I arrived in Barcelona a fan of Gaudi and left with the relationship in tatters.
I’m not sure what the turning point was. His erratic and changeable design? His perfectionism and the time it took him to do anything? The fact there were so many other people swooning around him? His unavailability?
My first attempt to meet up with him face to face was at the Palau Guell. Just off Las Ramblas, the main boulevard for wandering, buying souvenirs, and getting a feel for grand Barcelona. Dodging the vendors and street performers, I found the right side street, headed down, excited about this first encounter. And found someone quite different waiting for me. It seemed Gaudi had been replaced by Christo—the whole building was wrapped up. All I could see was one chimney pot. Renovations, apparently. Still, first dates often don’t go smoothly. And I had plenty more time with Antoni Gaudi ahead of me.
Disappointed, I headed back onto Las Ramblas and continued soaking up Barcelona. The streets where Picasso and Miro lived and worked, the set where Woody Allen was currently filming, the grand cathedrals and urban beach.
Next day, I set out for Parc Guell. Yes, Gaudi had a rich patron, Eusebi Guell. In 1895, Guell bought a large piece of land on a rocky hill overlooking the city and the Mediterranean and asked Gaudi for a total concept design: houses and gardens. Only a part of it was ever built—a few houses, the gatehouses forming the main entrance, the colonnaded market, and the terrace above.
We had been given the local knowledge of the best way to approach Parc Guell: from the top of the hill. The site is steep and this was a good way of minimizing climbing and, so we were lead to believe, other tourists. Feeling smug, we caught the metro, were slightly surprised by how many other people got off at the same stop and then, seeing all the signs to Parc Guell, deeply miffed to find out local knowledge was actually common knowledge.
Joining the throng we headed down hill, before turning into an intimidatingly steep street. But this quickly became my favorite street in the world; in the middle of the road was a pedestrian escalator. I’m not sure if it was Gaudi’s idea, I’d say 100 percent likely not, but I was a fan of whoever had the idea.
Entering the park this way is only spectacular for the view of the city. Dusty paths and craggy bushes form the park. There is a good lookout hill to climb onto, but in summer, when half the world is there—you have to be a mountain goat to find standing room.
Wandering down the hill, we found the terrace, a big open area like a school playground—thin gravel and dusty. But the view was great and around the edges was the signature Gaudi seating/balustrade, all organic shapes to fit to the body, and mosaic to please the eye. We sat here and looked at the view for a while but the space felt kind of empty, a bit soulless. I put my growing unease aside and headed for the stairs down to the market place below.
And found the stuff of nightmares. Brown columns filled the cavernous space. It was like a forest from HR Puff’n’stuff (Google it, if you don’t know …). It was hard to know how you would actually use such a space. Currently it was like being in a theme park. People pushing and yelling, camera flashes going off. Bad busking bouncing off the hard edges. I had to get out of there.
Emerging onto the steps leading down to the gatehouses, I felt myself forgiving Gaudi. The mosaics here are truly beautiful. And the gatehouses are exactly what you’d expect from him: eccentric grooves and rich colors, organic shapes, no straight edges—pretty and unique. They are now, inevitably, gift shops. I went inside and was surprised by how small the rooms were. And his need for curving walls made it all seem to close in on me. I bought myself a ring. But it was definitely a last-ditch effort at making this relationship last.
Perhaps Parc Guell is nicer in winter, with fewer people around, if Barcelona actually has a quiet tourist season. The locals told me it was good to go there at sunrise to catch the best light and avoid the crowds. But I have to say that apart from the mosaics, I was unmoved. The shapes Gaudi designed began to feel really contrived and overdone when I was seeing them face to face, en-masse, and not in books.
But I soldiered on, heading for the big one: La Sagrada Familia. Gaudi’s unfinished cathedral stands on a busy corner. You have to risk life and limb to get a good view of it from a distance, and plenty of people were. In his lifetime, Gaudi only finished a very small part of this grand vision. Privately funded, the work has continued. And there are two schools of thought on this: one is that the cathedral should be left the way it was the day Gaudi died—true to his vision, a kind of monument to him. The other is that it should be finished and that is the school winning at the moment. Hence, the building is now a mélange of old stone and new concrete and I have to say it looks a bit of a bastardisation of Gaudi’s vision. He didn’t leave blueprints and years were spend recreating plans that were thought to be close to what he intended. Completion is currently scheduled for 2026.
That said, I didn’t much like La Sagrada Familia.
I expected to be moved by his unique vision and sheer audacity, and on an intellectual level I suppose I still am. But is it wrong to say that I actually found it ugly? Amazing but not beautiful. I had expected beauty; a rebel vision of the urban landscape, taking natural forms which were more sympathetic to a landscape peopled by curvy humans. Instead I found heavy, ornate, twisty, brownness. And my gut reaction was, well, honestly, nausea. Something about this building made me feel a bit physically unwell. Others have described it as having a hallucinatory effect and I tend to agree; not a great thing when on a narrow pavement with cars rushing past.
We headed up the road to the Hospital De La Santa Creu I Santa Pau, not to see a doctor but for another hit of architecture and I would highly recommend it. Not the usual hospital architecture at all—lots of little pavilion buildings with crazy design and doctors in white coats next to ambulances. Unsurprisingly, it will become a museum once the new and, I’m sure, generic hospital opens.
But back to Gaudi. I had by now taken off the ring. So far, he had sent someone else in his place, given me a theme park horror arcade of columns although balanced this out with some gorgeous mosaics, and made me feel physically ill. He had one more chance to make it up to me.
On the Passeig de Gracia, there are two Gaudi apartment buildings: Casa Batllo, remodeled by Gaudi in 1906, and Casa Mila, designed by Gaudi and finished in 1912. There are other buildings along this same grand street by Gaudi’s contemporaries: Puig I Cadafalch and Domenech I Montaner—it’s good to remember Gaudi was working within a context and these other two built in a similar modernist, curvy style but less obsessively and consequently more aesthetically, dare I say it.
The apartment blocks look a bit Flintstones and I think I would find it oppressive to live inside them. Too much brown, too many curves. It’s difficult to know whether this is just because I have been conditioned to expect hard lines and corners, clean colors and light, or whether, despite our inherent curvy organic nature, humans actually like buildings which are boxes. Maybe that’s why we build that way.
Gaudi died in 1926. He was run over by a tram. By this time, he was working single-mindedly on La Sagrada Familia, had few friends having alienated most of them, and was highly religious, devoted to his lifelong Catholicism. He was also dressed poorly having little interest in those things, and many taxi drivers refused to take him to the hospital believing him to be a tramp who could not pay the fare. The next day friends did find him and tried to move him to a better hospital but he refused. He died three days later and is buried at La Sagrada Familia.
Like with many crushes, meeting Gaudi face to face didn’t live up to expectations. I’m sure I am alone in this. Thousands and thousands of people flock to Barcelona every year and one of the star attractions is Gaudi. I still love him in theory but I wouldn’t want to live with him daily.
That does not mean I want to see any of his work threatened. New high-speed rail plans for Barcelona have the route passing right under La Sagrada Familia, also threatening Casa Batllo and Casa Mila. I’m sure they will be stopped—I hope they are. Old loves die hard.
I still have his ring.
By: Philippa Burne
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