Gaudi is a name we associate with Catalonia but I’m still here in Cantabria – just under 50km from Santander to visit El Capricho de Gaudi in Comillas. This privately-held former holiday home designed by Gaudi is open to the public and welcomes 100,000 visitors every year. It celebrated its 130th anniversary in 2015 and its 5th as a museum. If you haven’t been inside the space, take yourself and a five euro note over to Comillas and enjoy one of the very few Gaudi creations to be built outside Catalonia.
It was just before Christmas when I enjoyed my morning in Comillas. I was lucky to be accompanied on the day by my brother Paddy who is a big fan of documenting modern architecture. After parking in town, we gulped back a hot coffee in a nearby bar and watched the El Gordo lottery numbers being called or sung out on live TV before setting off for the early session with our guide. We found ourselves in the very capable hands of Carlos Mirapeix– who heads up the Capricho team and he shared his passion for and knowledge of the building for over an hour with us in perfect English.
We were, as you’d expect, charmed by the building and its history. We learned from Carlos that the entire town of Comillas was like an early melting pot or 3D drawing board for Modernism and that Gaudi was just one of a stream of Catalan architects in town to put a stamp on Comillas.
The Who’s Who of Comillas
It’s a bit confusing but before I tell you about the owner of the Capricho, I need to tell you about an ever bigger VIP in the town – the Marquis of Comillas aka one Mister Antonio Lopez. Aged just 14, Lopez left Comillas for the Americas and came back a slew of companies to his name. In exchange for his naval assistance during the Cuban war effort, he was awarded the (new) title of Marquis of Comillas by King Alfonso XII.
Many more emigrated from Comillas and Cantabria for a better life and Maximo Diaz de Quijano (yes, the owner of the Capricho) was one of those. Quijano found work as a lawyer at one of the Marquis’ firms abroad. It’s not clear whether the knew each other socially whilst abroad but they became related through marriage when Maximo’s sister married the Marquis’ brother.
Gaudi’s Presence in Comillas
The Marquis of Comillas had already broken the mould when it came to architecture in Comillas. He encharged Catalan architect Joan Martorell to design the Sobrellano Palace (1882-1888) although the Marquis’ death in 1883 meant he only saw it in its fledgling state. Martorell was instrumental in Gaudi’s life in so many ways. He got him the job of designing an oriental pavillion in Comillas to celebrate a visit of King Alfonso XII in 1881 and would go on to introduce Gaudi to his mentor, Eusebio Guell. He also got Gaudi the job at the Sagrada Familia.
Back in Comillas, Gaudi’s pavillion was well received and he was subsequently commissioned to design some furniture for the Marquis’ family pantheon which had been designed by Martorell.
I read reports that Quijano was a fan of Gaudi’s pavillion and must have liked what he did in the pantheon also because the lawyer commissioned the then 31-year old architect to build him a holiday home.
Just 7 Days and Nights at Home
Gaudi produced a model in 1883 which was to the lawyer’s liking and the green light was given. That same year Gaudi was commissioned to design Casa Vicens and the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona so instead of moving to Comillas for the build, he sent fellow-architecture graduate and friend Cristóbal Cascante to be his man on the ground in Cantabria. Cascante had already designed a royal arch in Comillas for the visit of Alfonso XII in 1881. It’s not clear whether Gaudi ever visited the site at Comillas as both the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camp are equally convincing. It does seem likely that the Catalan architect would have dropped in to the place at some point – but who knows. Anyway, what you see today was constructed between the years 1883 and 1885. The word eclectic seems to have been invented for this building. Gaudi’s early works show neo-Mudejar and neo-Gothic elements, with Persian and Japanese Oriental touches – and you’ll find all of these at the Capricho.
If some of the elements appear unfinished when you visit (you will have to look hard) that’s because Quijano’s health took a turn for the worse as the building was approaching completion. In fact, the lawyer spent just seven nights in his holiday home. Workers were told to drop tools and leave the site so as to allow Quijano the privacy he needed. Carlos pointed out the unfinished stone carving on the columns at the entrance to illustrate this. Maximo Diaz de Quijano died on the 7 July 1885 in his master bedroom at the Capricho from an attack to the liver or liver failure. The exact cause for his illness is unknown but could have dated back to his time abroad.
We have to hope that these seven days were happy ones – although the first week in any new build has its testing moments and the symptoms for advanced liver failure are not pretty. However, this was a highly personalised build and incorporated many elements never used before in a domestic dwelling. Cap that off with the usual Gaudi sense of fun and innovation and I’m sure Quijano died with some element of personal satisfaction or inner peace. It is both sad and ironic that the 44-year old lawyer’s life has been defined by the holiday home where he lived for just one week.
Bijou in Every Sense
Although the Capricho was as a holiday home – there is nothing whimsical here but the name – everything has a significance. As requested by Quijano, it is a small but comfortable house. Measuring 720 square metres on a 2,500 square metre site, it’s no sprawling mansion. Staff quarters and the kitchens were located in the semi-basement level that runs under the house which was Gaudi’s way of making use of the natural inclination or slope of the site.
Unfortunately there is next to no original furniture here (in fact the rooms are quite empty) but you do see all the fixtures and fittings and get a sense of how Gaudi tackled his commissions – he seems to have literally thrown his heart and soul into the building. This was an early commission after all and he couldn’t afford to upset any of his clients. He was simultaneously working on Casa Vicens which is often referred to as its twin. I haven’t visited it but look forward to checking it out on my next Barcelona excursion to compare and contrast the two.
I do know that Gaudi always designed for the site in question and took great care in reflecting the owner’s interests as well as his own design aesthetic. Here in the Capricho, Quijano’s many interests including botany, musical composition and literature are all reflected in many guises.
Gaudi’s Design Ethos
As you can imagine, sunflowers aren’t a native species of Cantabria – but Gaudi used them as a sort of code, one that his client would understand and appreciate. You see, the word ‘sunflower’ in Spanish is ‘gira-sol’ meaning ‘to turn towards the sun’. And that’s what this house does. Gaudi took his client’s bachelor lifestyle into account and designed a unique space that was perfect for his needs.
An extremely large bedroom and outdoor balcony was located in the east-facing side of the house – so chosen as to receive the maximum sunshine in the morning. The front (north-facing) was for his writing and correspondence and the west side was for socialising. The Southern aspect was assigned to the garden and the conservatory, where Quijano would enjoy his plants.
The use of colour and tiles are very striking. And the ironwork – for example the bench-railings and the iron columns of the tower – all contributed to the populist re-naming of the house to El Capricho or The Caprice. Elements such as the musical windows illustrate the fun Gaudi wanted his client to have. Details on the door and window handles show he wanted this to be a complete package – with no conventional aspects if at all possible. The attic and greenhouse were not only obviously rooms but were also spaces for thermal regulation. Carlos’ background in engineering comes to the fore when he explains the workings of the vents and pipes to release hot and cold air.
If Gaudi was rather inexperienced in house design when he worked on the Capricho – he was equally new to garden design. This was a real opportunity for the architect to learn and many of the features he incorporated here crop up again in later projects – for example the continuous benches at Park Guell. His bridge and parterre are still here today. In fact, the biggest change is the addition of the statue of Gaudi that shows the architect sitting on a bench gazing up at the building.
Zooming In to Some of the Detail
After Quijano Died – The Capricho’s Second Chapter (1885-1977)
Unfortunately for the history of this house – Quijano’s bachelor status meant there was no wife or children to inherit the house. It did stay in the extended family for 92 more years – first passing to Maximo’s sister, then on to his nephew. It was the nephew who undertook significant (and in conservation terms highly insensitive) renovations in 1914. Out went the conservatory which dovetailed into the U-shaped distribution of the house and in went a shoddy brick extension (don’t worry – it was removed in 1988!) Not only was Gaudi’s geometry sent into a tailspin but his tiles were taken away and replaced with fibre cement plates. We have to imagine that Gaudi was not consulted at any stage – he was at this point a celebrated architect and was devoting most of his time to the Sagrada Familia (which is still under construction!) It appears the house became derelict at some point after the Civil War. The house was sold outside the family in 1977.
Earning its Keep – The Capricho’s Third Chapter 1977-2009
This house started a new chapter when a relation of Quijano’s Pilar Güell (yes, the same family as the Park Güell people) sold it to a Cantabrian businessman living in Torrelavega called Antonio Diaz Vollrath. His family tried to sell it on at Sotheby’s but to no avail – which goes to show just how recent the fascination with Gaudi really is! The only route open to the family was to restore the Villa. This was done in 1988 and it was opened as a restaurant. For reasons that are unclear to me but I suppose were financial – the Capricho was sold to a Japanese firm in 1991 that continued running the restaurant from the house until it closed for business in 2009.
The Capricho’s Reincarnation
In 2010 the Capricho opened as a museum. Five years is a very short time in museum-years and it is still finding its feet – but the care and attention shown by everybody I met suggests that the Capricho has found itself a safe pair of hands for this stage of its life. I wish the team well in their journey. As its history has shown, being a Gaudi building doesn’t guarantee overnight success or even business survival. Hopefully the house’s luck is finally, on the turn, and the visitor numbers continue to show incredibly healthy growth for many years to come!
That’s all I have for you on the Capricho today. If you’ll like to see more images of the Capricho, check out the house’s own Pinterest page and of course its website too! But before you do leave this page, I’d love to know what you think of the Capricho. Do you share Gaudi’s taste in design? Have you visited here recently or in the past?