In the early 20th century, Barcelona was a recently expanded, chaotic city. Its new streets were only partially surfaced, depending on the resources and taste of each neighbour, who was responsible for a two and a half metre stretch. At that time, the enlarged Barcelona free of city walls designed by the civil engineer and urban planning pioneer, Ildefons Cerdà, wasn’t exactly a place its residents wanted to show to the outside world. Especially on a rainy day. In other areas of Catalonia, the capital city, often deep in mud, became an object of ridicule.

The stone from Montjuïc Mountain could no longer meet this large city’s needs. Its cost was unviable for an expansion plan that would see the old town grow ten-fold. It wasn’t resistant enough to stand the traffic in Eixample, a district that was developing non-stop. Cement tiles provided the solution, but it didn’t come immediately. Implementation of the grey pavement tiles, or panot, now a symbol of the city, had to wait. Meanwhile, it rained and the jokes flooded in.

People used to call Barcelona Can Fanga, because every time the rain came down its streets filled with mud. It was satirical publications like L’Esquella de la Torratxa that popularised these jibes through their cartoon strips. “Even now, people from outside Barcelona still call us the Can Fanga folk. We wanted to show off the new Barcelona but the mud that filled the streets, because they weren’t properly surfaced, detracted from that image of a great city,” says Danae Esparza, researcher and lecturer at the engineering and design school, ELISAVA. Laughing, Esparza recalls some of those cartoons: “On rainy days, as we’re on a slope, the streets would turn into rivers of mud. The caricatures show tourists visiting the city on stilts because there’s so much mud they need them to walk. There are even frogs jumping around. These cartoon strips are spectacular.”

Danae Esparza was used to working with things you can hold in your hands until she took an interest in public urban space. After studying product design, she wanted to explore that midway point between manageable objects and stuff that’s too big to get your hands on. She found her object of study in floor surfacing. “The repetition in pavement tiling helps us to understand and, in some sense, configure our public space,” Esparza explains to Ling.   

Her interest in floor paving led Danae to spend four years studying Barcelona’s street surfacing. She focussed her Ph.D. thesis on panots and based on that research wrote the book Barcelona al ras del suelo (Barcelona at Ground Level). It’s an invitation to discover the city in a different way, paying attention to what’s underfoot and so often goes unnoticed. During her research, she found that the story we’d been told about Barcelona’s peculiar floor tiles was plagued with inaccuracies. She also discovered that Barcelona was the first city to implement the pavements typical of Lisbon, long before they reached Paris.

All of that had been lost in history because picaresque, with all its tricks and silences, had played a driving role. This is how the researcher explains it: “When Lisbon exported its pavements, they did so through the local Chamber of Commerce, the public administration, and by sending their pavement artists, the calceteiros.” Although these artists never arrived to Barcelona, an industrialist decided to get in on the act. “No one had the property rights to this paving system. He registered it at the patents office in Madrid and tried to commercialise the system in other cities. But he never informed the country of origin. Those first pavements were installed in Barcelona without Portugal’s knowledge,” she clarifies.

Barcelona’s flower

Since 1906, a tile with a four-petalled flower, the almond blossom, has been in use. Of the five panots most commonly employed in the early 20th century, this is the only one which has gained special notoriety and, over time, has become a symbol of the city. Now, the flower decorates all kinds of souvenirs. “There are chocolates, bread, bags, postcards… For a while there was even a store called Panot, where they only sold objects featuring this design. As well as the ceramic floor tiles themselves,” recalls Esparza.

The flower panot is so dearly loved in Barcelona that it caused something of a revolt among admirers during the 90s: “When it was decided, for maintenance reasons, to reduce the use of this tile, people complained, ‘They can’t make the flower disappear!’” One of the arguments used by the flower’s supporters was its authorship, as the design had always been attributed to the modernist architect, Josep Puig i Cadafalch. There’s no documentary evidence to support this claim, however. According to Esparza, “although it was similar to the almond blossom referenced in the motifs all over Casa Amatller, there was a difference: those were made of hand-engraved stone, while this panot is hydraulic cement.”   

Of the different designs used in the early 20th century, the flower isn’t the most functional as “others incorporate drainage lines, help to clear rainwater and are easier to cut at the building line.” However, it is the most emblematic, perhaps because it has always been associated with one of the stars of Catalonian modernism and was also used to mark out the city’s “Modernism Route” with circular red tiles.   

The flower didn’t stay in Eixample. It arrived to other neighbourhoods too, “guaranteeing accessibility to the whole city,” and is still one of the most popular tiles in Barcelona. Its size (20cmx20cm), ended up being used for later features of the urban architecture, such as crossovers, kerbs and tree grids.

Gaudí’s ‘panot’

On Passeig de Gràcia, the floor is an artwork. The hexagonal panot used to pave this street was designed by Antoni Gaudí. Nowadays, the Gaudí tile is also sold in the shape of earrings, rings, rucksacks and all kinds of different objects. It dates from 1904 and the architect designed it for Casa Batlló. In the 60s, a blueish replica of the tile became hugely popular and many people mistook it for the original. Esparza explains that this is not the case: “It was a simplified version. In the 80s the small, grey-coloured one was relaid. It caused controversy because people thought that the previous version was the original. But it’s not. The original is the grey one we have at present. It’s a reproduction of the piece designed by Gaudí but with the relief inverted.”

Along this walkway, each complete picture is made up of seven floor tiles with designs alluding to underwater life, as Gaudí planned. The pavement along Passeig de Grácia forces pedestrians to pay attention to the ground and lets them imagine that they’re walking on the sea.