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Gaudí's Gift

In Barcelona, a yearlong celebration spotlights architecture's playful genius the audacious and eccentric Antoni Gaudí

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When I first came upon the startling and fanciful works of Antoni Gaudí a quarter of a century ago, I assumed he must have been some kind of freakish genius who created wonderful art out of his wild imagination, without regard to other architects or any artist before or during his time. I also thought that the Barcelona architect now being honored by that city’s “International Gaudi Year” celebrations was one of a kind, and that his fantastic curving structures, shattered-tile chimneys, lavish decoration and bizarre towers stood alone.

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I soon found, however, that this assumption troubled my Barcelona friends. To them, Gaudi was deeply rooted in the history of Catalonia, their region of Spain, and in the fashion of Art Nouveau that stirred such centers of culture as Paris, Vienna, Brussels, Glasgow, Munich and Barcelona at the turn of the 20th century. I was making the common error of an outsider encountering the greatness of Gaudi for the first time.

This was driven home to me one evening by Miquel de Moragas, a professor of communications at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, who took me on a breakneck tour of the city. Knowing of my interest in Gaudi, Moragas, the enthusiastic, fast talking son of a distinguished Barcelona architect, whipped his Renault in and out of honking traffic, slammed to a sudden stop at street corners, pointed to elaborately curved and decorated buildings, and shouted above the din each time, “Modernismo.” That is the Spanish term denoting the Art Nouveau era in Barcelona.

The 15 or so buildings selected by Moragas were all Gaudi-like, but none were by Gaudi. Moragas was not trying to downgrade Gaudi. He looks on him as a colossus of Catalonia, one of the great cultural gifts of Barcelona to the world. He believes that Gaudi’s originality put him steps ahead of his main rivals in architectural Art Nouveau in Barcelona. But, as Moragas emphasized, “Gaudi was not alone.”

It is a truth worth keeping in mind as Barcelona commemorates the 150th anniversary of the architect’s birth this year. The extraordinary attention may entice visitors into making my mistake. But Gaudi is best understood by placing him in the artistic, social and political context of his time and city.

Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia (the northeastern region of Spain, which was an independent state until the 15th century) and the center of Catalan culture, needs no Gaudi celebration to attract tourists. In 2001, some 3.4 million of them (more than twice the city’s population) came to the Mediterranean metropolis, many of them lured by Gaudi. Year-round, crowds gape at the grand twists of his imagination: the soaring towers of the Sagrada Familia, the huge, awe-inspiring church still under construction; the breathtaking, undulating facade of La Pedrera, the apartment building, also called Casa Mila, that hovers over the fashionable Passeig de Gracia boulevard; and the gigantic mosaic lizard that guards the playful Park Guell on the outskirts of Barcelona. In fact, Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, the most popular tourist site in the city, has become its symbol, nearly as emblematic as the EiffelTower or the Statue of Liberty. The facade and towers of this uncompleted church adorn Tshirts, scarves, platters, posters, mousepads, guidebooks and postcards galore.

Barcelona officials say they want the commemorative year to deepen the Gaudi experience. “We have to lift Gaudi off the postcards,” says Daniel Giralt-Miracle, the art critic who directs the government team that organized the celebration. “We must go on to really see Gaudi, to know and understand him. That is the big objective of the Gaudi year.”

In line with this, museums and other institutions have mounted some 50 exhibitions to explain Gaudi’s architectural techniques, showcase his furniture and interior design, and describe his era. Government-sponsored buses shuttle tourists among the main Gaudi sites and exhibitions. And the doors of some buildings, like the dramatic Casa Batllo, an imposing residence two blocks down the boulevard from La Pedrera, have been opened to the public for the first time.

As I learned, Gaudi is not easy. Both his art and personality are complex. To start with, he was obsessed with nature and geometry. Nature, he insisted, was “the Great Book, always open, that we should force ourselves to read.” He embellished his edifices with replicas of soaring trees, multicolored lizards and fossilized bones, and he fitted his structures with architectural paraboloids and other intricate geometric forms. He didn’t like to work from architectural plans, for he found his visions hard to put down on paper. Then, too, he often changed his designs as his buildings came alive.

His manner was brusque and sometimes overbearing. He made it clear to others that he never doubted his creative genius. He did not like assistants to question his work. “The man in charge should never enter into discussions,” he once said, “because he loses authority by debate.” Rafael Puget, a contemporary of Gaudi’s who knew him well, described the architect as a man with “a morbid, insoluble pride and vanity” who acted “as though architecture itself had begun at the precise moment when he made his appearance on earth.” He grew intensely religious as he aged, and he devoted the last decade of his life to construction of the hugely ambitious Sagrada Familia. But critics charged that he was driven more by his ego than his devotion to God.

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