Abundance of Ornament


This article presents and compares the ornament of Lluís Domènech i Montaner’s Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona and OMA’s Casa de Música in Porto (referred to as Palau and Casa in this piece). These two modernist concert buildings have been chosen for comparison as they share similar cultural contexts and employ comparable techniques and methods in combining traditional and modern materials. Through particular examples of internal and external ornament, comparisons are made in the way both exhibit notions of theatricality, architectural symbolic dressing and performance at the scale of the city.

The Palau (1905-8) is a building that doesn’t merely invite, it demands your gaze and interpretation. Its theatricality and material deception is heightened by its abundance of choral and musical motifs. The Palau can be described as a Gesamtkunstwerk, where its ornamentation speaks, sings and is music to the eyes.

Conversely the Casa (2005) questions your look and presents a bare canvas and setting to project a contemporary performative occupation for the future. The scarcity of external décor in its monumental foreign exterior can be compared to its more sinuous informal interior. The Casa, in its more contemporaneous and abstract display of decoration, performs with restraint.

Although both buildings belong to different historical periods, geographically and culturally they share some of their artistic deceptions and myths.


THE PALAU: frills of a bedecked scaffold

The Palau is the archetype of Modernism, an eclectic cultural movement stemming from the growth of the manufacturing industry in the 1880s. It offered a ‘breath of fresh air’ amongst the Art Nouveau by combining influences from a variety of art forms, principally theatre, music, decorative arts and architecture. Architects looked towards holistic design—a Catalan Gesamtkunstwerk—and so German composer Richard Wagner was a particular inspiration.

The Palau’s exterior is a load-bearing steel frame and iron lattice, hailed as the first curtain-wall structure in Spain. Domènech’s façade is dressed with a mélange of ornamentation, from its red curtain wall brick, to its wealth of majolicas and tile work. The building is a successful drag performance, taking hem and folds from typologies of cathedral architecture, myths from Germanic musicality, as well as adorning an effervescent floral guise of Spanish and Moorish embellishment. With the structural scaffold as a prop, the ornaments form the artistic mask, and the drama unveils itself.

Inside the main concert hall, the stage presents a musical feast where we can taste elements of the church: we see not only the divine organ but also the 18 marvellous muses. The proscenium arch displays sculptures of Beethoven and Wagner, along with operatic references (Wagner’s valkyries), ornamental floral garlands and natural motifs. The stage resonates both church and theatre. The muses on the back wall of the stage exhibit strings of Wagnerian tradition in their dressing and choice of musical instruments (from folk to medieval), unifying old and new.


THE CASA: corrugations and modern motifs

The Casa is a modernist prismatic form, where its thick reinforced concrete shell and internal thickened walls represent a dressed surface and mask that envelops the internal functions.

The scarce concrete envelope of the building offers an alteration in the typology of concert hall architecture by reintroducing a primitive textile method anew—the traditional stage curtain presented as a solid corrugated glass wall. Its function is to diffuse reflection in acoustics, and its form acts as a veil to reveal the Porto context and OMA’s affinity of revealing social frictions. The corrugated aesthetic renders a distorted view of the city that is filtered and framed, and perhaps these abstract views offer the perfect backdrop to a rich performance inside the concert hall.

Looking closely inside the concert hall, we notice the gold-leaf ornamentation on the plywood clad walls. The ‘patterning’ of an expanded pixelated timber-grain motif offers an abstract and more symbolic method of framing both the concert hall and the city. This application of the motif has its reference in history, particularly at the richness of gilt interiors from Portuguese baroque churches and traditional opera houses. The Casa however provides a 21st Century innovation through its display of abstract ornament, created using digital tools.



The Palau is unique: it is theatrical, but makes scenery impractical due to the location of the muses and the bedecked proscenium; it is church-like, however its religious sense is perhaps sceptic. It is a space that transcends conventions and typologies. Concert halls, as compared to theatres and opera houses, usually provide a reticent and sublimated interior which performs not much more than acoustically. However, the Palau ignores this tradition, and arouses a more festive, impassioned and idiosyncratic sensation.

The Casa on the other hand is more controlled: emphasis is placed on the innovative framing of city views and allowing a didactic concert hall to breathe with the city. A concoction of carefully selected fabricated materials (including an inflated plastic acoustic pillow above the stage) and minimal décor renders an elegant aesthetic that plays on surprising the spectator: the exterior concrete dressing gives no clues to the internal sinuous performance.

In summary we can conclude that in both buildings, modern materials and innovate uses of technology enable the architecture to express their inbuilt theatricality. While the Palau demonstrates a clear abundance of ornament, the Casa expresses new interpretations of concert hall architecture.


Fig. 01: Palau external façade and approach.

Source: Photo by author

Fig. 02: Casa external façade and approach.

Source: Photo by Philippe Ruault / Archdaily

Fig. 03: The façade boasts a visual feast of ornamentation.

Source: Photo by author

Fig. 04: The proscenium and stage conceptually and physically frames the choral music being performed.

Source: Photo by JebbiePix / Flickr

Fig. 05: Muses to the right side of the organ. The figure on the bottom row left represents the voice of the Orfeó Català. In their unity, the muses combine old and new, for example many figures in Greek clothes carry Modernist ornament.

Source: Photobucket

Fig. 06: Casa: entrance, context, city, azulejo tile-work + corrugated glass

Source: Photos by Philippe Ruault / Archdaily + OMA

Fig. 07: Concert hall interior with gold-leaf motif + the gaze of light illuminates and animates the ornamental surface.

Source: Photos by Philippe Ruault / Archdaily

Fig. 08: Typical interiors of a Portuguese baroque church, comparable to the more stylistic effect of the Casa concert hall interior.

Source: EspacoTurismo

Fig. 09: The Level 3 Plan shows how similar this concert hall is to the typology of the church. Its auditorium is more enclosed and curved towards the semi-circular stage, which originates from the notion of assembly in the Greek theatre

Source: GAB Architecture

Fig. 10: This Level 4 Plan clearly shows how the concert hall spans the length of the building, and now both ends of corrugated glass are open to the city.

Source: Drawing by OMA / Archdaily