Barcelona: Gaudilicious

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

One of the main reasons to visit Barcelona is to check out the Modernist architecture, a movement that gained significance in the second half of the 19th century and thrived here like nowhere else in the world. With more than 110 sites scattered around the city, it is an architect's heaven and since I have more than a passing interest in the art I was very happy to spend most of my time in town investigating a handful of these.

Whilst there were many proponents, most people will only have heard the name Gaudi, a devout Catholic born in 1852 who became the leading exponent of architectural Modernism. Nowadays his name has turned into a descriptive term and is often used in a negative context, to describe something that is garish or excessively flamboyant. As I found out however, his work may be described that way but it also contains an inherent beauty and a serene innate character that derives from the inspirations he found in the natural world.

Although highly decorative every element has a function and many of these are incredibly simple but highly effective - so much so that you wonder why more of them haven't been adopted in contemporary architectural practices. I won't go into detail about some of his revolutionary parabolic arch design techniques but note that he used a lot of simple and cheap materials, avoided the use of straight lines (e.g. preferring arches to beams in the ceilings) and drew inspiration from religious, oriental, medieval and natural sources.

First stop was the Casa Batllo, a magnificent residential building built in the prime bourgoise strip neighbourhood of the time (1906) and which is now the business district north of La Rambla. Inspired by the sea and mythical tales of St George slaying the dragon, it was my favourite structure in the end despite almost chocking on the astronomical 16 euro entry fee. Maybe six stories in total, only the foyer, the mezzanine first floor and the attic/rooftop are open to the public. People actually live and work in the apartments which must be quite a challenge with thousands of tourists visiting each day.

Anyway, the facade is extraordinary with a definite wave theme and bone-like columns symbolising the victims of the dragon on the roof. Highly photogenic even in radiant overcast light, there's always a crowd of gawpers out the front.

My favourite area though was the first floor which features a beautiful, open gallery overlooking the street, a large banqueting room overlooking a terrace out the back (with a striking wavey surface to drain water) and a labyrinth of soft wood passageways and salons with rounded doors and windows in between. No two features are the same and the ceilings in particular show his bubbling, swirling creativity.

Stairs around tiled light wells or a groovy little elevator take you higher levels. All rooms have natural light sources to supplement the electric and as you ascend the windows get smaller and the tiles more concentratedly blue due to the decreasing need for natural light towards the top. Canny ventilation is also built in, like the gills of a fish some or all flaps can be opened or closed to moderate temperatures in the rooms.

The attic, which was the covered laundry area uses thermals and airflow so as to remove the need for exposure to the elements. It is all covered in a series of whitewashed arches that provide stability to the rooftop terrace whilst adding no additional weight to structure. Attractive, sedate and very practical, although no doubt it would have cost a bomb to build.

Finally outside, where his artistic creativity was really let loose. The cross apparently represents St George's sword plunged into the scaley spine of the dragon which you can see in the middle picture above (the dragon's back houses a little bubbling water room for no apparent reason but is pleasant all the same). There is quite a bit of space on the rooftop and again he uses the undulating surface to ensure drainage. The strange pointy towers are actually grouped chimneys for the residences inside and the design of the flues ensure than smoke is expelled and nothing else gets in. Shards of ceramic are used for decoration.


With that it was on to Gaudi's last residential work, built between 1906 and 1912, called La Pedrera (The Quarry). Despite the rough exterior (which was hard to get a photo of from ground level) it is apparently his most mature work and uses many radical design techniques. Including a free Gaudi exhibition that describes his parabolic structural mapping techniques in another arched and wavy attic, the price is less cause for consternation.

But it is really the roof that you come here to see. Huge tubercles of sculpted ventilation towers and chimneys rise above you and create one of Barcelona's most recognisable skyline sights but watch out for the stairs over the undulating surface or you could seriously hurt yourself. Again, light wells are used to provide residences in lower levels with natural alternatives.

Still less than half completed more than 120 years after its commencement, one wonders whether the Sagrada Familia will be finished by its bicentenary in 2082. The project managers say 2022 but judging by the lack of anything happening when I was there, I doubt it. Whatever, this monstrous church is the premiere Gaudi monument here due to its size and extraordinary appearance. He worked on it for more than 40 years until his death in 1926.

On the eastern side it doesn't look so much like a cathedral but a subterranean nightmare come alive in oozing sandstone. Eight of its twelve towers are complete and so are crowned with cranes continuously I suspect in an attempt to achieve the impossible - project completion. That leaves the tallest four, including the highest (symbolising Jesus) at a height of 170 metres. One the western side there is more conventianal sculptural executions of your typical religious fare - angels, knights on horseback, demons being slayed and the like - beneath enormous load bearing supports that resemble a rib cage.

Inside it really is half finished but the roof and the stained glass make up for the scaffolding and mess somewhat. Still, at 8 euros a pop you wonder where all the money is going to. Being the most important building on the Barcelonian skyline, it has to be done though.

A few kilometres north of the central Gaudi neighbourhood is Parc Guell, a retreat named after his benefactor for the rich that flopped half way through construction, so the results have been left for the masses in perpetuity. Would have some great Barcelona views too if the weather didn't go so grey.

What seems to be left is a giant columned pavilion that's surrounded by Gaudi gingerbread houses and mosiacally warped play and picnic areas. Dad would love some of the stonework here - gigantic waves of rock which must have been formed by an army of masons. The ceramic decorations that abound would have required a similar workforce.

Unfortunately there was an army of visitors overrunning the place too so it was difficult to appreciate some of the finer points here. Still, if you can come well before lunch it is definitely worth the metro trip.

I wanted to see one of his smaller creations as well, so I walked a couple of kilometres back to the Fortuna station and sought out Casa Vicens, a residential property with an extraordinarily decorated facade of brick, tile and wrought iron work that also stands out here. Some lucky people live inside so you can see the internals but I'm glad I came to see it anyway.

There are a number of other Gaudi properties around town, like the Palace Guell (being restored until 2007), more small 'Casa's', schools, hospitals and some remote sites on the fringes. Even in Placa Rieal you can see his first architectural assignment - two ornate lamp-posts that bear the hallmarks of his early creativity. Then there are sites by his contemporary Modernists like Domenech Montaner (the first Modernist architect), Cadalfalch, Sagnier and Bassegoda (amongt others) - some of which from pictures I've seen look stunning indeed.

So, in all an amazingly concentrated outpouring of creativity in an era I wouldn't have expected would have been that conducive to such endeavours. I had a thoroughly good time tracking down and enjoying what I could however and there is still plenty more to see the next time I visit. Five stars for compelling strangeness Senor Gaudi!

Words from the Wise #6

"The creation continues incessantly through the media of man."
Antonio Gaudi
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