Antoni Gaudi was one of those rare geniuses, truly ahead of his time. A man who in his moment was not fully appreciated by his contemporaries, but whose ideas today are thought of as revolutionary. Ninety years after his death, many of his unconventional modeling techniques are only recently becoming possible to replicate using modern technologies. Gaudi was an architect who created his own style that was perfectly encompassed by his ideology, using genius and skill to combine the most important influences in his life, resulting in unparalleled architectonic expressions.
Gaudi was born in 1852, although his origins are debated and the truth is uncertain. Gaudi himself mentioned multiple times that he was born in the Riudoms, but others claim that he was born in Reus, the town of his baptism. From a young age Gaudi developed a strong admiration for nature and spent much time outdoors in contact with the Mediterranean environment.
The young Gaudi was quite reserved, possibly an effect from his suffering of rheumatism. Due to the illness and his religious beliefs, he adopted the practice of vegetarianism, which he would maintain for his entire life. Gaudi also embraced a sense of pride of his Mediterranean heritage, claiming that the Mediterranean people were the rightful owners of image: the most creative, imaginative, and artistic in the world. Gaudi studied architecture in Barcelona and financed his own studies by working as understudy for other architects. Not an exceptional student, he occasionally failed classes and consequently when he received his diploma in 1878 the director of the academy said “We have given this academic title to either a fool or a genius, only time will tell.”
Gaudi progressed as an architect and fit perfectly within his epoch, taking cues from the Catalan trend in Modernist architecture during its rebirth. He began by implementing his own style in small works such as lamp posts and parlaying his success into larger constructions, such as the Casa Vicens. In the Paris World’s Fair of 1878 he created a showcase for a glove manufacturer which impressed Catalan magnate, Eusebi Güell, who contracted Gaudi for several constructions, including the famed Park Güell.
The young Catalan was an incredibly devout catholic, but he was also consumed by patterns of nature, and he had a novel way of interweaving the two themes into all of his works, each of his expressions in architecture convey the combination of elements both earthly and ecclesiastic. Geometric forms from nature would be repeated throughout all of his creations, seashells became the influence for spiral staircases, spinal vertebrates from snakes became the basis for structural supports, undulating waves were cast on the facades of stone buildings, and special attention was paid to the disposition towards the rising and setting sun. It seems as if Gaudi loathed the concept of the straight line, and it is nearly impossible to find such a form in any of his constructions, just as in nature.
Always a perfectionist, Gaudi believed that every aspect of each building’s support should be functional, never using buttresses, all columns are weight-bearing, and walls are superfluous except for functional aesthetics of dividing spaces and providing privacy. Every aspect of each of his constructions was planned down to the most minute detail, not only was he in charge of the creation of buildings, but also oversaw the creation of artisanal furnishings, hardware, ironwork, and stained glass. A prudent proponent of repurposing long before it was trendy, when short on budget he would collect waste materials, such as broken tiles and champagne bottles, recycling them to create mosaics in a style uniquely Catalan and Gaudiesque.
Gaudi is referred to as the master of Catalan Modernism, however his style, taking influences from Islamic, Gothic, and Oriental architecture, is further reaching and too great to be classified by a single methodology. Resourceful and innovative, he drew sketches of his works only when required to do so, instead preferring to build three-dimensional models. He invented a novel technique of modeling using chains suspended from the ceiling. The chains were then attached using small bags of sand to form columns, spires, vaults and intersections of walls. Once Gaudi finished the model he would invert it, using a mirror or a picture. This was an extremely imaginative manner of using gravity to gauge how much weight the structure could support. This method pioneered by Gaudi, a basis for parametric design, was used to model the church at Colonia Güell, which would be a training for the Sagrada Familia.
The consummate and obsessive professional, Gaudi was very reserved and often viewed as anti-social, he never married and devoted his life to his profession. In 1883, Gaudi became the head architect of a project that would become his masterpiece and a true testament of time, the Iglesia de la Sagrada Familia. From 1915 until his death, Gaudi would meticulously work on the creation of the church, drastically altering, reworking, and ultimately instilling his style and genius on the most well known church in Spain, if not the world. His final project would become an obsession for Gaudi who lived within the confines of his greatest work during his final months, until his untimely death in 1926.
In order to understand the true nature of Gaudi’s brilliance it is necessary to examine some of his most impressive works:
The quintessential combination of nature and architecture is Park Güell, which was ironically was viewed as a failure, an unsuccessful project in urbanization that never came to fruition. Eusebi Güell contracted Gaudi to build a park that was intended to house 65 single family homes, essentially Güell’s vision was to create a private community within a natural park. The project never was completed due to the outbreak of the first World War, but the results still showcase one of the most imaginative works from Gaudi’s early naturalist phase.
The park is an amalgamation of Catalan nationalism and religious iconography achieved through the use of symbolism. The situation of the park on the southern slope of Parc de Carmel, part of the Collserola hills outside Barcelona, is representative of the Calvario. The entrance to the park features impressive ornamental iron fencing and the only two completed houses of the original 65 planned. The houses each are made of stone facade, blending quite naturally with the environment, and crowned with intricately placed ceramic tiles that form surreal upwardly projecting spires.
Beyond the entrance are the main steps flanked by mosaic wrapped walls that lead to the monument Area. At the center of this area is a playful and vibrantly colored ceramic salamander created using the mosaic technique that Gaudi is known for. Just beyond the stairs stands the imposing Sala de Hipostila, or monument area. The Sala de Hipostila, originally planned as a market, is the centerpiece of the park constructed using large doric columns, whose straight lines are a rarity in Gaudi’s work. Above the columns rests a gallery that creates the effect of a petrified forest, the stone columns create massive tree trunks adorned with a mosaic canopy.
Above the gallery is a large plaza with great views of the city that also features an incredible mosaic bench which wraps around the periphery of the plaza. This bench is said to be the longest in the world, and although made of stone, is also quite comfortable. Rumor has it that in order to achieve this, Gaudi had a laborer cast his naked buttocks into the stone, a revolutionary method that preceded the science of ergonomics by more than 50 years.
One of his most stunning and famous works on the modernist Passeig de Gracia is the Casa Batlló, which Gaudi was contracted to renovate an existing building in 1904. While maintaining the structure of the pre-standing building, Gaudi chose to place emphasis on the façade, the loft, and the roof.
Typical of the Modernist aesthetic, Gaudi covered the façade with colorful, broken tiles to avoid straight lines that did not fit into his concept of forms present in nature. On the existing balconies, Gaudi superimposed ornamental iron forms that appear skeletal and helped earn the local nickname for the building Casa dels Ossos, or the house of the bones. The loft is also of notable influence from nature, made by using a series of 60 catenary arches, it is said to represent the ribcage of an animal. The roof of the building creates a jagged spinal form, which covered by metallic mosaic tiles gives the effect of reptilian scales. A tower-like structure rising above the roof is decorated with a four-sided, anamorphic cross bearing the religious insignia of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. The cross of the tower points to the cardinal directions, and was delivered broken before being mounted. Although the constructor of the tower was to rebuild it, Gaudi chose to take the broken pieces and suspend them from the façade using mortar and concrete.
After an analysis of each of these components it easy to understand the local legend, never confirmed by Gaudi, that the building is a representation of Saint George, the patron saint of Catalonia. The skeletal structure of the balconies and loft, combined with the reptilian roof are to represent the dragon, while the tower and cross is to represent the lance of Saint George, which he used to kill the dragon.
La Pedrera (Casa Milá)
Pere Milá i Campa contracted Gaudi for the construction of his personal home and 20 other residences in 1906. Casa Milá was both the largest and the last privately owned construction the architect would build. Previously there was an existing house on the location of Passeig de Gracia, which was decided to be demolished and build anew. Gaudi conceived the shape of the building as an asymmetrical figure “8” form with two open air courtyards that allow each unit natural light and air circulation. Casa Milá was conceived as a continuous curve that was prolonged both inside and out. Gaudi wanted all of the tenants of the buildings to be neighborly, so elevators were installed only on alternating floors, essentially forcing neighbors to communicate with one another.
The façade of the building was made from limestone, forming the shape of a rippling waves, cresting at alternating positions on each of the building’s nine levels. The stone is contrasted with balconies covered in organic wrought iron curvilinear lines, which many have compared to seaweed. Gaudi’s design was not without its critics, after construction was complete many locals thought that it resembled a quarry and they dubiously dubbed the building ‘La Pedrera’. Many residents that lived in the grand manors along the Passeig de Gracia feared their home values would decrease, and as a result they refused to greet Pere Milá. This might be the source of the rumor that the term “gaudy” (ostentatious, over the top) came from the misunderstood Architect’s surname. However this claim is a misnomer, as the term was in use long before Gaudi’s birth.
The original plans called for considerably more Catholic symbolism than were ultimately implemented. Gaudi originally planned a statue of Mary, two Archangels, and Our Lady of the Rosary to be placed on the cornice. However, after the owner was fined due to those features surpassing the building codes they were scrapped. After this event, Gaudi was tempted to give up the project, but was later dissuaded by a priest.
The most intriguing features of Casa Milá are the attic and the roof terrace. The design of the structural support of the attic, also taken from nature, is based on a snake’s skeleton. The attic was another innovative idea in a time long before heating and cooling it was equipped with ventilation chambers that allow for heat or cool to be trapped in the attic, instead of being transferred to living units. On the terrace there are 28 towers used for stair wells, chimneys, and ventilation, which were sculpted in curious forms constructed from limestone. The peculiar geometric forms of these towers are representative of distorted, whimsical faces, of which several are covered with mosaic tiles while other remain raw. Apparently Gaudi and the owner of the building had a dispute about finishing the terrace, as the owner did not want to pay for a space that in those times was not used. As a result Gaudi only finished the towers that were street facing and a hand railing was not originally installed. It is rumored that the bizarre forms of the towers were the inspiration for George Lucas’ storm troopers in the Star Wars films.
The building changed hands several times after Pere Milá died in 1940 and his wife sold the building in 1946. In 1966 the home was made into a controversial bingo hall, which would remain until 1985. During this time Casa Milá fell into disrepair and lost much of its original luster, the interior was even painted a drab brown color. In 1984 the UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site and a Catalonian bank bought the property and began to renovate the façade and restore the original interior paint. Today the building is still home to four tenants whom have a lifetime lease on their apartments.
La Iglesia de la Sagrada Familia
The church of the Sacred Family is the tour de force and pinnacle of Gaudi’s body of work, which he obsessed over and at the same time understood that he would never see completed in his lifetime. Gaudi comprehending his own mortality only adds to his brilliance, he worked feverishly to complete plans and models that would allow others to carry out his legacy. Gaudi would spend his final months living within the church, he seemed to have the clairvoyance that his life would soon end, indeed his demise came more suddenly than expected, the result of an unpredictable accident. Even today, more than 130 years after ground breaking, the mind boggling structure is still a work in progress with an expected date of completion in 2026 to commemorate the centennial of Gaudi’s death.
The church remained only about 15% complete at the time of Gaudi’s death in 1926, when the crypt, apse, nativity façade and the first of the bell towers were completed. In 1909 Gaudi also created a provisional school on site for the worker’s children to attend, placed just adjacent to the projected passion façade. 1936 brought the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and Barcelona was under control of Anarchists whom were involved in the burning of many churches, the Sagrada Familia would not be an exception. Many of the plans and models Gaudi had created were destroyed and construction of the church would be put on hold, not to be resumed until the 1950’s. The plans to carry out the church are modern adaptations based on remnants recovered from destroyed models and historical records.
Today the church has become the most important feature of the Barcelona skyline. Ten of the completed spires rise over the neighboring edifications, with another eight projected by the date of completion. The original design planned for 18 separate spires, one for each of the 12 Apostles and the four Evangelists, one for the Virgin Mary, and the highest reaching for Jesus, still remains incomplete, which is expected rise to a maximum height of 170 meters.
The Nativity façade, the most direct influence from Gaudi, is a vivid combination of religious subject matter combined with the natural world. As the name implies the façade depicts scenes of the Christ’s birth carved into stone, accompanied by the arrival of angels and troubadours. Carved ornately into the three porticos are Joseph, Mary and the three wise men exalting the birth of Christ and the tree of life rising above the central portico. Also present is an array of wildlife; birds, tortoises, and chameleons intermingled with palm trees and flowers. Gaudi understood that he would not see the completion of the other facades in his lifetime, so he wanted to personally oversee the Nativity façade to set an artistic and architectural example as a basis to be followed.
The Passion façade, opposite of the Nativity, sets a very dramatic tone that inspires the emotion of pain and suffering Christ experienced during his crucifixion, as well as the resurrection and ascension to the heavens. Contrasting the ornate decoration of the Nativity façade, the Passion façade is solemn and austere, helping to achieve Gaudi’s wish that the scene set fear into the heart of the observer. Statues depict each of the 14 stages of the Viacrucis, rising from the ground in the form of an “S”.
The statues were sculpted between 1976 and 1987 by a team of Catalan sculptors headed by Josep Maria Subirachs, and use rigid, abstract forms that are simple yet also achieve an intense strength of feeling. In homage to Gaudi, his face was sculpted on one of Jesus’ disciples and the roman soldiers were based on the forms used for the chimneys on Casa Milá. Surrounding the façade are six angular columns that represent the trunks of massive Sequoia trees pointing upwards towards a central cross, which hovering above depicts the final stage, Christ’s ascension. Leading from the Passion façade to the interior are two massive iron doors forged using thousands of characters that make up passage from the bible recanting the verses of the death of Christ.
Upon entering the marvelous interior, one is overwhelmed with emotion, bewonderment, and fantasy. Rising from the marble floor are massive stone pillars that transport one to a surreal, wondrous forest. As the columns rise they bifurcate replicating splitting branches of tree trunks sprouting upwards to a wondrous canopy of intricate geometric shapes that create an assault on the senses. More than 75 meters above the central nave, the vault is a kaleidoscope of psychedelic hyperboloids interspersed by vibrant stain glass windows and ellipsoids with religious iconography. Each of the columns showcase Gaudi’s innovative ideas, made from various types and colors of stone, the base begins as simpler shapes such as pentagons, and as they rise higher they turn to octagons and finally 16-sided figures.
The nave is in the form of a Latin cross with the apse and a rose window as the focal point. The interior also features massive stain glass windows composed of bright primary colors on opposing sides. The East side of the nave features cooler hues of stain glass, as this is the side where the sun rises, the crystals opposite feature warmer colors to highlight the setting sun. The church can also be thought of as a testament to Catalan nationalism, as every aspect of the art, from stained glass to the sculptures on the passion façade, were carried out by Catalan artists.
The basement of the church, formerly Gaudi’s workshop, today feature a museum displaying many of the original models and sketches that Gaudi created. Interestingly, the team of architects today in charge of the completion of Gaudi’s masterpiece employ the use of modern technologies such as 3D printers and computer animated drafting programs, proving that Gaudi was truly ahead of his time. From 1915 until his death Gaudi worked exclusively on the Sagrada Familia, not completing his final models until 1923, just three years prior to his departure.
Death of Genius
In 1926 Antoni Gaudi, in his seventies, was consumed and obsessed with his life’s work and without time for trivialities such as personal appearances, he often dressed in worn suits, unshaved and unkempt and is said to have taken on the appearance of a beggar. On the morning of 7 of June, 1926, Gaudi left from his live-in workshop in La Sagrada Familia, on his daily pilgrimage to the church of San Felip de Neri in the Gothic Quarter, where he habitually attended mass and gave confession.
Gaudi walked through the streets of modernist neighborhood of Dreta de L’Eixample, just blocks from the Passeig de Gracia, the famed Modernist thoroughfare that was home to his most famous edifications. The elderly architect approached the avenue Gran Vía de Cortes Catalanes between the streets of Girona and Bailén, as he crossed the busy avenue, the rising sun from the east obstructed the view of the conductor of a passing trolley, which struck Gaudi who fell to the ground, knocked immediately unconscious. Gaudi was not carrying any form of identification, and due to his shabby appearance was mistaken for a vagrant, and did not receive immediate assistance. Gaudi’s body lay the in the shadows beside the busy street motionless, as the Mediterranean breeze cut through the sultry heat of late spring. For hours, Gaudi remained unconscious, ignored by passers-by, until finally a policeman transported him to the Santa Creu Hospital.
The day passed to night and the Chaplain of the Sagrada Familia became alarmed by the absence of Gaudi. The following day, he made inquiries with local hospitals and was alerted to the presence of a beggar matching the description of Gaudi, who was admitted the day prior due to injuries and complications from an accident in transit. The chaplain made his way to the hospital, an elaborate modernist building just blocks from the Sagrada Familia, where he recognized the body to be that of Antoni Gaudi. Doctors at this time had concluded that the condition of the master architect had deteriorated to a level where no surgical implementation would be possible to recover from.
It was a matter of time until the man revered as ‘God’s Architect’ would leave this world. Two days later doctors pronounced Antoni Gaudi clinically dead at the age of 74. On the 12th of June a large crowd gathered as Gaudi was interned in a tomb within the crypt of the Sagrada Familia. His gravestone was engraved: “Antoni Gaudí Cornet. From Reus. At the age of 74, a man of exemplary life, and an extraordinary craftsman, the author of this marvelous work, the church, died piously in Barcelona on the tenth day of June 1926; henceforward the ashes of so great a man await the resurrection of the dead. May he rest in peace.”