THE greatest story of love between a city and an architect took place at the beginning of the 20th century, between Antonio Gaudí and Barcelona. This idyll continues to this day, given that the two names are inseparable from each other. Gaudí’s great work, Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia Cathedral, is the most-visited monument in Spain.
Gaudí died before he could finish it, run over by a tram while he was supervising the works. Yet this amazing artist lives on in the hearts of Barcelona’s people and captivates those of everyone who visits this great city.
To get to know Gaudí, one must visit the residential homes he built in the Paseo de Gràcia, particularly Casa Batlló; and, of course, Güell Park, the first of his great creations.
To understand just how far the creativity and imagination of Spanish artists can go, one has to know Gaudí’s works. But, who was he, and what did he actually do?
Antonio Gaudí was born in 1852, son of a humble cauldron-maker. He was a fairly sickly child, suffering from regular rheumatic pains that on many occasions prevented him from enjoying such normal childhood activities as playing with his friends. These physical ailments would accompany Gaudí throughout his life.
It is still under debate whether he was born in Riudoms or Reus, two towns very close to each other in the province of Tarragona, although the majority of biographers believe he was born in Reus.
Gaudí relocated to Barcelona aged 17 with the intention of studying architecture, but due to lack of financial resources he had to combine his studies with working as a draughtsman and designer. This allowed him to work alongside well-known architects from a young age.
By the age of 26, Gaudí had qualified as an architect. Already, in Architectural College his great imagination caused him to stand out from the rest. Elies Rogent, director of Barcelona’s Architectural College, said at the time: “We’ve either given a diploma to a madman or a genius, but time will tell which one.”
Without doubt he was a genius, and like all of those, he was also a bit mad too. Although what the tourist wonders when he or she first sees the works of Gaudí in the flesh is whether the madmen were, in fact, the bourgeois Catalán businesspeople who agreed to build their homes completely according to Gaudí’s imagination.
What is important to understand is that these businesspeople – even if they were not geniuses – were indeed eccentric, very open to new ideas and without doubt in possession of great artistic awareness.
It was a Catalan businessman who discovered Gaudí: Eusebi Güell. The young architect had taken various of his more decorative works – among which was a stained glass window designed for a well-known glove shop in Barcelona, Casa Comella – to the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1878. Here, Eusebi Güell, a respected entrepreneur in the textile industry, was struck by the modernity and elegance of the window.
Such was the admiration that this work awoke in Eusebi Güell that, upon his return, he wanted to get in touch with the architect to give him a commission. This was the start of a friendship and business relationship that produced some of Gaudí’s most outstanding works, such as Güell Park.
A dragon of a doorman
The initial plan for Güell Park comprised the construction of a luxury model residential estate in the suburbs of Barcelona. This famous city-garden was supposed to include 60 family homes.
The area in which Güell Park is located today is almost free of any greenery – for this reason it became known as Montaña Pelada – with a rocky, stony, undulating surface and lacking in anything natural, so building anything here seemed like an impossible task in those days. Gaudí dealt with each of the obstacles in his way, one by one – from designing rainwater collectors to taking advantage of the steep slopes for building windy lanes.
He categorically refused to flatten out the terrain in order to build roads. On the contrary, he chose to use the rise and fall of the land to create footpaths, which he covered with arches held up by leaning columns. Despite the apparent slimness of these columns, which bring to mind palm-tree trunks, they have shown an extraordinary resistance to extreme weather conditions.
By using stones found naturally in the area, he managed to make the architectural style appear to be an integral part of the natural landscape. Although Gaudí once again gave free rein to his incredible fantasy and great technical ability, the project ended up being a spectacular failure in commercial terms. Only two plots were sold.
Thanks to this lack of interest, years later, the area became a public park.
When you reach the Güell Park the first thing you see in the centre of the double stairway that provides access to it is a huge dragon which welcomes visitors in.
You notice that the decoration in this park uses the same style and materials that Gaudí often used in his works – flagstones broken in an asymmetric manner, which perfectly ccommodate the curved surfaces that this ingenuous architect created.
After climbing the stairway, you reach a huge covered space held up by 86 Doric columns, originally designed to be used for market stalls where the inhabitants could buy their foodstuffs in the planned city garden. The beautiful ceiling roses are created using multi-coloured shards of flagstones and glass.
In the huge square, which takes on the form of a Greek theatre supported by the aforementioned columns with Doric capitals, a long, winding seating area designed in typical Gaudí style marks the limits of the terrain. To construct this seating area, in the same way as other decorative elements of this project, Gaudí worked closely alongside the outstanding architect Josep M. Jujol.
In 1984, UNESCO nominated Güell Park as an artistic heritage site that enjoys an international preservation order.
Gaudí’s reputation began to spread among the Catalan bourgeoisie and this time it was the Batlló family who commissioned the renovation of their home on the Paseo de Gràcia.
What was, in principle, a simple renovation of an already constructed property, gave Gaudí the chance to create one of his most poetic and decorative works.
The ground floor of the building was substituted with graceful undulating patterns carved into the stone of the balconies and in which you can see various delicate columns bearing floral themes.
The façade, undulating vertically, is tiled with fragments of glass and ceramic tiles in different colours, giving it a very bright, shiny appearance. Gaudí himself, as though he were painting a massive canvas, showed the builders from down on the street how to distribute the various fragments and colours.
On the upper part of the façade Gaudí built a set of eight chimneys in which he once again let rip with his amazing creativity. His decorative detail reveals that he is at once an architect, decorator and highly talented sculptor.
To cover the water-deposits, Gaudí designed a very steep rooftop that looks like a type of gigantic fish, also made with pieces of ceramic tiles. The tower is finished off with a cross in the form of plants. The textures of the different elements are of an outstanding variety and beauty.
In 1883, Gaudí accepted the job of carrying on the recently-started works on the Expiatorio Temple of the Sagrada Familia Cathedral. He completely modified the initial project, making it his trademark masterpiece, renowned and admired throughout the world. From 1910 onwards he concentrated almost exclusively on this project, until he died.
On June 7 1926, Antonio Gaudí was walking along the Gran Vía de les Corts Catalanes. He had just crossed C/ Bailén as far as Tetuán square. It was a journey that he made many a time on foot to get from the San Felipe Neri church to the Sagrada Familia, but on that day, as he crossed the street, a tram ran him over and left him unconscious.
Given the fact he always looked like a tramp it took a long while for anyone to realise that the victim was, in fact, the talented architect behind the Sagrada Familia. He died on June 10 1926, at 74 years of age, in Santa Creu Hospital. He was buried in front of massive crowds of people in the crypt of the Sagrada Familia Cathedral.
The Sagrada Familia
ANTONIO GAUDÍ’S best-known work was neither started by him nor, evidently, finished by him.At the age of 31, he took on the job of overseeing the works of this temple after the original architect Francisco de Paula Villar resigned, having built part of the underground crypt.
Gaudí radically changed the original plans substituting them for his own, much more ambitious and daring project.
The façade of the Nativity is the part of the works that Gaudí most wanted to finish as an example for his successors, given that very much against his will he had to accept it would be impossible to complete a project of this magnitude within the short period of one human being’s lifetime.
From the beginning, though, he was so optimistic that he even dreamed of finishing the works within little more than ten years.
Nowadays, there are eight towers, those that correspond with the façades of the Nativity and the Passion.
When finished, the cathedral will have a total of 18 towers – the 12 shortest ones, which include the eight already built, correspond with the three façades and are dedicated to the disciples. Four, much higher, towers signify the evangelists.
Above the apse – the vaulted recess that contains the altar – is the widest diameter tower depicting the Virgin Mary and the highest of the 18 towers is dedicated to Jesus Christ.
If little more than two façades and eight towers produce such admiration and cause millions of visitors from around the world to congregate at its feet, once the cathedral is finished in accordance with Gaudí’s plans it will be one of the most impressive monuments ever created by man.
The most recent provisions calculate that the final stone could be laid within about 30 years – that is, before the second centenary of the birth of this talented architect is celebrated.
Practical guide to organising a visit to Barcelona
Where to stay:
Hotel Casa Fuster – 5-star
Paseo de Gràcia, 132
Tel. 93 255 30 00
Hotel Eurostars Gaudí– 4-star
C/ Consell de Cent, 498-500
Tel. 93 232 02 88
Hotel Aristol – 3-star
C/ Cartagena, 369
Tel. 93 433 51 00
Where to eat:
El Bar Inopia
C/ Tamarit, 104
(Traditional tapas. Owner Albert Adriá)
La Taberna de Quimet y Quimet
C/ Poeta Cabanyes, 25
Els Fogons de la Barceloneta
Plaza Font, 1
Tel. 93 224 26 26
Arrell del Born
C/ Fusina, 5
Tel. 93 319 92 99