The haunted tower

The Torre de les Aigües includes a free ghost story in this guide to art in Barcelona. An early work by Josep Domènech i Estapà (1858-1917), it was commissioned when the company Sociedad Catalana para el Alumbrado de Gas—later Catalana de Gas—expanded its facilities to include a 45-m high water tower.

Despite his best efforts to design for the future, this octagonal tower rather evinces a conservativeness that links it to previous styles such as Enlightenment rationalism. While the conical roof and trencadís (ceramic mosaic decoration which Gaudí and Domènech i Muntaner would popularise) show a certain willingness to fantasise, the effect remains mannered. This use of some features of the new architecture—such as the tower’s exposed brickwork—is surprising, given that the architect’s rejection of Modernism extended as far as penning anti-Modernist treatises.

The story goes that, lacking technical skills to design the complex pumping mechanism required, Domènech i Estapà requested the services of a friend, a professor at the Escola Industrial de Barcelona, for its design. Pau, one of the school’s talented graduates undertook the project, which lasted two years. When it was finally inaugurated, attended by the top tier of Barcelona society, the pumping station failed to work. Shamed and humiliated, Pau desperately revised the installation over the following days yet, unable to find the error, he finally threw himself from the top of the tower.

Two weeks afterwards it was discovered that the installation had been designed perfectly. The fault lay in that the valves, shipped from Britain—a leading industrial nation—opened in the opposite direction to valves produced in other parts of Europe. A simple reversal was enough to fix the problem.

Some say that when traffic is scarce on the nearby Barcelona ring road and silence claims the park, you can hear somebody working away with a hammer within, rattling his toolbox. Others swear that English visitors to the tower are unable to see its vivid colours, perceiving only greyish hues.

References: Daniel Pinarello,

Torre de les aigües de la companyia Catalana de Gas [Catalana de Gas water tower] by Josep Domènech i Estapà, 1907. Parc de la Barceloneta, Barceloneta.


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