When Ramon Alabern and other members of the Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts of Barcelona chose the Pla de Palau as the scene for the first photograph ever taken on the Iberian peninsula back in November 1839, their choice of location was far from being a fortuitous one. The selected spot was one of the most fashionable parts of the city at that time. One of the buildings that appears in that first image, – the houses of the Porxos d’en Xifré – was the most modern building of the period. It has even been said that it was one of the first houses with running water.
The building takes its name from its promoter, Josep Xifré i Casas, an indià (the name given to Spaniards who had made it good in the Americas) from Arenys de Mar who had made his fortune in Cuba and New York. He settled a Barcelona after his return. Xifré was considered to be the city’s richest man, and as Xavi Casinos explains in the book Passejades per la Barcelona maçònica, published by Barcelona City Council: “he was the first President of the Caixa d’Estalvis i Mont de Pietat savings bank and the first Chairman of the Board of Beneficència Pública. He also created a fire brigade and promoted several charitable, cultural and economic societies. In 1850, his name was put forward for Mayor, but he declined the offer”.
Josep Buxareu and Francesc Vila were the architects that Xifré commissioned for the project that would produce one of the most interesting examples of neoclassical bourgeois architecture in Barcelona. The building was integrated seamlessly into the plan to develop the Pla de Palau, which had been designed by the military engineer Josep Massanés, in a Barcelona that had still not been able to break free of its walls.
The building, constructed in the neoclassical style between 1836 and 1840, occupies the block formed by Passeig d’Isabel II, where the main façade is situated, the streets of Llauder and Carrer de la Reina Cristina and the Pla de Palau. The porticoes that characterise the building, and which give it its name, are on the façades of Pla de Palau and Passeig d’Isabel II. Indeed, the building was conceived as series of 10 independent houses, each with its own stairway and central patio, but offering the appearance of a single unitary building. The porticoes are supported by columns – there are more than thirty – which reach the level of the first floor in such a way that the mezzanine floor is included within the covered area. In the upper part, there are three floors crowned by a rooftop that can be walked upon.
The two main façades, the one on Passeig d’Isabel II and that on the Pla de Palau side, are decorated with cast iron, stone relief and terracotta. Taken as a whole, the images leave no doubts as to the origin of the fortune of the person who commissioned the building, insofar as they are allegories of commerce, navigation and the Americas. There are monsters and deities as well as devices used in navigation, personification of continents and images of products. The pilasters of the central sector of the main façade contain medallions with effigies of sailors and conquistadors, such as Cano, Cortés, Columbus, Magellan, Pizarro and the epic poet Alonso de Ercilla, author of La Araucana. The upper part of this central body of the main façade is completed by a frontispiece with a allegory on the passage of time, and underneath are the words: Uranie coeli motus scrutatur et astra (Urania examines the movement of the sky and the stars). Some authors have associated Xifré with Freemasonry because of these sculptures.
Two of the city’s most emblematic gastronomic establishments were initially installed on the ground floor of the building, under the arcades. One of these, the 7 Portes restaurant, still exists today The other, which closed towards the end of the 19th century, was famous throughout the city. This was the Tio Nel·lo Orxateria (which sold orxata – a drink made from tiger nuts) and which introduced this beverage to Barcelona.
During the second half of the 20th century, the streets around the Porxos d’en Xifré filled with shops selling electrical goods and electronics. At the end of 2014, Barcelona City Council remodelled the streets of Llauder and Carrer de la Reina Cristina in an effort to improve the design and layout of the area, and to help restore the great commercial dynamism that the area once had.