I’m not an art critic, I wouldn’t even say that I particularly care for art. I’m not completely boorish though, there are some artists I like and I do indeed have many works, originals and reproductions hanging with reverence in my home. But architecture, that’s what I find fascinating. The strange lines of a dramatically designed building is far superior in my estimation than anything by a Great Master. But this love of form and function was severely challenged when I visited Barcelona.
Spain, Costa Brava and Barcelona are known for a lot of things and one of the highlights are the many buildings and parks designed by Antoni Gaudi. I sort of knew about him, but not really. As it turns out, his history is permanently intertwined with the city he so loved, Barcelona.
Gaudi’s work, so say the experts, is marked by four passions: architecture, nature, religion and love for Catalonia. Gaudi didn’t just design buildings, he took great care in creating every aspect of his creations, integrating the crafts of stained glass, ironwork and others into everything he designed. He was one of the early pioneers of what we call the arts and crafts movement in the U.S. and introduced techniques never before seen in architecture.
While I didn’t know any of this before first visiting Barcelona, I did know that his work evoked strong emotions, and not all of them positive. As an example, a friend of mine when asked about Gaudi will begin an hour long tirade about how awful he was. So with this in mind, I set out to see for myself what the controversy was all about.
The first Gaudi building I visited in Barcelona was the Casa Mila or La Pedrera, The Quarry. Designed for the wealthy couple Roser Segimon and Pere Milà and finished in 1912, the original design actually called for a number of religious elements. Gaudi was a fervent Catholic and this strong religious belief is a reoccurring theme throughout many of his works. The building was controversial though, as it is even today, and city codes and public outcry called for certain aesthetic changes that nearly forced Gaudi off of the project. Today though it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is known around the world for its strange wavy lines and ironwork that survives to this day.
After staring at the admittedly strange building for a while I actually started to like it. I appreciated its rhythms and flows and began to admire the architect’s ability to evoke a pastoral, woodland scene in the middle of a dense city. I thought to myself that if this is what Gaudi is all about, then what’s not to love.
The second stop on the Gaudi in a Day Tour (not a real thing) was the Park Guell. Like the apartment Case Mila, the Park was built at roughly the same time and is also recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The unusual park was actually originally intended to be a new housing development, built in the cutting edge style of the garden city movement that had fits and starts in Europe and the United States at the turn of the 20th century. Sadly, the development never took off even though Gaudi himself had a house on the site. The area was left in near ruin for years but now has been completely rehabilitated and is a popular spot for locals and tourists alike to relax.
First of all, the park is huge, it encompasses 42 acres in the middle of busy Barcelona. It’s also insanely popular. We were there on a public holiday and the locals far outnumbered tourists. It’s nice to see something being used maybe not exactly as it was intended, but in a way nevertheless complementary to the designer’s mission. But this was the moment that my new found respect for the Spanish master began to waver. Parts of the park were enticing but others were just ugly, out of place and dare I say gaudy. Gaudi had the perfect opportunity to bring to life that same fluid nature I saw at Casa Mila, but failed. I did love his Alice in Wonderland style houses though.
Finally, it was time to visit the grand dame of Gaudi’s works, his true everlasting legacy – the Sagrada Familia.
Sagrada Familia, or the Basilica of the Holy Family, is controversial even in Barcelona. The project started in 1882 and Gaudi took over its design in 1883, adding Art Nouveau sensibilities to a decidedly Gothic look. The result is a bit strange. What’s more strange though is that when Gaudi died it was only 25% completed and still today is only half way done. Authorities believe it won’t be until 2026 when the mighty church will finally be complete.
I noticed just how mighty the church is as I walked towards the behemoth, for it truly is immense, and I got my first full look at the unfinished masterpiece. It was grotesque. From across the street it appears as if it’s a half melted candelabra, except more dark and sinister. Hardly the symbol of light and religious power one would hope for in a church. Given how very religious Gaudi was, I was a little surprised by the outward appearance.
We approached and I still hated it, until I saw the artwork over the entrance to the cathedral. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Statues depicting key moments leading up to the crucifixion of Christ were rendered, but not in a typical romantic style one sees adorning churches across Europe. These figures have sharp, angular faces and the look is decidedly art nouveau. Looking at the statues and friezes I was not only reminded of the religious significance of the building, but its design influence as well.
I walked away confused. I didn’t love the cathedral, but its intricate details saved it for me. I loved the thought and care that went into its creation, even though the broad strokes of the structure are hideous and it won’t even be done for another decade or longer. (most likely longer)
Gaudi isn’t the worst and he isn’t the best, but he is distinct. It’s this ability to look at life completely differently that I love most about Barcelona and her people and why, regardless of my thoughts about Gaudi, I’ll always respect what he did for his beloved city.
What do you think of Gaudi? Is his work beautiful or grotesque?