Dr Terry Cutler writes: For the serious traveller the only time to go to the island of Mallorca off the Spanish Mediterranean coast is in the off season when all the tourists and temporary residents have disappeared.
The scale of the annual summer migration to Mallorca is reflected in the size of its airport. Approaching the city of Palma from the airport one of the first sights is the huge cathedral building sitting proud on the ridge over the port. Even from a distance it is clear that its rose windows are enormous, and the warm stone glows in the sunlight. The building stretches 121 metres in length, and is unusually wide, with the nave and aisles measuring 55 metres across. Which seems appropriate, since Catalan Gothic is notable for the scale and openness of its interior spaces.
Unlike other Catalan Gothic structures, Palma’s La Seu cathedral may be pleasing to the eye but it is not exactly an engineering triumph.
With amazing engineering and construction innovativeness, most Catalan churches minimise reliance on buttresses, or incorporate them within the internal structure. Eventually Gaudí’s Sagrada Família did away with them altogether, channelling the force fields of the superstructure down what are often perilous thin interior columns.
In the case of Palma, however, there seems to have been a crisis of nerve or construction ingenuity because the building is almost buttressed to the point of threatening the entry of light. There are signs that more and more buttresses, including two tiers of flying buttress, were added in what gives the impression of nervousness about the stability of the structure.
Between 1902 and 1914 Gaudí rearranged the interior of the cathedral, opened up more windows, introduced electric lighting and created the most unusual pulpits. These are eye-catching because, in the era before microphones, he created huge “sound boards” in stone to enable a speaker to be heard far down the nave. Regrettably the most flamboyant of these has now been removed, although a temporary replica was in place at the time of our visit.
When Gaudí finally crossed the line of what the somewhat conservative burghers of Palma could come to grips with, the “modernising” work on the Cathedral was continued by his associates Josep Jugol and Joan Rubio y Bellver. Rubio had some strong links to Mallorca, having completed some major if little known work between 1904 and 1912 in the equally little known town of Sóller in the north West of the island.
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We discovered Sóller by accident as the Gran Hotel Sóller turned out to be one of the few hotels outside Palma which had not yet closed for the winter off season (it closed the following week).
Sóller is known for its oranges and olives. It sits in a picturesque valley basin encircled by the rugged mountainous spine that runs along the western coast of the island. A charmingly idiosyncratic tramway runs through the streets and down the hill to Port de Sóller, a distance of three kilometres.
The main square of Sóller was remade by Rubio and his square features his moderniste building for the Bank Sóller, across the road from the large church of Sant Bartomeu for which he contributed a striking new portal.
The church occupies an entire block, and is a bit like an architectural time series. At the rear it incorporates the outline of an early, small Romanesque building, later swallowed up by a huge Baroque complex, the sides and rear of which are curiously windowless. The rear is topped by a fine Neo-Gothic belltower which abuts what appears to be remnants of an ancient city wall. From the side one can clearly see where Rubio started, adding a nave bay to the front and the wonderful new façade, this time with windows. On this visit the church has been closed for interior restoration to the vaulting, so it was not possible to explore just what they did with the lighting issue before the era of electricity.
Rubio’s façade is nicely proportioned and replete with finely executed detail, such as the water spouts and the beautifully rounded sweep of the entry stairways. At night, floodlight, the overall effect is dramatic, highlighting the strong open pediment.
The whole interest of Mallorca is anywhere except the south west corner which has been heavily colonised by German and other expatriates. Not surprisingly it was to this area that Christopher Skase infamously bolted after the collapse of his Qintex company. It would be unfortunate if this were the main thing Australians associate with this marvellous island.
Dr Terry Cutler is an industry consultant and strategy advisor in the information and communications technology sector. He was chair of the Rudd government’s 2008 review of the National Innovation Council.