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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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Antoni Gaudí I Cornet was born June 25, 1852, in the small Catalan town of Reus, 75 miles southwest of Barcelona. He came from a long line of artisans; his father, grandfather and greatgrandfather were all coppersmiths. He learned the elementary skills of the copper craft as a youngster, then left for Barcelona in 1868 at age 16 to complete his secondary education and enroll in the school of architecture at the university there.

His early coppersmith training may account for his enthusiasm for the nitty- gritty of building. He would become a hands-on architect, working alongside his craftsmen. When La Pedrera was being built, for example, he stood in the street and personally supervised the placement of the stone slabs of the facade, ordering the masons to make adjustments until he found the proper place for each slab.

His student work did not please all of his professors. While working parttime in architectural studios, he often skipped classes and made it clear to students and teachers alike that he did not think much of architectural education. In his view, it was mere discipline, bereft of creativity. The faculty vote to pass him was close, and at his graduation in 1878, the director of the school announced, “Gentlemen, we are here today either in the presence of a genius or a madman.”

Judging by photographs, Gaudi was a handsome young man with penetrating blue eyes, reddish hair and a thick beard. He wore well-cut, fashionable suits, attended opera at the famous Liceo theater and enjoyed dining out.

Gaudi was the youngest of five children, and all the others died before him, two in childhood, two as young adults. He lost his mother in 1876, when he was 24, just two months after the death of his brother, Francesc, a medical student. His sister Rosa died three years later, leaving a child, Rosita, whom Gaudi and his father brought up. Tubercular and alcoholic, she, too, died as a young adult.

Gaudi never married. While designing housing for a workers’ cooperative early in his career, he fell in love with Pepeta Moreu, a divorced schoolteacher and rare beauty who demonstrated her independence by swimming in public, reading republican newspapers and associating with socialists and antimonarchists. Gaudi asked her to marry him, but she turned him down. Biographers mention a possible interest in two or three other women during his lifetime but offer no details. His niece, Rosita, however, was definitive. “He didn’t have a girlfriend or amorous relations,” she once said. “He didn’t even look at women.”

The Barcelona of the 1880s was an exciting place for a young architect. The city was expanding rapidly, with new homes and offices to be built. Rich bourgeoisie were able to spend lavishly on construction. They wanted to look modern and trendsetting and were open to new artistic fashions. Three architects would benefit most from this patronage: Lluis Domenech i Montaner, who was three years older than Gaudi, Josep Puig i Cadafalch, who was 15 years younger, and, of course, Gaudi himself.

The course of Gaudi’s career was set when, at age 26, he met Eusebi Guell, a wealthy industrialist, politician and future count. Only five years older than Gaudi, Guell asked him in 1883 to design a gate, stables, hunting pavilion and other small structures for his family’s estate on the periphery of Barcelona. For the next 35 years, the rest of Guell’s life, he employed Gaudi as his personal architect, commissioning a host of projects, from mundane laundry facilities to the elegant and stately Palau Guell, his mansion just off La Rambla, the mile-long esplanade that runs through the heart of the old city. At his patron’s behest, Gaudi even designed a crypt. For it, he devised an ingenious system of inverted modeling for calculating loads on columns, arches and vaults using strings, from which he hung bags of bird shot as weights.

Guell was a munificent patron. While Gaudi was building the Palau in the late 1880s, the skyrocketing construction costs alarmed one of the industrialist’s secretaries, a poet named Ramon Pico Campamar. “I fill Don Eusebi’s pockets and Gaudi then empties them,” Pico complained. Later, he showed a pile of bills to his employer. After looking them over, Guell shrugged. “Is that all he spent?” he said.

In 1883, the year he started to work for Guell, Gaudi won a contract to take over as architect of the ExpiatoryTemple of the Holy Family, the Sagrada Familia. The project was supported by a group of conservative Catholics who wanted a holy edifice where sinners could atone for succumbing to modern temptations.

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