Every so often there comes an artist who changes how you think about art, about the world, about life. Artists whose works were beloved when they were alive and artists who were only appreciated after they were dead. Leonardo, Cervantes, Emily Dickenson, Lennon & McCarthy, Stephen Sondheim. Vincent Van Gogh.
I often repeat the axiom that you cannot properly assess a work of art from a photograph (see: “Guernica”). I had seen pictures of Gaudi’s work before, and while some were merely much better than their photos, at least one is truly transcendent. It touched my soul in indescribable ways.
Let’s take them in order of preference:
Casa Mila. Rick Stevens says this may be the most photographed building in Barcelona. He may be right. People often describe Gaudi’s facade for this building as “melting,” although to me it more resembles sand dunes. The interior has a wonderful light well, and the roof undulates and curves around several tile covered ventilation shafts. True confession: while on the roof I had a panic attack (I think it was a combination of all the steps — I trip over air — and the proximity to the edge that did the trick) and rushed through the rest of the building. I did go through the sumptuously appointed apartment that was on display (most of the building is still residential), and amused myself by wondering what the rent was. (My hunch? Lottery-winning high.)
Parc Guell and the Gaudi house: Parc Guell is the remnants of what was once supposed to be a housing development. Only two of the houses were built (neither designed by Gaudi), and the rest of the area was converted into a park. The walkways run under viaducts, with supports that look like trees, and “the Rosary Path” is bordered by stone balls that every so often (I didn’t count) were replaced by larger stone balls. Not only a Catalan treasure, UNESCO named the park a World Heritage Site.
Gaudi’s home now houses a museum, with artifacts of his life and work — which among other things provide an object lesson about street crossing (Gaudi died three days being struck by a tram) and dressing properly (people assumed that the shabbily dressed Gaudi was a beggar and didn’t give him proper medical care until the chaplain of the Sagrada Familia recognized him, but which time he was already too far gone to be saved). Not to mention caring for all people, regardless of their station in life.
Gaudi’s furniture was displayed in the house. The wooden chairs and benches look comfortable and ergonomic, full of curves and gentle support. I could not help but mentally compare them to the reputedly uncomfortable furniture made by Frank Lloyd Wright for his houses, all straight lines and harsh edges.
Gaudi did not design his house; his assistant did. It seems tame in comparison to the park in which it sits. That makes sense to me: the house was a model house for a real estate development that never materialized. Gaudi had his assistant draw up the plans, they built the house, and then they submitted the plans for approval by the Barcelona City Council. And Gaudi signed the plans, because his assistant was not licensed as an architect. For some reason, I find all of this amusing.
Casa Batlo. Wow. The roof of this whimsical residence looks like a sleeping sea creature from the outside, the window balconies look like skulls, and the interior staircases seem to be made of the creature’s spine. Oh, and the columns on the front are bones.
The rooms have an entrancing fluidity warmed by wood and light from the enormous windows and the central atrium. The attic spaces are light, made of the catenary arches that Gaudi loved to use. The tiling evokes Monet’s water lilies.
Gaudi did not build Casa Batlo from scratch: the owner gave him an existing apartment building and asked him to redesign it. When an architect so reshapes a building to be unrecognizable from its former self does it matter who put the underlying structure in place?
Casa Batlo makes me happy. I spent the entire tour with a silly grin on my face. Even the stained glass in the transoms reminded me of sea glass. The house is no longer a residence, which is a shame. I would love to live here.
Sagrada Familia… Nothing I can write is adequate. All I can do is try.
The Sagrada Familia was one of the two religious structures in the world I have wanted to see (The other is the Hagia Sophia). I had seen pictures, and the basilica looked fascinating.
The “Nativity” facade that you enter by is interesting, and strange, but not life-altering. Arches that would be at home in Carlsbad Caverns protect realistic statues that would not have looked out of place at the Cathedral a few miles across town. The entire Nativity Facade has a melted look, as though it had been made of wax and someone had taken a giant Bunz-o-Matic to it. The Passion Facade on the other side, however, looks markedly different: the stonework is plain, and the statues are abstract almost to the point of Cubism.
The towers are wonderful, too, and not like anything I have seen on any building. From a distance they look like dripped sand. Up close, one can see the almost lattice like structure.
The interior…. Abbot Suger, the father of Gothic architecture, said that light brought you nearer to God. On the doors to Saint Denis (the first Gothic church) he had inscribed
Bright is the noble work; but, being nobly bright, the work
Should brighten the minds, so that they may travel, through the
To the True Light where Christ is the true door.
In what manner it be inherent in this world the golden door defines:
The dull mind rises to truth through that which is material
And, in seeing this light, is resurrected from its former submersion.
The good abbot would have approved of the Sagrada Familia. Light streams in from each side of the nave — red and orange to evoke sunset on one side, and blues and greens on the other, reminiscent of sunrise. The entire church glows.
The gold and red and blue and green meet in the center of the nave: a swirling dance of color. To enter the basilica is to walk into the heart of an opal.
Abstract glass fills traditional forms like rose windows. Unlike a lot of cathedral stained glass, the light streams through the glass without interruption, pure and radiant. No pictures of the Holy Family or the Apostles distract from the glorious incandescence.
The pillars resemble trees, branching off to leafy tops. The entire building reflects the nature which so inspired Gaudi in all his works.
With one exception, none of the pictures I took of the interior of the building came out anything other than blurry. I find this appropriate: the basilica calls to the soul, not to the camera or phone. The people who run it know that too: they have set aside chapels for meditation and prayer. Before I entered one, I was lectured: silence, no cell phones, no pictures. They turned away the young man with the camera ahead of me. (One of my pet peeves with tourists in historic churches is when they take pictures of people in prayer. They eavesdrop on a conversation between someone and God, and whatever the tourist’s beliefs they have no right to do so.)
I sat in the chapel, and I began to cry. I don’t know why.
Gaudi knew that the Sagrada Familia would not be finished in his lifetime. He once commented “My client is not in a hurry.” At the time of his death, the church was only fifteen to twenty – five per cent completed. Gaudi left blueprints and instructions, many of which were destroyed in the Spanish Civil War. (Some of those plans have since been reconstructed.) Since his death, work has been carried on by others, who have, like Gaudi, drawn their inspiration from the forms of nature. The doors on the nativity facade, covered with leaves, were created by a Japanese designer. The church is a living thing: architects and craftsmen have been working on it since Gaudi’s death, and people who visited ten years ago saw a different but still wonderful building. It is expected to be finished in 2026, the centenary of Gaudi’s passing.
Putting so much of your life (Gaudi moved into the Sagrada Familia’s workshops a few years before he died) into a church you know you will not see completed speaks of a deep and abiding faith. By all accounts, Gaudi was a devout Catholic, not the “goes to church every Sunday” devout, but with a true love of God. The church calls people to faith, speaks of the Eternal and the Almighty.
There are efforts to have Gaudi beatified (the step below sainthood). I’d say he deserved it.