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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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But donations for the church dwindled in the early 20th century, as Barcelona’s citizens became disenchanted with the radical conservatism espoused by the Sagrada Familia’s main backers. Gaudi sold his house in order to raise money for the project and solicited others for funds, even going so far as begging in the streets. His father died in 1906, his niece in 1912, leaving him with no immediate family. His spiritual adviser, Bishop Torras, and his patron, Guell, died a few years later. “My best friends are all dead,” Gaudi, then 64, said after Guell’s death in 1918. “I have no family, no clients, no fortune, nothing.” But he was not despairing. “Now I can devote myself entirely to the temple,” he declared.

By now he was nearly bald, his beard was white and he appeared too thin for his unkempt, soiled clothes. He wore bandages on his legs to ease arthritic pain, walked with a stick and laced his shoes with elastic. He lunched on lettuce leaves, milk and nuts, and munched on oranges and bread crusts he kept in his pockets. In 1925 he moved into a small room alongside his studio workshop in the Sagrada Familia so he could be closer to his allconsuming project.

On June 7, 1926, crossing the Gran Via boulevard, Antoni Gaudi looked neither right nor left, ignored warning shouts and the clanging bell of an onrushing trolley, and crumpled as it struck him down. He had no identification and looked so disreputable he was taken to the public ward of a Barcelona hospital. When he was identified a day later, he refused suggestions that he move to a private clinic. “My place is here, among the poor,” he reportedly said. He died a couple of days later, just two weeks shy of his 74th birthday, and was buried in the crypt of the Sagrada Familia.

Work on the church continued sporadically after his death. By the time the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War halted construction in 1936, four spires stood in place. Catalan republicans, angered by the Catholic church’s support of fascist rebel leader Generalissimo Francisco Franco, ravaged the churches of Barcelona. They sacked Gaudi’s old office in the Sagrada Familia and destroyed his drawings, but left the structure intact. British writer George Orwell, who fought with the anti-Franco forces, called it “one of the most hideous buildings in the world.” The leftists, he contended, “showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance.”

Although Gaudi’s admirers included the likes of Catalan Surrealist painter Salvador Dali, the 100th anniversary of his birth passed in 1952 without elaborate commemorations. Praise from the eccentric Dali, in fact, only made Gaudi seem outlandish and isolated—a strange hermit who relied on wild dreams for inspiration. But Gaudi, as Time art critic Robert Hughes wrote in his book Barcelona, did not believe “his work had the smallest connection with dreams. It was based on structural laws, craft traditions, deep experience of nature, piety, and sacrifice.” Thoughtful interest in Gaudi has swelled over the past few decades as Spanish critics, like critics elsewhere, began to look more closely at neglected works from the Art Nouveau era.

In 1986, a Barcelona-based savings bank, the Caixa Catalunya, purchased La Pedrera. The structure, which along with Gaudi’s Palau Guell and Park Guell was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, was in woeful disrepair, but a foundation formed by the bank meticulously restored it and opened parts of it to the public in 1996. Foundation director J. L. Gimenez Frontin says, “We had to look for the same earth to make the same bricks.”

The bank allows visitors access to the roof and two permanent exhibitions. One traces Gaudi’s life and work; the second presents an apartment as it might have been furnished at the turn of the century. In honor of International Gaudi Year, a special exhibition, “Gaudi: Art and Design,” featuring furniture, doors, windows, doorknobs and other decorative elements designed by the architect, is on view through September 23.

In the early 1980s, work resumed in earnest on the Sagrada Familia. The nave is scheduled to be ready for worship by 2007, but the full church, with a dozen spires, may take until mid-century to complete. Critics complain that contemporary artists, operating without Gaudi’s plans and drawings, are producing ugly and incompatible work. Robert Hughes calls the post-Gaudi construction and decoration “rampant kitsch.”

For its part, the Catholic Church wants to make Gaudi a saint. The Vatican authorized the start of the beatification process in 2000 after Cardinal Ricard Maria Carles of Barcelona requested it, proclaiming that Gaudi could not have created his architecture “without a profound and habitual contemplation of the mysteries of the faith.” But that, contend some critics, is going too far. Says professor of communications Miquel de Moragas: “We think of him as Gaudi the engineer, Gaudi the architect, Gaudi the artist, not Gaudi the saint.”

But whether Gaudi is a saint or not, there is no doubt about the power of his architecture to excite wonder and awe. As Joaquim Torres-Garcia, an artist who worked at the same time as Gaudi, put it, “It is impossible to deny that he was an extraordinary man, a real creative genius. . . . He belonged to a race of human beings from another time for whom the awareness of higher order was placed above the materiality of life.”

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