Barcelona is a cultural hub and historic city in the province of Catalonia in Spain. Among the many attractions therein, is the architectural work by Antoni Gaudi, a Catalan architect born in 1852.
Antoni Gaudi i Cornet was born to Francesc Gaudi i Serra, a coppersmith by profession, and Antonia Cornet i Bertran on June 25, 1852, in either Riudoms or Reus in Catalonia, Spain. He had four siblings, of which only two survived: Rosa and Francesc. Gaudi suffered from poor health and this led to life-threatening conditions at times. He was known to have a reticent demeanour.
Gaudi’s love for the beauty in nature began when he was quite young: summer stays at the Gaudi family home in Mas de la Calderera involved him spending hours outside. Later in 1879, at the age of 27, as part of the Centre Excursionista de Catalunya, Guadi would ride on horseback or walk as much as 10 kilometres a day at times, to explore Catalonia and the south of France.
In 1876, Gaudi’s mother and brother Francesc both passed away. At the time, Gaudi was studying architecture at the Lljota School and the Barcelona Higher School of Architecture, financing his studies through his work as a draughtsman for various architects of the time. He graduated in 1878. Gaudi’s first most important commission was Casa Vicens (featured below), which opened up the way for more significant proposals to come his way thereafter. Gaudi caught the attention of a Catalan industrialist, Eusebi Guell, when Guell saw a modernsite showcase designed by Gaudi for the glove manufacturer Comella. Guell went on to commission some of Gaudi’s most important works thereafter, including Park Guell, Palau Guell (Guell palace), the crypt in the Church of Colonia Guell. In 1883, Gaudi was designated to work on building the church Sagrada Familia, whose design he completely re-worked. By this time, in order to manage the many commissions given to him, Gaudi was working with a team of architects and artisans to help complete each of the projects.
In Barcelona, Gaudi lived in different rented apartments until the year 1906, when he started living in the house in Park Guell, designed by his assistant Francesc Berenguer. He resided in that house with his father, who died at the age of 93 in 1906, and his niece Rosa Egea Gaudi, who died at the age of 36 in 1912. Gaudi lived in this house until 1925, following which he moved to reside in the workshop in Sagrada Familia until his death. The years from 1910 to 1920 were especially difficult for Gaudi, when many of his loved ones, including family, close friends, as well as his collaborator Francesc Berenguer and patron Eusebi Guell died. These years also brought on disruption in some of his work. From 1915 onwards, Gaudi devoted himself to only working on Sagrada Familia – some say it served as a refuge for him from the grief of the years past.
Gaudi died on June 10, 1926, as a result of injuries sustained from an accident when he was struck by a passing tram, some days ago.
In his studies and after, Gaudi found inspiration in the architectural styles in India, Japan, and Persia. The neo-Gothic movement, and especially the theoretical ideas of the French architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, also left an impression on Gaudi. The Gothic style, though, was still half-perfected and half-resolved for Gaudi’s taste; it was a bit too formulaic and a bit too heavily reliant on the industrial and mechanical use of compasses. Gaudi’s own work went on to incorporate the organic and the natural into architecture.
Gaudi’s work amalgamated themes from nature and religion into his architecture. His craftwork included biomorphic designs, made out of stained glass, ceramic and wrought iron. In his work, he would experiment with techniques and come up with newer ones. He introduced the technique of trencadis, which makes use of wasted ceramic pieces. He used this technique to create many vividly colorful ensembles, as objects as well as those integrated into facades.
Gaudi’s work characterized modernisme, also known as Catalonian modernism – a movement in art and literature which aimed to bring to the forefront the cultural, Catalan identity. This movement was active from about 1880 till 1911, arose in Barcelona, and spread out across Europe. It aimed to create a new and modern art style, enabling a break from the earlier traditional styles. Gaudi went beyond modernisme and disrupted, re-fitted, and re-worked traditional Catalonian structures to newer degrees so as to create buildings.
Gaudi used geometric shapes in his work, such as the conoide, the helicoid, the hyperboloid, and the hyperbolic paraboloid. These shapes were ones that Gaudi happened to find in nature as well, hence particularly their incorporation into his work. He saw these shapes and their structures in bones, reeds, rushes, the trunks of trees, and even the human skeleton. For Gaudi, the helicoid signified movement and the hyperboloid signified light, and so he used them to create masterful pieces which play with colors, light, and the uniquely aesthetic experience of space.
Another architectural feature prominent in Gaudi’s work is what is called the “catenary arch”. A catenary arch follows the path of an inverted catenary curve, and was used in ancient buildings as a means to lay solid foundations for buttresses and stone vaults in Gothic cathedrals and domes in Renaissance buildings.
The industrial tycoon Eusebi Guell funded the making of this park as an urbanization project. Antoni Gaudi was assigned to be the architect of this park. He worked on it from 1900 to 1914, and it opened up to the public in 1926. UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site under “Works of Antoni Gaudi” in 1984. While designing this park, Gaudi unleashed his creative genius and played with the organic: the structures defy rigid angles and symmetry but rather mimic nature – rocks, animals, and plants. He also interspersed the park with biomorphic pieces, such as the famous salamander decorated with a mosaic of chipped and broken ceramic pieces. The park is also lined with complex imagery and symbols from mythology, philosophy, and history. Some say that the political and religious are also signified in the park – Catalanism and Catholicism, to be specific. Whatever the real intentions of the architect, the park retains and effervesces an enigmatic energy that beguiles the wanderer to soak in the beauty and serenity therein.
Park Guel was originally proposed to be a housing development, funded by Eusebi Guell. The idea was to make use of the “barren hill” and fresh air away from the industrial city, and build sixty triangular lots to provide for the luxury housing. When only two houses were made and no buyers came forth, Eusebi Guell encouraged Gaudi to buy one of the houses to live in, which Gaudi did. This house, built by Francesc Berenguer in 1904, would be the one where Gaudi would go on to live with his family till the day he died in 1926. Since 1963, it has been a historical house museum, called the Gaudi House Museum, or Casa Museu Gaudi, and contains original pieces of art made by Gaudi himself.
The buildings at the entrance of the park used to be the porter’s house. Now one contains a telephone booth whereas the other houses the Barcelona City History Museum’s permanent exhibition. The main terrace of the park is the focal point, and contains a long sea serpent-like bench, with its serpentine curves. The roadways and walkways built to connect the terraces are built in the shape of trees, such as pine trees in the park.
Crypt in Church of Colonia Guell
Guel received the commission for building the Church of Colonia Guell from Eusebi Guel in 1898, and started work on it in 1908. This Church is situated in the suburb of Santa Coloma de Cervello, and listed as a World Heritage Site as part of the “Works of Antoni Gaudi”. The plan for this church included building two towers, an upper and lower nave, and one central dome at a height of forty metres. Work on it was halted in 1914 when Count Guell passed away, but because the lower nave was almost complete by then, finishing touches were added to it and it was made ready for use between 1915 and 1917.
The crypt is the only part of the church that was fully completed though. It is situated partially below ground because of the fact the church is built on a hillside. It was built so as to merge with its surrounding natural environment. The pillars on the exterior are built with bricks but also some with stones. The crypt is dimly lit but has 22 stained glass windows to let in a multitude of colors. The roof has multiple pillars connecting together to form a beautiful geometric pattern.
Casa Batllo is considered to be one of Antoni Gaudi’s masterpieces. It was a previously built house which was remodeled by Gaudi in 1904. It also goes by the name of Casa dels ossos, which translates to “House of Bones”. It gets this name from the organic, skeletal feel that Gaudi added to the facade of this building.
The ground floor has a flowy feel to it, with no straight edges. It has oval windows. Most of the facade is decorated using the technique of trencadis – a colorful mosaic created out of broken ceramic pieces. The roof is arched and has been likened by many to the back of a dragon or dinosaur; the colors even give the impression of a dragon’s colorful scales. A very popular theory traces this likeness to Gaudi having intentionally made it to look like a dragon’s hide, as part of depicting the story of Saint George – patron saint of Catalonia, i.e. Gaudi’s home. The story goes that once a dragon would ask the villagers to make sacrifices and pay tributes to it; it started with livestock and trinkets, and moved on to human tributes. When a much loved princess was taken up as tribute, Saint George faced the dragon, rescued the princess, and eventually slayed that dragon. The popular theory about Casa batllo then goes to say that the roof is the back of a dragon and the turret and cross on one side is Saint George’s lance with which he finally slayed the dragon.
Antoni Gaudi’s experiments with architecture, art, and structural design culminated into his creative plosion while working on the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia (the Basilica of the Holy Family) between 1910 and 1920. Gaudi devoted his latter life to working on this project alone, and was buried in its crypt upon his death in 1926. At the time of Gaudi’s death, only one-fourth of the project had been completed. Construction began soon again, funded by private donations. However, in July 1936, it came to a halt when during the Spanish Civil War, the crypt was set on fire and the workshop broken into. The models, plans, and drawings by Gaudi preserved therein were destroyed, and so it took another 16 years for the fragments to be put together and make sense of where Gaudi meant to take this construction of the Basilica.
The inside of this beautiful church was conceived as a forest. The pillars are tree trunks that branch at the top, like the branches of a tree, and adjoin one another to form hyperboloid shaped vaults in the ceiling. The columns are inclined at an angle to better support the weight atop them, and are also modeled on a helicoid which gives them an even closer likeness to the trees and branches, as they are in nature.
Antoni Gaudi and his work is popular globally – architects to date study his art and structural design. Gaudi took inspiration from neo-Gothic and modernisme art movements, and incorporated the organic into them. His art and architecture is made to feel like plants, stones, skeletons, biomorphic forms as well as mythological creatures. There is an element of the enigmatic and the mysterious in his art. A traveller to Barcelona never fails to visit some, if not all, of his master pieces sprawled across the city!