nowadays (Quim Roser / Department of Culture)
  • Sickroom in 1923 (AHSCP) and nowadays (Quim Roser / Department of Culture)
  • Pharmacy Service in the Central Pavilion in 1929 (AHSCP. Author: Jaume Ribera Llopis)

The garden city

Doctors and nurses were located around the various pavilions to tend to the needs of patients. As well as the pavilions, another differentiating feature of Domènech i Montaner's project was the garden, which made the hospital like a little city within the Barcelona of the day, and it fulfilled another aspect of the latest criteria for public health and sanitation: the beneficial therapeutic effects of the contemplation of nature. As well as its aesthetically pleasing effect, the garden was also a little oasis for recreation, providing patients with a pleasant and peaceful place that stood in stark contrast with the unhealthy conditions of the industrial city at that time.  
Patients strolling in the garden could admire the orange trees, lime trees and elms, as well as medicinal plants such as lemon verbena, sage, lavender and rosemary. Patients who could not go outdoors could still enjoy the green spaces because of the enormous windows between the beds in the pavilions and throughout the rest of the precinct. Nature was also a source of inspiration for the interior too. The ceilings were covered with ceramics decorated with leaves and flowers and the walls were covered with tiles with floral and other natural motifs in relief.
  • View of the gardens in 1923 (Historical Archive of the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau)
  • Current view of the gardens (Quim Roser / Department of Culture)
  • Operating room with views of the gardens (Quim Roser / Department of Culture)
  • Lavender in the gardens (Quim Roser / Department of Culture)
  • View through the large windows (Núria Domínguez)

Barcelona, a sick city

Completion of the Hospital de Sant Pau signified the end of the medieval hospital in the Raval district of the city. Construction of the new hospital coincided with a historic moment for the city of Barcelona: the Cerdà Plan. 
Designed by Ildefons Cerdà in 1860, this project was to transform the city through the construction of the Eixample, or 'expansion'. There was an urgent need for this expansion due to the increase in, and extreme density of, the population. This had led to epidemics and a very high death rate. Furthermore, industrialisation had made the city a crowded and unhealthy place and the old walls surrounding Barcelona acted as a brake on urban expansion.  
Cerdà's layout for the city was highly innovative for the Barcelona at the time, although it had its critics. Domènech i Montaner himself, for example, maintained that the width of the roads would cause currents of air that would make life uncomfortable for the city's citizens. To make his objections clear, his layout for the pavilions at the Hospital de Sant Pau run in a contrary direction to Cerdà's surrounding grid layout.
  • General perspective of the Hospital Project, 1901-1903 (Historical Archive of the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau)
  • Current appearance of the main entrance to the site (Quim Roser / Department of Culture)

Adela Simón: a nurse ahead of her times

When, in the 20th century, the Hospital de Sant Pau was in full service, Adela Simón left her mark. She had trained at the Catalan government's nursing school but was forced to leave for England when her qualifications were no longer recognised as a consequence of Franco's victory in the Spanish Civil War. She enrolled at the professional Nightingale school, where she came into contact with the latest currents of thought emanating from the school's founder, Florence Nightingale, considered to be the origin of modern nursing. 
In 1958, thanks to the assistance of Dr. Carles Soler Durall, she returned to Spain, first to take charge of nursing staff organisation at Asturias General Hospital, and then at the Hospital de Sant Pau, which had ceased being a charitable organisation to become one based on professionalism and administrative autonomy. Simón's contribution was such that she became the person responsible for introducing modern nursing techniques to Spain.
  • Adela Simón, in the foreground without bonnet, among the student nurses around 1967 (Historical Archive of the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau)
  • Portrait of Adela Simón (Historical Archive of the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau)

The zeal for Modernisme


For his project on the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, Domènech i Montaner combined the principles of public health and good sanitation with those of Modernisme, so that aesthetic considerations were as important as those of functionality. It is not, therefore, surprising that this jewel of Barcelona architecture has been listed as World Heritage by UNESCO since 1997.
The construction of the hospital coincided with the high point for this artistic movement. As well as Domènech i Montaner, other renowned architects such as Gaudí and Puig i Cadafalch also made their contribution to making Barcelona the world capital of Modernisme, with such iconic buildings as the Casa Milà and the Casa Amatller. The zeal for Modernisme extended throughout a large part of Catalonia, leaving behind athenaeums, markets, housing, factories and agricultural cooperatives, amongst others.
  • 'Modernista' aesthetics rules the Hospital de Sant Pau (Quim Roser / Department of Culture)
  • Floral motifs in the decoration of the Hospital de Sant Pau (Quim Roser / Department of Culture)
  • Casa Amatller, a 'Modernista' building designed by Josep Puig i Cadafalch (Eli Beckman / Wikipedia) 
  • Casa Milà, the 'Modernista' building designed by Antoni Gaudí and known as La Pedrera (Thomas Ledl / Wikipedia)

A thousand years of Catalan hospitals

In 2009, after more than eight decades of service, the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau moved to new facilities. Domènech i Montaner's Modernista precinct embarked on a new phase with a meticulous refurbishment to highlight the artistic value of this Modernista architect. Institutions now occupy the pavilions, and they can be visited. Meanwhile, the Hospital de la Santa Creu now houses the Biblioteca de Catalunya.
These two buildings are examples of Catalonia's hospital heritage, but there are many more such examples around the country. All of them have been very well conserved, some with medieval origins, others dating from the Modernista period. Over time they have been put to new uses and have become museums, cultural centres, libraries and archives.
In Tarragona there is the Hospital de Sant Pau i Santa TeclaIt was founded towards the end of the 12th century and is included in the Medieval Tarragona Route. The former Hospital de Santa Maria in Lleida is one of the best surviving examples of civil Catalan Gothic architecture. It was built during the mid-15th century; nowadays, it houses the Lleida Studies Institute. If we continue on to Girona, a visit to the former Hospital de Santa Caterinawhich houses an 18th-century hospital pharmacy, is well worth a visit. It may be visited as part of a guided tour, organised by the Girona Museum of Art. A journey inland would take you to Manresa, where the Manresa Universalla Ciutat de Sant Ignasi tour may guide you the Rapte de Sant Ignasi chapel, located in the former Hospital de Santa Llúcia.

  • Former Hospital de la Santa Creu, current home of the Library of Catalonia (Josep Renalias / Wikipedia)
  • Façade of the former Santa Tecla Hospital in Tarragona (Pere López / Wikipedia)
  • Courtyard of the former Hospital de Santa Maria in Lérida (Maria Rosa Ferré / Wikipedia)
  • 'Sgraffito' of the former Hospital de Santa Caterina in Girona (Enric Fontvila / Wikipedia)

2023, Lluís Domènech i Montaner Year

2023 marks the centenary of the death of the Catalan architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner, one of the most outstanding personalities in history and a leading intellectual reference point. The aim of the commemoration is to raise awareness of all the facets of the figure through an extensive programme of activities aimed at all audiences and held in all the cities with Domènech i Montaner heritage.