Chinese whispers - Issue 102 - Magazine | Monocle

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Peering between her white curtains over the years, 90-year-old Montserrat Monsó has witnessed the world around her change from her third-floor apartment window. She’s lived here from the moment that the building opened in 1930 and has gone on to watch her street ravaged by civil war, repressed by a dictatorship and finally renewed by Barcelona’s post-Olympic poise. Her story is as much a part of the building’s history as Casa Xina is a symbol of the city’s own dramatic narrative.

“I used to know all of the neighbours,” she says while feeding her blue budgerigar Chiquitín, “but now I hardly recognise anyone.” Despite her age, Montserrat is unswayed by the change. Still one of the most active residents in her building, she heads downstairs each morning to stand at the register of age-old lighting shop Monsó i Benet, where she jovially chats to the customers who, in many cases, know her by name.

The business was opened in 1912 by her father Vicente, who wasted no time in snapping up this prized shopfront (as well as an apartment for his family upstairs) when he saw such an exotic edifice spring up across the road. The reputed retailer now covers most of the ground floor, brimming with the best selection of bulbs, fittings and electronics to have brightened up Barcelona for the past century.

Its most brilliant fixture is Montserrat herself, who thrives in her role as both matriarch and sales-clerk-in-chief. She opens and closes the shop each day, retiring upstairs to read in the evenings. “I don’t care too much for television,” she says. “Too much arguing.”

This is a city that never shies away from a spirited argument though. When Valencian architect Joan Guardiola first unveiled Casa Xina in the L’Eixample district of the city, the esteemed writer Manuel Brunet was scathing, labelling the building “a new milestone for the museum of horrors”. For the critics (and there were many of them) it was dismissed as a ridiculous offshoot of the numerous art nouveau buildings that had been similarly derided as cathedrals of bad taste two decades earlier.

However, Guardiola was clearly never one to be curtailed by any kind of criticism. His noticeably eccentric take on art deco included a generous appointment of exotic motifs where Pagoda fans crown the upper ledge and Egyptian-revivalist graffito medallions dot the façade, while the entrance hall is an otherworldly nod to the city’s modernist spirit. This is a monument to an imagination run wild and it also helped that his family – heavyweights in the construction industry – were able to facilitate their son’s quirky vision. Called Casa Xina (China House) because of its unmistakeable oriental style (the official, albeit forgotten name of the building was Casa Ferran Guardiola), it was overseen by the architect’s two brothers. As construction director and supervisor they were also behind sister building Casa Judía in the city of Valencia; it’s a construction that lurches even further into the territory of fairytales.

The playful features of the façade were what first struck German businessman Alexander as he strolled around the L’Eixample district of Barcelona on the hunt for a new home. After a few enquiries and a dose of good fortune he moved into one of the áticos just three months later. He didn’t know it at the time but news of the first foreign resident flustered the tightknit community, which moved swiftly to change the building’s statutes to prevent any Airbnb-type letting from unsettling the peace. “There was a fear,” he says. “But when they realised I wanted to preserve the peace just as much as them, the mood became more welcoming.”

Delighted to discover the original wooden window frames and ceramic floors intact, he enlisted studio Dosbasso Arquitectos for a respectful redesign. “The exterior was definitely a source of inspiration for choosing the specific colours and design features for the interior,” he says. “This is a building that nearly everyone has an opinion about in Barcelona but every time I cast eyes on it, I still stand in awe. I wanted my own apartment to be coated with the same spirit of wonder.”

Young Catalonian lawyer Matias Crisol sensed a similarly frosty reception while eagerly ringing the neighbours’ doorbells when he moved in four years ago. “It’s understandable that the neighbours are uneasy about strangers; the people of Barcelona don’t want their city to go the way of tourist-centric Venice or for empty investment properties to hollow out their neighbourhoods. However, we Catalans are also inherently private people.”

The disquiet that runs through this building can be viewed as a microcosm for the mood around much of the city and explains how outsider mayor Ada Colau swept into office with a pledge to rein in the unregulated housing sector. “The expulsion of residents to the city’s outskirts is one of our main concerns,” says her new councillor for architecture, urban landscape and heritage, Daniel Mòdol Deltell. “Heritage architecture is intrinsic to the city’s image but we also want to be able to preserve the link between the physical and the sentimental by creating a bulwark against gentrification in Barcelona.”

It endures as an emotive issue for residents. Apart from the recent suggestion to hike up property taxes on apartments for tourists there is also an ambitious plan to create superilles, or super-blocks, that could see vast swathes of L’Eixample’s roads turned into parks.

“Nostalgia is the purview of those who aren’t capable of dreaming up anything new,” says resident Juan Miguel Portal. The retired 82-year-old journalist is watering his plants up on Casa Xina’s sundrenched rooftop terrace. “This is an attractive city but even though it has become more international you can still feel its essence.” Juan Miguel is from Granada and moved into the ático in the central tower 40 years ago; he’s enjoyed eating dinner under starlight with his wife Dolors every night since. The previous tenant had used the terrace as a makeshift tannery but he immerses himself in his well-tended greenery in order to reflect on life and write poetry. “The absence of walls aids the creativity,” he says.

The wisdom garnered from both age and his apartment’s altitude seem to have assured this particular resident and given him a more upbeat perspective. “Fighting against the evolution of time may sound romantic but it’s not pragmatic,” he says. “Things keep changing – and thank goodness for that.”

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