Seeing Barcelona Through Gaudí

On our way to Istanbul, we built in a quick mini-vacation to Barcelona, a city high on my list of places to visit. Tight on time and eager to get our adventure going, we set out for a walking tour about Barcelona’s famed architect Antoni Gaudí our first morning there.

Gaudí influenced architects around the world, and left an unmistakable imprint on his hometown. It’s tough to visualize Barcelona without Gaudí’s ornate, whimsical – and some say, well, gaudy – style.

To give us a sense of who Gaudí was as a person, our tour guide shared this gem of a quote, said by the Dean of the Barcelona School of Architecture upon Gaudí’s graduation:

“I am not sure to whom I presented a diploma today, to a madman or to a genius.”

We saw both sides of Gaudí throughout the day, as we heard the vibrant story behind his distinctive structures – which range from houses and churches to lampposts and sculptures.

Casa Batlló

Casa Batlló

We heard tales illustrating just how difficult he was to work with. Ever the perfectionist, he would routinely design, develop, and tear down part of his structures until they met his standards. Certainly not the fastest or most cost-effective way to construct a building.

But we also saw innovative designs, and learned many feature pioneering techniques that are still used today. For example, Gaudí frequently used recycled materials in his works before it was cool (for futher hipster proof, check out his photo), and pioneered Trencadís, a mosaic made up of broken tile shards.

This style of mosaic is out in full force on the roof of Casa Battló, which is perhaps the most Gaudí of the Gaudís. There’s an explosion of color and ornamentation, and few right angles in the design.

The symbolism at work here is fascinating, in part because we may never know what Gaudí was trying to convey through his designs. He did not leave journals, work with students/apprentices, or give interviews. So we’re left to speculate. The two leading theories about the building’s façade is that it symbolizes:

  1. Parties/fiestas, with its Carnival/Mardi Gras masks and confetti-filled walls
  2. Death, with it’s skull-like balconies and bone-shaped columns

After seeing Casa Battló, a wealthy couple asked Gaudí to build a similar home for them, which became known as Casa Milà or, alternatively, La Pedrera.

Casa Milà, also known as La Pedrera

Casa Milà, also known as La Pedrera

Regardless of whether or not you like the end result, noting the dramatic difference between the two buildings is one indication of the the rocky relationship between owner and client. There were other issues too. For example, Gaudí – who was a devout Catholic (he even attempted to go 40 days without food or water) – incorporated parts the “Hail Mary” script into the balcony design, much to the disdain of the agnostic owners. But the building was innovative in its use of an open floor plan and underground garage – perhaps two of my personal favorite features in any home design.

Our last stop on the Gaudí tour was Sagrada Família, his awe-inspiring magnum opus that’s still unfinished nearly 100 years after his death. It’s HUGE, and it’s going to be about twice as tall as it is now, with the addition of another spire.

Sagrada Família

Sagrada Família

The façade is also crammed with religious figurines, including Roman guards that look like characters from Star Wars. And they’ll probably add more as they continue construction. Interestingly, the ever-perfectionist Gaudí created plaster casts using real humans and animals (but as a vegetarian animal-lover, he didn’t kill them, he used chloroform).

After better understanding the man who is so intertwined with the city of Barcelona just hours into our trip, we continued to do things as the Catalans do. We took mid-day siestas, strolled through maze-like streets, and ate lots of tapas, to name a few. I could get used to this.

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