El Museu d’Chaflanes

It’s very dark in the Museu d’Chaflanes. Being first time visitors you might assume that the power is out, but no, it is always dark like this. Over at the Museu d’Objectes Anticsto lights are kept low to avoid bleaching the 15th century alabasters, and at the Museu d’Histoira de la Ciutat, dimmed spotlights bring drama to an otherwise mundane collection of artifacts. But the Museu d’Chaflanes is as dark as a dungeon for the sole reason that there isn’t money enough to properly light it. The chaflanes are three to five stories tall, the museum’s skylights tiny and permanently caked with grime, and the naked electric bulbs parsimoniously strung down the Avinguda Acordió are no match for the oppressive, heavy shadows of the massive structures they are attempting to illuminate.

In 1982, the lighting problem was ingeniously circumvented by supplying museum-goers with flashlights. This led to an upswing in visits as word got around how delightful it was to traipse about in this exotic collection of house corners with your own beam leading the way, discovering for yourself in swatches of light the decorative excesses of 19th century Catalan aristocracy: The half-mooned ionic columns, gothic sash, rosette adorned spandrels, lintels and caryatids. At peak hours in those days the interior of the museum could be likened to a fairytale town in an air raid.

To be frank, it was flashlight fun, rather than edification, that had attracted the school classes of Barcelona, the museum’s public mainstay for many years. In the abundance of hiding places within and without the chaflanes it was easy to ditch teachers, play hide-and-seek and laser tag, and goof off in all sorts of ways. More daring pupils defied off-limit signs and climbed up the scaffolding at the rear of the buildings to smoke, kiss or whatever and these unsupervised activities led to some unsettling incidents with lost (temporarily – thank God) students. In 2002 the Departament d’educació finally said ‘ja n’hi ha prou (enough is enough)’ and had the Museu d’Chaflanes banned for school excursions.

You are visiting on a sad occasion — the very last day of the museum’s existence. The chaflanes that have not been sold to Chinese property developers are to be demolished, and the museum building itself — originally a dry goods warehouse from the glory days of Barcelona’s Mediterranean shipping trade — torn to the ground to make room for a shopping center.

On the wall to your immediate right as you enter you will see diplomas declaring that the Museu d’Chaflanes is under the patronage of Les Filles de l’aristocràcia Barcelonina, El Salvem el Nostre Patrimoni Cultural, and El Comitè para Prevenir el Canvi, but these proclamations are only paying lip service. The signees did nothing to defend the museum when it came under attack as a “costly, unnecessary, anachronistic relic” by the Ajuntament de Barcelona.

The Museu d’Chaflanes has never been a commercial success. Its cavernous size has not served to its advantage. Each of the 21 chaflanes occupies 72 square meters of floor space in an exhibition area rivaled only by the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London. The so-called ‘Year of Cerdà’ in 2009, the 150th anniversary of the inception of Barcelona’s l’Eixample district, rather than creating new interest for the chaflanes and their creator, Ildefons Cerdà, had instead brought to public attention the considerable burden on city finances caused by an underperforming institution occupying such a large chunk of prime waterfront real estate.

You will soon notice there is nothing here of what modern museum-goers such as yourselves takes for granted. There is no gift shop, no bistro with tapas, no café serving lattés. There is no amphitheater for screening documentaries or hosting PR agency cocktail events, and no children’s center. You will not find bright young multilingual college girls in spiffy uniforms ready to shepherd you about with entertaining banter about these beautiful house corners and the Barcelonian gentry that once lived in them. You could, of course, read about that yourselves, if only the historical documentation hadn’t been taken down for safekeeping during the hostilities of 1909 and never put back on display again.

At the museum’s inception in 1876, a crew of 370 skilled craftsmen were engaged in re-erecting the 21 dismantled house corners brought here in bits and pieces by horse and cart from the Passeig de Gràcia and the Rambla de Catalunya. When inaugurated by Alfonso XIII on the 20th of May, 1888, in conjunction with the Exposición Universal de Barcelona, the museum had a staff of sixteen. Now, on the day of your visit, there are only three employees: Anaïs, the cashier and ticket taker, Jordi, the janitor, and Managing Director Xavier Solinguer.

Surprised by your presence — for even on this ominous day there have been few visitors — Anaïs puts aside the leisure section of her La Vanguardia and, after first shooing away your credit cards, accepts your euros and hands you your entrance tickets with her right hand before taking them back again with her left once you have passed through her turnstile, which technically speaking isn’t really a turnstile at all — just an old plank attached to a spring; a contraption Jordi has put together so haphazardly that Anaïs must caution you to move slowly so that those following you into the exhibition hall don’t receive a nasty slap on their bellies. She will also supply you with your flashlights after doing a perfunctory battery check. Officially, checking batteries is Jordi’s job, but Anaïs does it anyway, as Jordi is never around when you need him.

Where is Jordi? He could be changing light bulbs or cleaning up after the pigeons that plague the interior of the museum. He could be fixing that rotting window on the third floor of Chaflane nr. 14, or he could be — and this is the most likely alternative — taking a breather in the cozy little nest he has arranged for himself on the second floor of Chaflane nr. 21. Jordi has chosen Chaflane nr. 21 as his roost, not for its romanesque architecture or the remarkable double curved tracery on its gables and arches, but on account of its being as far away as he can get from Chaflane nr. 2, where his boss, Xavier, has his office.

But Jordi’s indolence is the least of Xavier’s worries as he takes one final promenade down the Avinguda Acordió; the pathway named so because the zigzaging house corners that line it on both sides resemble the corrugated bellows of an accordion.

Xavier has taken this one last walk several times today. He is, in what the French refer to as the l’esprit d’escalier, polishing details in the speech he should have given — if his courage had not failed him — at the municipal hearing that sealed his museum’s fate.

A shopping mall? Oh, yes we do need to shop. I grant you that. We need toothpaste and socks and plastic toys and things to eat and drink. But what is the significance of those sundry items in the long run, in the span of decades, centuries and, yes, millenniums? May I respectfully ask you to lift your eyes from the back of your hands?

 

May I remind you, most honorable members of the council and concerned citizens, that the Museo d’Chaflanes harbors the greatest surviving treasures of the Neoclassical, Gothic, Baroque and Plateresque elements of Catalan architecture? And forget not that in these edifices lived such great Barcelona heroes as Jaume I, Francesc Macià, Ermessenda, and Valentí Almirall i Llozer.

Xavier doesn’t really know if those historical figures resided in the exact same houses his chaflanes were once part of, but it is possible and those names would have added preponderance.

Ah, I see you are yawning and sighing and shuffling your important papers. You have more pressing matters to turn your attention to. But remember, you who are the guardians of our culture; what is gone, is gone. You can always build modern buildings and implement fashionable designs, but you cannot bring back what you have destroyed. In 1845, your predecessors allowed the magnificent Roman walls that surrounded this city to be torn down. If you had been there then would you have let that happen?

No need to inform the council members that Cerdà was instrumental in the destruction of those walls. Be brief, Xavier. Move on to the clincher.

Fortunately our own time on earth is short. We won’t need to apologize to our great-great grandchildren for the heritage that we now so thoughtlessly annihilate for them. We won’t have to beg forgiveness for our short-sightedness, our mindless, senseless disrespect for the past to the children of a thousand years — ten thousand years, when they ask, ‘Where is our history? Where is our past? Where are our chaflanes?’

Xavier, comforted by this poignant speech he will never give, pauses at Chaflane nr. 7. The ground floor here houses an exhibition of Thomas Dickinson’s two-handed, diamond-coated, masonry saw. A replica of one of these 150 year-old saws is being operated by two muscular, paint-peeled mannequin masons slicing into a wall of plaster-coated bricks, a still life demonstration of the technique with which the chaflanes were originally cut out from the rectangular corners of their parent buildings. Without the dickenson (and an abundance of cheap labor as represented by the mannequins), Ildefons Cerdà could never have created the octangular intersections that have make Barcelona’s Eixample so renowned throughout the world.

In this chaflane there is also a framed copy of the 1836 Spanish law on the compulsory expropriation of private property for the public good. This is the instrument with which Cerdà, supported by key council members and the Central government in Madrid, could remove 8.5 meter deep triangular sections from the corner houses on 56 street crossing, despite the angry and sometimes violent protests of their owners, some of whom, with classic Catalan resilience, chained themselves to window bars and balcony railings even as workers sawed away at their homes.

Most of the corners Cerdà’s cutting crews extracted were used as landfill in the construction of the new harbor. But those deemed of exceptional artistic and historical value were taken down, section by section, piece by piece, and transported to this warehouse where, re-erected, they have stood, until now, resilient to the ruthless march of progress which has so affected the city they were uprooted from.

And now even these lasting survivors must go: Considering the horrendous state of the Spanish economy and Barcelona tourists’ indifference for anything architectural not credited to Gaudi, the Ajuntament saw no choice but to accept a Chinese consortium’s offer to purchase the chaflanes for transport to Shanghai, to serve as façades for hotels, designer boutiques and other prestigious buildings.

Xavier continues down the Avinguda Acordió trying to focus on the objects of his 25-year custodianship. He wants to take with him into his forced retirement a lasting image — a memory freeze, a summation of what his life’s work was all about, but this ‘big picture’ vision is disturbed by irrelevant, distracting details: the sight of spalling dentils, rusting balustrades, molded and mildewed woodwork, and fresh patches of pigeon poop. Everywhere pigeon poop.

You will hardly notice this despondent little man as you file past him. You are all busy painting chiaroscuro poetry on the ancient façades with your flashlights, fascinated by the harmony and cacophony appearing simultaneously in this hodgepodge of diverging styles and details. You marvel at the extravagance with which these house corners were originally adorned and are bemused by the circumstance of them being here at all. You are impressed by the piety of the chaflanes’ restoration work and saddened by the meaninglessness of it all now that their end is approaching.

Xavier could use your wide eyes and naive imaginations. He should have your curiosity and your wonder — even your skepticism — in order to once again, as in his first days here, perceive and be captivated by this phalanx of stone mummies with their apsed arches and fleuri cut marble.

But as we all know, after years and years of looking at something, we no longer see it at all. We see change, never permanence. We notice what we have lost, not what we have. We don’t see the trees on our streets until someone cuts them down, or our blue oceans and skies before they go polluted and gray, or our partners until they fall in love with someone else — things we will understand the value of only when they are irrevocably gone.

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