Thursday, July 7

The failed works of the Barcelona Customs Palace, the ‘forgotten’ headquarters of the Government in Catalonia

In early June they began to dismantle the scaffolding. The historic headquarters of the Government Delegation in Catalonia, the old Customs Palace located on Marquès de l’Argenteria street, was under construction due to structural problems that were detected just before the economic crisis, in 2008. After years of neglect , they had finally started some works that were to finish between 2020 and 2021. But the surprise was for the neighbors when, only a few weeks ago, the contract dismantled the scaffolding and it turned out that the facade was worse than before and the property, clearly unconditioned.

The lost images of anarchist Barcelona

Know more

The recent history of this building, which dates back to 1792 and which is protected for its heritage value –the architectural value and that of the paintings it houses inside–, is that of a rehabilitation that has never just arrived. Right now the state of its facade is deplorable. The paint on the exterior walls is peeling, some windows are bricked up, there is graffiti on the main access doors and a protection net keeps the balcony – where weeds grow – covered, the triangular friezes and the roof. Of the last works, only the trace of two empty containers and some fences remains.

But the dismantling of the works, which began in 2018 and which should be final, has an explanation. And although nobody elaborates on the details, both the Ministry of Territorial Policy and Public Function, owner of the property, and the Barcelona City Council agree on the story. At the beginning of the project, with some work that began inside the enclosure, the Urban Architecture and Heritage Services of the town hall saw a “rethinking” of the action necessary to better safeguard the heritage. According to City Council sources, the owner was asked for a more exhaustive “historical study” on the entire building and not just a part, and the incorporation of an expert in Baroque architecture to lead it into the project.

That was not a problem for either party, they explain, but it was a problem for a third, no less important. The company that was awarded the work, Geocisa, opposed the new conditions, forcing the Ministry to terminate the contract. However, before abandoning the project, the construction company operators have closed a part of the work “to leave it protected and safe,” according to ministerial sources. But much of the rehabilitation still needs to be done. And everything indicates that it will last for years. How many? “It is not possible to specify when the new award will be made, because the project must be adapted, approved and then put out to tender. We will try to streamline it as much as possible,” respond from the ministry currently directed by Miquel Iceta.

Meanwhile, in 2019, in full works, a complicated episode was lived and of which too many details are not given. As a result of torrential rains that year, a decorated false ceiling fell off the building. According to both administrations, consistory and ministry, it was replaced by the same contract. But they don’t say what roof it was.

An investment announced with great fanfare

The importance of the seat of the Government Delegation in Catalonia is artistic and historical, but also political. Not only because of the role it first played as the city’s customs, in the 19th century, nor as the seat of the Civil Government, throughout the 20th, but because its recovery was sold by the Government of Mariano Rajoy as an example of your commitment to Catalonia. In 2015, a million-dollar investment was announced for the first time to rehabilitate it, reestablish it as the headquarters of the Delegation – now installed in the sub-delegation, on Mallorca Street – and also open it to the public for visits. But the project was not approved until 2017, with 8.8 million euros committed by Fomento.

It was then that the works that have recently finished began. Before, there had only been sporadic work, mainly to shore up the building, in which structural deficiencies were detected during a reform in 2008, when the government delegate was the socialist Joan Rangel. Shortly after, the delegation moved to Calle Mallorca and the venue has remained empty ever since.

The building, which occupies one block, has two main facades, one on Marquès de l’Argentera street and the other on Pla de Palau. Work of Juan Miguel de Roncali, engineer and then Minister of Finance, it was built at the beginning of the reign of Carlos IV and occupied a key location within the commercial axis of the time in the city, an area near the wall and the port and that It included the Llotja de Mar and the Palau Reial of that time, which was located opposite.

Of about 7,500 square meters, the enclosure has a central porticoed patio around which the rooms are distributed. The General Directorate of Cultural Heritage of the Generalitat describes it as follows: “The great sobriety of the complex stands out, far from the usual classicist models in the monumental architecture of the time; even so, the building is characterized by the horizontality of the front through the use of resources such as moldings, pilasters and different types of finishes on the walls “.

The little known paintings of Pere Pau Muntanya

One of the art historians who has devoted the most time to this building is Laura García Sánchez, from the University of Barcelona, ​​who published the study ‘The Customs Palace of Barcelona. Artistic and historical testimony of the life of the city‘, and that is part of the research group’ Art and culture in modern Barcelona (17th-18th centuries). Relations and influences in the Western Mediterranean area ‘. This academic is clear: “It is one of the most representative palaces of 18th century Barcelona”. But at the same time he adds that, due to the lack of a detailed study on his ‘artistic treasure’, it is also one of the most unknown.

The rooms and halls of the noble floor of the palace are full of wall paintings by the painter Pere Pau Muntanya, who was the director of the Free School of Drawing in Barcelona and the author of numerous frescoes in houses in the Catalan capital and Reus. “The paintings have to do with the commercial function that the building exerted”, describes García Sánchez. Many of them “extol” the figure of Carlos III, who by then had already passed away, for his role in opening the city to maritime trade.

The problem, according to García Sánchez, is that there is still a lot to study. “What were your reference models, who was part of the workshop [el equipo] de Muntanya, with their names and surnames, who decided… “, the academic lists. She still hopes that one day they will be allowed to make a complete inventory of the pictorial set.