We have done Gaudí backwards–from latest to earliest completed works. We made the long bus ride trek from Poblenou to his famous Parc Güell on a gorgeous sunny day. By this time, we had figured out that we needed to buy the tickets online and for a specific time. We were surprised about the specific time, but understood why this had been instigated when we arrived at the Park by taking Bus 92.
You can enter the Park for free, but the Zona Monumental–where all of Gaudí’s fantastical designs are located–requires a timed entrance to keep down the pig push that collects at the single spots where every tourist wants his photo taken. The Park itself is wonderful–beautiful plantings, stunning views across Barcelona down to the sea, and some fascinating trails up and down the hill . We had entered from the side entrance, so were at first not aware of the main entrance, where most tourists enter, and where one needs to line up for the appointed time to enter the Zona. Seeing the fantastical shapes and colors of the totally non-functional designs made me realize that these WERE the forerunners of Disneyland and all theme parks!
And, yes, here is where the whole experience begins to take on the atmosphere of Disneyland. After standing in line with the hundred or so that are let in every half hour, people throng into the area with the Serpentine Wall. The picture at the top of this blog is where everyone goes to take their selfies looking down onto the entrance. That image epitomizes the experience: it is as close as I could get to the lookout without shoving myself into a gillion other people’s images of themselves smiling into their phone cameras or selfie sticks.
This photo of me on the Serpentine Wall was the only spot where there weren’t other people cramming in. The space is delightful, but it is difficult to enjoy the experience as Gaudí intended people to enjoy it. I give Barcelona credit for trying to control the crowds–which must be impossible in the summer!
Once one leaves the the top floor of the Zona, and walks down to the grotto levels, the crowds thin out a bit. The Park is, I think, Gaudí at his most playful, and the sinuous shapes are marvelous.
But what is the deal with the tiles, the mosaics of broken-up ceramic pieces? I am fascinated with these colorful designs, which, as far as I can read them, have nothing to do with Gaudí’s love of nature and organic recreations. Robert Hughes’s explanation of them is that Gaudí used them as colorful illuminated bits to reflect and to shape his forms in interesting ways that structurally would not be possible without ceramic inclusions known in Catalan as trencadis (”Gaudí was fascinated by how the mosaic fragmentation of trencadis, its shifts of color and pattern, could play against the solidity of architectural form, dissolving its stability”). OK, but I still am perplexed by their playfulness, when most of Gaudí’s work seems nearly spooky in its striving for some spiritual concept, and his writings seem to be so deadly serious in their religious and political intent.
And our next Gaudí building, one of his earliest, led me to even more rumination about those tiles. We went by the Palau Güell, Gaudí’s first project for his most ardent patron, the textile industrialist Eusebi Güell i Bacigalupi. Built between 1886 and 1888, together client and architect created an extravaganza of craftsmanship, beginning with the metalwork on the facade (Gaudí’s family had been metalworkers for generations). Every room of the house contains another grandiose display of artisanry, from the lamps to the stonework to the paintings.
The individual craftsmanship is simply stunning, and so diverse that one is kind of sated by the opulence. And then the organ began to play!
By the time we reached the famous roof, the house’s effect on us was rather gloomy and lugubrious. All of it is dark, and one needs to look closely to appreciate the incredible work involved in the details.
And then on the roof: there were those chimneys!!! Utterly fantastic! Twenty of them, with the most eccentric bunches of glass, ceramic and stone all mixed together. Again, Robert Hughes maintains that all this ornamentation and colorful materials serve a structural purpose, but there is more going on than that.
How and why does Gaudí’s use of broken bottle tops and ceramic pieces differ from Simon Rodia’s in his ”folk masterpiece” of the Watts Towers? Or does it differ? That’s something I will be thinking about for a long time.
Finally, we wanted to see Gaudí’s first major building, Casa Vicens, from 1877. Many people had told me this was actually their favorite one of his buildings. Unfortunately for us, it is undergoing renovation and is covered in scaffolding and drop cloths! The one bit I could see, however, told me that I would probably enjoy this house the most, with its sumptuous take on Aesthetic Movement color and forms. Already innovative, but not yet in stratospheric realms of innovation and idiosyncratic creativity.
Now, except for my promise to go see and comment on the interior of Sagrada Familia, I have probably written enough about this fascinating, innovative, totally original figure who created such monuments to Catalan culture.