Considered by many to be the most significant Catalan artist since Gaudi, the sculptor Xavier Corbero has built a home that befits his reputation: an expansive estate in the Barcelona suburb of Esplugues de Llobregat, which reveals the work of a mind that is as much artistic as architectural. Keep reading to find out about his life, his work, and his infamous home.
Xavier Corberó (1935–2017) is among the foremost Spanish artists of the last century. His sculptures in rough-hewn stone, marble, and bronze gave form to ideas running through a circle of contemporary surrealist artists, including Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Joan Miró, but with pieces distinctly his own. His works are widely and internationally celebrated in institutions like London’s V&A and New York’s The Met, but maybe his greatest artwork is located on the outskirts of Barcelona in the form of the home he built for himself over a period of five decades, a series of labyrinthine rooms, levels, buildings, and arches that he continually added to whenever money came his way, conceiving new plans on morning strolls with the local builder. Looking to build the home of his dreams, Catalan artist Xavier Corberó began acquiring land outside his native Barcelona in 1968. Today, he has a home that is some 48,000 square feet spread over nine interconnected buildings with about a dozen courtyards—all nestled among more than 300 archways.
Xavier Corbero’s Life
Corberó’s patrilineal family has its roots in Lleida, in the home region of Saint Peter Claver whose 16th-century mother was born Ana Corberó. He lived his childhood through the turmoil and scarcity of the civil war and early years of Francoist Spain.
“I was born before the war. My mother died when I was very small. During the bombings in 1938, I used to run to the shelter on my own. I was three years old. The sirens would ring and I was told: You are Xavieret Corberó i Olivella, and you live in Claris, 40”.
– Xavier Corberó, Open House Mag
In 1950 he enrolled at Escola Massana, and in 1953 volunteered for military service in the Spanish Air Force. In 1955 he lived briefly in Paris and Stockholm, then until 1959 in London where he was the first-ever Spanish student at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. He then went on to work for a while in Lausanne.
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The Corberó family held a tradition of metalworking, especially in bronze. Corberó’s grandfather Pere Corberó i Casals (1875-1959) was an entrepreneur and artist whose works included the bronze memorial on the birthplace of Enrique Granados, also in Lleida. He was a cofounder of Barcelona’s association for the promotion of decorative arts, a precursor to the Design Museum, now known as the Foment de les Arts i el Disseny. The Corberó foundry produced sculptures by prominent Catalan sculptors of the time such as Pablo Gargallo, Josep Viladomatand Frederic Marès. It was also an industrial and commercial business that sold bronze doors, chandeliers, fountains, and other decorative items, with a showroom in downtown Barcelona at Rambla de Catalunya 105, in a building designed by Arnau Calvet i Peyronill , and a workshop nearby at Carrer Aribau 103. Pere’s son and Corberó’s father, Xavier Corberó i Trepat (1901-1981), also worked in the family bronze workshop. Together with his brother Valeri Corberó i Trepat, a noted interior designer and decorator, he was one of the co-founders of the Escola Massana art school in Barcelona. During the Spanish Civil War Xavier Corberó i Trepat fought in the Spanish Republican Armed Forces and was thus separated from his family. Corberó’s mother Montserrat, born Olivella i Vidal, passed away in 1936 while giving birth to his younger brother, who in turn died from smallpox a few years later.
In Barcelona in the early 1960s he befriended Ricardo Bofill, Antonio Gades, Luis Marsans, and Manuel Viola. It’s amazing how all world-renowned artists and architects seem to know each other: sharing in ideas and inspiration seems to be an important part of their formation. In 1962 he moved to New York City. There he spent time with such prominent artists as Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst and Man Ray, before moving back to Barcelona in the mid-1960s, which signified a return to his homeland and the culture there. In the ensuing years he immersed himself further in the artistic community of Barcelona and Cadaqués, developing a close friendship with Salvador Dalí (whom he described as his “first patron”) as well as with Jorge Castillo, Joan Miró, and Elsa Peretti among others. By the early 1970s he was printing etchings on behalf of Miró and producing jewelry for Peretti in his Esplugues workshop. Around that time he also met the British landscape architect Russell Page, whom he particularly admired and of whom he viewed himself as a disciple. From the mid-1970s he again spent extended periods in New York, where his circle included Claes Oldenburg, Richard Serra, and Robert Hughes. He was surrounded by famous artists and architects
Corberó married actress Mary-Ann Bennett in 1958. Their daughter Ana Corberó was born in 1960. They separated in the early 1970s. In 1983 he married Maria Luisa Tiffón. In his later life he was in a relationship with Maria Dolors (Midu) Rica, whom he had known in 1973. While he was prolific as an artist, he also seemed to have a turbulent personal life. Corberó died in April 2017, aged 81, and was buried at Montjuïc Cemetery in Barcelona.
“The worst thing that can happen to you in life is not having problems.”
– Xavier Corberó, Open House Mag
Xavier Corbero’s Work
Corberó had his first metal sculptures exhibited in 1955 at the third Hispano-American Biennial Exhibition. He participated in successive sessions of the avant-garde Saló de maigexhibition in Barcelona and won awards there in 1960 and 1961. He had his first individual exhibition in Munich in 1963, for which he received a Gold Medal from the State of Bavaria. Later solo exhibitions included shows at the Art Institute of Chicago (1964), Staempfli Gallery in New York (1966, 1975, 1980), Meadows Museum in Dallas (1980), and McNay Art Museum in San Antonio (1985). Corberó’s monumental sculptures can be seen in many places of Catalonia that include Barcelona, Esplugues de Llobregat, El Prat de Llobregat, and others. Others range around the world, from London, to Dubai, to Chicago as well as in numerous museums such as the Meadows Museum in Dallas, the Nassau County Museum of Art. He was truly prolific, although his house has a reputation that at this point has out shadowed most of his sculpture work. Although, I suppose you could consider the house a form of sculpture. While sculpture was Corberó’s dominant medium, together with architecture for his house, he also produced whimsical drawings, abstract paintings, and poems in Catalan.
Following the return of democracy in Spain and the corresponding blossoming of cultural activity in Barcelona, culminating in the 1992 Summer Olympics, and jointly with New York art dealer Joseph A. Helman, Corberó successfully encouraged his prominent artist friends to donate monumental sculptures as a participation to the city’s renewal, at almost no cost to the city other than that of the sculptures’ materials. That initiative brought Roy Lichtenstein’s “El Cap de Barcelona” on the Port Vell waterfront, Claes Oldenburg’s “Matches” in Vall d’Hebron, Richard Serra’s “Wall” on Plaça de la Palmera, Beverly Pepper’s “Cielo caído” and “Espiral arbolada” in the Parc de l’Estació del Nord, Bryan Hunt’s “Rites of Spring” in the Parc del Clot, and Anthony Caro’s “Alto Rhapsody” in the Parc de l’Espanya Industrial. He was also the designer of the 1992 Olympic medals, for which on his insistence real gold was used for the first time. In 1992 he received the Creu de Sant Jordi Award from the Generalitat de Catalunya, in recognition of his role in Barcelona’s public sculpture program. In 2000 he became a member of the Reial Acadèmia Catalana de Belles Arts de Sant Jordi. The majority of his public displays of art are stone sculptures that appear almost as minimalist versions of people, with heavier tops and long bodies. They could be interpreted as many things, however, or just as what they are, sculpted stone: raw and rough.
Xavier Corberó’s Sprawling Home
In 1968 Corberó started acquiring land, including a former potato farm, bordering Montserrat Streetin the Barcelona suburb of Esplugues de Llobregat, not far from where his parents lived. He developed it into a highly elaborate complex of spaces that were partly devoted to hosting artists-in-residence as well as his own home. The haven sheltered behind high stone walls also offers a refuge for artists seeking to work and live within its fairy tale bubble of boundless possibilities. “I try to do for them what I would have liked to be able to do when I was in their situation,” says Corbero. Absent are mundane pressures like paying rent and answering phones. Given a room and studio space, painters and sculptors have stayed six months or six years to explore their creative capabilities.
The sprawling compound includes a significant share of his life’s work and personal collections, and he kept building it up until his death. It includes two historic houses, Can Cargoland Can Bialet , the former of which he restored in 1970-1971 with the help of Ricardo Bofill’s father, the architect and builder Emilio Bofill, who was also involved in the early stages of construction of the main complex across Montserrat Street. Corberó’s visually striking house has been featured as background stage in multiple occasions, including Woody Allen’s film Vicky Cristina Barcelona in 2008 and The New Yorker’s “Goings on About Town” section in 2020. Lluís Lleó, an artist who knew Corberó well, described it as “a self-portrait”.
“The space is big, but it is only big mentally, because the space isn’t more than any lobby in Chicago,” says Corbero. “What is good is the scale, if you get the scale right, space stops being space to become mind. And this happens in a sculpture and it happens in architecture.”
– Xavier Corberó, Medium
The exteriors include geometric concrete structures stacking at different heights to create commanding sculptures amidst the wild surrounds and bodies of water. Across vine-cloaked buildings, details such as floating steps are framed by contrasting curved arches. The interiors are a medley of man-made caves, whitewashed to form living quarters, workshops and gallery spaces. Corbero explains that the driving motivation behind his artistic creations is to create “poetry” – which is exemplified by his eccentric estate. He celebrates honesty in materiality by emphasising the rugged textures of concrete or timber with perfect imperfection. Each internal lookout is carefully considered to maximise views of greenery and welcome light. His masterpiece reflects a skilful understanding of how natural light washes over spaces to illuminate them beautifully. At the centre of it all is an awe-inspiring six-storey glass atrium dubbed ‘The Tower’, where Corbero lives. ‘The Tower’ is filled with the art, and curious objects that have been lovingly collected over his prolific career as a global artist. For a man who counted Dali amongst his friends, you can be sure the pieces he surrounds himself with will have many a story to tell.
Back in 1959, he settled into the remote Esplugues, confounding his urban comrades. “I remember a gallery in Barcelona saying, “you’re crazy, it’s so far.” “ Although only 11 kilometers from The Ramblas, heart of the bustling metropolis that lures the world to view Gaudi and modernism, Corbero’s encampment would be a world away. “In Spanish terms, it was very far from Barcelona, back then there were no cars or taxis, but in American terms, not so far. In Europe, you can travel the distance from Manhattan to Brooklyn and you could have two presidents and six kingdoms.
Treating his home as an “agenda”, Corbero’s belongings are intentionally displayed to be playful and intriguing, with everything in clear view – a gallery in and of itself. Here, he mixes furniture and art of different eras, different ethnic origins with an exuberant nonchalance for styling norms. For me, the circular atrium is the most outstanding achievement of form. The entire structure is designed to carefully and strategically manipulate light to create drama. Octagonal windows are embedded into the atrium’s concrete walls to replicate a kaleidoscope. The resulting effect allows natural light to cast magical reflections, that vary across the day, upon the interiors. Xavier further asserts “when you choose the right scale, music sounds beautiful”.
Xavier Cordero, like other famous designers and architects from Catalan, Spain, bridged his upbringing with his later travels around the world. His origins come through in his design, as they do in his most iconic work, his home. It is literally situated a stone’s throw away from where his parents lived. He seems to have been an eccentric and passionate character, often evasive in interviews, and speaking in strong bold statements. His personality allowed him to create something eccentric, in its structure and its use, that will remain one of the most beautiful and interesting homes on earth.