Barcelona quite frankly would not be the city that it is today had it not been for Antoni Gaudí. Toward the end of the nineteenth century the Catalan Modernista movement was really hitting its peak in architectural expression, and his buildings epitomized the style.
The massive basilica Sagrada Familia is no doubt the best known, and largest of Gaudí’s works. Begun in 1883, when he was just 30, and as yet to be completed, it became his magnum opus. We spent an entire day fully mesmerized by both the interior and exterior of this wonderfully unique house of worship.
It incorporates all of the traits that have come to define Gaudí’s work, whimsical, flowing lines, unexpected use of color, and a deep connection with nature and natural forms. The combination creates a structure like none other. We both agreed that this was the most amazing building we’d ever seen.
But not everyone has always been so enamored with it. Many contemporaries of Gaudí, and fellow artists of the Catalonian Modernisme, were less than cordial. At the time construction was getting underway, public opinion was rather harsh. Picasso once wrote, “Send Gaudi and the Sagrada Familia to Hell.”
Years later, when George Orwell came to Barcelona for The Spanish Revolution, he called Sagrada Familia “one of the most hideous buildings in the world.” He wrote that he wished the revolutionaries would have bombed it.
In fact it was quite some time before this masterpiece was accepted. It wasn’t until the 1950s, when Salvador Dali championed Sagrada Familia as a great work, that the tide of opinion began to change. Though Gaudí may not have been the most popular architect in his own time, Barcelona is filled not only with his designs, but his influence. (click to see more about Sagrada Familia)
We found one of those works right next to the basilica. The Sagrada Familia School was built in 1909 for the children of the workers to attend during construction of the church, but now houses an exhibit of Gaudí’s tools, drawings and models. What easily could have been a simple small brick building became an idiosyncratic schoolhouse when designed by Gaudí. In his words:
“When the building simply has all it needs with the available means, it has character, or dignity, which is the same thing.”
To us it felt like something from a fairy tale, perhaps we had stumbled onto Hansel and Gretel’s house. But this was nothing compared to what we were about to experience.
Gatehouses at Park Güell
The next day we took a subway, and a walk up several hundred steps, to one of the world’s wildest parks, Park Güell. Gaudí really got to cut loose here, not as a builder, but as a landscape architect. His concept’s incredible interaction with the natural world had us feeling like we were inside the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. As usual in our experience with Gaudí’s work, our ideas of form and function were seriously challenged, along with our brains. You’ve gotta love when art does that.
The park was originally designed to be a selling point for a housing development that Count Eusebi Güell, for whom the park was named, had dreamt up. The idea was that well-to-do Barcelonians would like to live up on the top of Muntanya Pelada (Bare Mountain) for the fresh air and superb views it provided. Financially it was a miserable failure, not one house was sold, but the park has become one of Barcelona’s biggest attractions, with great reason.
After the climbing the stairs, a brief bout of being lost, and a stop for some Saturday tapas, we found the park. At first it didn’t seem so different from any other urban green space but, little did we know, we had entered from the undeveloped side. Following the path, we were treated to great views of the city below and a few small hints of what was to come.
Then we came around a bend and felt like Dorothy and friends when they first spotted Oz. From our vantage point the entrance, buildings, main terrace, and staircases leading up to it all spread out before us. Perhaps entering from wrong side wasn’t a bad way to experience our first encounter after all.
We proceeded down the roadway, originally intended for the well-to-do houses but now filled with visitors to the park, and decided to approach the giant terrace, known as the Grand Square, from underneath. From below we could see that the road we walked in on sat atop a viaduct type structure with supports that look like tree trunks and statues made from a montage of ancient stones.
Gaudí’s propensity to emulate natural forms continued under the square in the Hall of 100 Columns, a forest of Doric columns that support the colossal plaza up above. But as usual in his work, there are quite a few detours from the ordinary.
None of the columns stand perfectly perpendicular to the ground or parallel to each other. It gave us an unbalanced feeling as we walked around. Despite the name, there only eighty-six columns here. Gaudí wanted to avoid a crowded feeling, so he randomly left a few out. The brightly colored mosaics on the ceiling and the echoing sounds of Catalonian children playing amongst the towering giants completed the scene for us.
When we climbed up to the Grand Square we got the full view of the main entrance to Park Güell. From our perch we could look down the double staircase to the front gate and see the two gatehouses that flank the entrance from above. This struck us as the best perspective to view these from because the rooftops, with their crazy spires and tile work, are the most impressive aspect of these fantastical buildings that now serve as a welcome center and gift shop. Yes, even this place is not immune to the lure of cheesy tourist crap.
The staircases, seriously packed with people, led down to the centerpiece of the entrance area, a huge sea serpent that forms a bench. The monster is decorated with more mosaic work and, at the base of the stairs, the head of the serpent forms a fountain.
There’s a fun bit of lore about the bench itself. Legend claims that the seats were shaped by using the buttocks imprints of a naked workman sitting in wet clay. Well isn’t that nice, we were needing a good sit by then and the imprints hugged our derrieres nicely.
The park’s namesake, Count Eusebi Güell, had a long relationship with Gaudí prior to their collaboration on the failed housing development. In fact The Count had commissioned the eclectic architect to build a house near La Rambla just before the 1888 Universal Exhibition in Barcelona.
So we took another stroll down La Rambla, because we loved it so much the first time, and so we could check out The Count’s crib, Palau Güell. Said to be one of the most luxurious in all of Barcelona, we were too late to go inside, so we’ll have to take their word for it.
From the outside this struck us as one of the more normal of Gaudí’s designs, but on closer inspection the palace definitely shows some of his quirky touches. The front is dominated by two interesting archway carriage entrances where we found some very cool wrought-iron work on the gates, but the roof is where Gaudí hid most of his trademark fanciful details. Small conical spires, some topped with what look like piles of fruit, line the edges. He simply didn’t do conventional.
In 1910 The Count abandoned the palace to live in a house up at Park Güell, so his daughter moved in and stayed until 1945, when the palace became the Museum of Scenic Art.
The last destination on our Modernisme tour of Barcelona, though not designed by Gaudí, was the concert hall Palau de la Música Catalana built by architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner in 1905.
This is a remarkable building, and it certainly epitomizes the Catalan Modernista movement, with curved lines, odd shapes, bright colors and mosaic work, but it just wasn’t striking us with the same force as our earlier stops. While Domènech i Montaner was highly important in Art Nouveau architecture, and this is his most famous work, it seems we might have been overdosing on Modernisme by this time and didn’t fully appreciate this incredible hall. If we had it to do again, perhaps we should have started here.
Gaudí and Catalan Modernista may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but we have to strongly disagree with George Orwell’s bring-in-the-heavy-artillery dislike of it. Barcelona just wouldn’t be Barcelona without it – a city that nourishes your mind and your soul.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com