Gaudí's Gift

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

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Although Gaudi had not been especially devout as a young man, construction of the Sagrada Familia deepened his faith. The Lenten fast he went on in 1894 was so strict it almost killed him. Father Josep Torras, spiritual adviser to the Artistic Circle of Saint Luke, an organization of Catholic artists to which Gaudi belonged, had to talk him into breaking it.

At the turn of the 20th century, fervent religious belief often went hand in hand with intense Catalan nationalism. Chafing at domination by Madrid, Catalans began to dwell on their history as an independent Mediterranean power. This led to a revival of Catalan cultural traditions, a determination to use the Catalan language and demands for political autonomy. Though a committed Catalan nationalist, Gaudi did not take part in politics. Still, when Alfonso XIII, the Spanish king, visited the site of the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi would speak to him only in Catalan. Years later, police stopped the 72-yearold architect as he tried to attend a prohibited Mass for 18th-century Catalan martyrs. When the police demanded that he address them in Castilian Spanish, the official language, he retorted, “My profession obliges me to pay my taxes, and I pay them, but not to stop speaking my own language.” Gaudi was thrown in a cell and released only after a priest paid his fine.

Gaudi’s work, like that of Domenech and Puig, owed much to the ornamental Art Nouveau style emerging in other European cities. In addition to twisting curves and structures that imitated natural forms, he favored Arabic and Oriental designs and symbols that encouraged nationalist feelings. If you look at the ironwork and furniture designed by Gaudi and that of the French Art Nouveau architect Hector Guimard, it is hard to tell them apart. Yet Gaudi did not regard himself as a disciple of modernismo, and considered the artists who gathered evenings at Els Quatre Gats (a cafe designed by Puig) to discuss their work as too libertine. He preferred the company of fellow members of the conservative and religious Artistic Circle of Saint Luke.

Much of Gaudi’s early architecture, including the Palau Guell, strikes me as dense and dark—though lightened by novel touches. Reviving an old technique of the Arabs of Spain, he sheathed the palace’s 20 chimneys with fragments of ceramics and glass. Under his direction, workmen would smash tiles, bottles and dishes and then fit the pieces into bright, abstract patterns. He apparently even smashed up one of Guell’s Limoges dinner sets. For Gaudi, the myriad colors resulting from this technique, known as trencadis, reflected the natural world. “Nature does not present us with any object in monochrome . . . not in vegetation, not in geology, not in topography, not in the animal kingdom,” he wrote in his 20s. Trencadis became a Gaudi trademark.

One project, the Park Guell, is a paradise of trencadis. At the turn of the 20th century, Guell decided to create a suburban garden city on a hill overlooking Barcelona. The project never fully materialized; only two homes were built, including one that Gaudi moved into with his father and niece. But the architect completed most of the public works for the aborted garden city and brightened them with fragmented tile. With its mushroomlike spires, grand serpentine bench, fanciful fountain, impish air and vistas of the city, the Park Guell remains a popular place to take children on weekends.

Gaudi created several buildings elsewhere in Spain, and there were stories that he once drew up plans for a hotel in New York. But his greatest work was largely confined to Barcelona and its suburbs. Three buildings there, all works of his maturity—the Casa Batllo, La Pedrera and the Sagrada Familia—illustrate the essence of his architecture. When American architect Louis Sullivan saw photographs of the Sagrada Familia, he described it as “the greatest work of all creative architecture in the last 25 years.” Gaudi conceived his buildings as works of art. He intended La Pedrera, for example, to serve not only as an apartment building but also as the pedestal for an immense statue of the Virgin Mary, until the owner balked. So Gaudi turned the entire edifice into a monumental sculpture. (After decades of functional, nondecorative design, Gaudi’s architecture-as-art approach is back in vogue, carried out by such contemporary architects as deconstructivists Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind. As high-tech architect Norman Foster put it a few years ago, “Gaudi’s methods, one century on, continue to be revolutionary.”)

Completed in 1906, Casa Batllo was Gaudi’s reconstruction of an apartment building on a block that already had works by Domenech and Puig. Although all three structures are outstanding examples of modernismo, the street is sometimes called “The Block of Discord” because it displays rival efforts. Gaudi stretched fantasy far more than the others, with a facade of oddshaped windows separated by columns that resemble petrified bones.

The success of Casa Batllo prompted wealthy developers Pere and Roser Mila to commission Gaudi to build a luxury apartment house just a few blocks away. Gaudi’s Casa Mila, or, as it became known, La Pedrera, the Stone Quarry, is an enormous building with honey-colored limestone slabs curving across the facade, sculpted balconies railed in thick cast-iron vegetation, and a rooftop guarded by strange, warriorlike chimneys and vents.

Though it has long been hailed as an Art Nouveau masterpiece, La Pedrera provoked ridicule when first completed in 1910. Cartoonists portrayed it as a garage for dirigibles, a war machine with cannon protruding from every window and a warren of caves infested with animals. Painter Santiago Rusinyol joked that the only pet a tenant could possibly keep there was a snake. There was also some praise: critic Ramiro de Maeztu, for instance, wrote in the newspaper Nuevo Mundo that “the man’s talent is so dazzling that even the blind would recognize Gaudi’s work by touching it.” But, all in all, Barcelona, like cities elsewhere in Europe, was losing its taste for Art Nouveau architecture.

Gaudi, who was 58 when La Pedrera was completed, would not receive another major private commission from anyone but Guell for the rest of his life. Turning his attention to the Sagrada Familia, he designed for it crusty stone and ceramic spires that soar like primeval trees. He planned two grand portals with sculpture as elaborate as any of that in the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe.


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