I thought I would start a discussion of Antoni Gaudí i Cornet, the most famous Catalonian architect and a near-God to those in awe of his phantasmagorically colorful structures, with a simple detail of the exterior wall of his masterpiece, Casa Milà (now La Pederera). Gaudí was nothing if not passionate about the perfection of the details; it was in the details that he excelled, in what Robert Hughes calls ”his obsessive inventiveness”, and these are the aspects of his creations that I admire the most.
But now we first have to talk about the contemporary world of international tourism. Gaudí’s buildings have become the major tourist attraction in Barcelona, and in the global Disneyland that massive tourism has created, this means that every single one of his buildings is so swarming with people that it is nearly impossible at times to have any aesthetic experience while there. To cope with the numbers, every venue requires tickets for a precise time, which then, of course, requires standing in line for a while before a surge of tourists enter the space to take their requisite selfies in front of the most iconic aspect of the building they can find. I give Barcelona credit for trying to deal with the crowds–and remember, I’m talking about February crowds, not the overwhelming numbers of the summer–and I’m trying to get a better attitude about the situation, by saying that so many people want to appreciate the wonders of the world.
We hadn’t realized that we should have ordered tickets ahead of time when we went to our first Gaudí house, the Casa Batlló (1904) on Passeig de Gracia. When we saw the crowds and the line just to buy tickets, we bailed, taking pictures of the incredible facade. This is the only one of Gaudí’s works that was a renovation of an already existing building. I remember reading in one of my art history texts that in the 1950s, when the architect’s works were decidedly out of fashion, that residents of the building had placed a placard on the front door, stating that they were not responsible for the building’s design! We haven’t yet gone inside, which is supposed to be even more amazing…
But right next door to the Casa Battló is a building by another, lesser known Modernista architect, Josep Puig i Cadafalch. Casa Amatller (1898-1900), built, appropriately enough, for a chocolate manufacturer, in a style described as ”urban Gothic.” This building is filled with just as many lovingly detailed elements, all of them carefully coordinated to evoke elegance reminiscent of the Aesthetic Movement era of the 1870s. As fiercely nationalistic as Gaudí, Puig i Cadafalch hearkened back to Barcelona’s medieval period, with less wildly inventive flights than Gaudí. You can take a tour of this house, too. This is where we saw the first examples of decoratively etched stone, which seems to be a specialty of architectural detail in this city–so many buildings have this kind of ornamentation that it is as common here as tiles are in Lisbon.
Our next Gaudí stop was what I consider to be his greatest work, the place where he pulled out all the stops while still constructing a functional building: the Casa Milà (1907-1912), now more popularly called La Pedrera, the Stone Quarry.
Here one can see his obsession with organic forms and an integration of all design elements into a fantastical whole applied to living spaces in the most ”Gaudian” way. For some reason, while there were crowds, this site was easier to get into, and the custodians–now a private foundation that actually uses some of the entry fees for conservation and preservation causes–have tried very hard to make the experience a satisfying and less crowded one. The lobby felt like a floral aquarium, all dreamy colors and cell-like ornamentation.
I was particularly happy to see the apartment on display, in which his incredible ability to bring light into interior spaces was so elegantly evident. (People still live in the building, which must be an interesting experience.) And what innovations in materials he used in the artisanal details! The door frames and lintels, for example, were made out of a combination of plaster, reeds, and hessian.
And then, of course, there is the famous roof, with its fantastical forms, none of which seem to have any functional purpose, but simply express Gaudí’s obsession with organic formations that relate to his intensely visionary religiosity. And yes, these forms were the model for George Lucas’s Star Wars warrior uniforms!
But here begins one of the great conundrums of Gaudí. As Robert Hughes points out, the architect that we now praise so extravagantly for his organic aesthetic, for the continuity of his vision, actually had atrocious and rather scarily conservative taste in art. It turns out he wanted to cap this gorgeous structure with a hideous gigantic sculpture symbolizing the Rosary. Fortunately, the owners who had commissioned the building (who, by the way, were not at all happy with the finished product), rejected his idea, for fear that the Anarchists would then target his building. By this time, in my view, Gaudí, for all his innovation and technically dynamic abilities, was starting to turn into the ascetic, ultraconservative religious crank that puts him in the company of outsider visionaries such as Simon Rodia and his Watts Towers. More on that idea later, as we move on to the next installment!