For today’s episode, we’re traveling back in time to Barcelona in the latter half of the 19th century, where a burgeoning elite group of patrons in the industrial bourgeoisie class wished to modernize the cityscape. This desire to imbue Barcelona with contemporary tastes occurred after the Cerdà Plan (1859), which, much to the bourgeoisie's initial dismay, attempted to dismantle class differentiation by constructing three-story houses and broad avenues, ensuring stronger connection with closeby towns. Ripping down the medieval walls that surrounded the city, the conditions were nevertheless ripe for artistic and architectural innovation. But no one could have anticipated the idiosyncratic, organic approach that Antoni Gaudí brought to the bustling urban city center, enlivening Barcelona with a sense of freedom and color that helped bolster Spain’s reputation as an economically and culturally independent state.
Gaudí is recognized as a spearhead of Modernisme, the Spanish equivalent of the Art Nouveau style that erupted across Europe. But while Art Nouveau, with its natural, angular forms and gesamtkunstwerk ideals, was the zeitgeist of many European countries, Modernisme incorporated Catalan nationality and folklore, representing the Catalonia region’s strive for autonomy. For example, in one of his most famous buildings, Casa Batlló (1904-1906), Gaudí references the legend of St. George, who slayed the dragon attacking the kingdom. The turret, representing a sword, juts out from the tiled mosaic roof – a fantastical, multicolored spectacle accomplished through a trencadís technique to illustrate the dragon’s scales. This method involves assembling broken shards to create a unique mosaic effect. Gaudí further accentuates the animate quality of the building through sinuous floral and vegetative designs on its facade, as well as through the bone-like supports reinforcing the “yawning” balconies.
Antoni Gaudí. Casa Batlló, 1904-1906. Barcelona, Spain.
Gaudí’s modernist approach to the historical culture of Catalonia is also evident in his incorporation of Mudéjar (a mixture of Christian and Muslim cultures particular to Spain) influences. This is evident particularly in his earlier work, such as the Güell Pavilions and Garden (1884-1887), through the stable’s repetitious, geometric patterns and ornamental dome, incorporating a colorful, glassy-textured lantern and curvaceous Catalan brick vaulting. The meticulous, winding gate, depicting the mythical dragon of the Garden of the Hesperides, is a symbol of heroism and strength, as well as a testament to Gaudí’s craftsmanship.
Antoni Gaudí. Güell Pavilions, 1884-1887. Barcelona, Spain.
The dragon gate at the Güell Pavilions
Perhaps his most ambitious and renowned project is the Sagrada Família (1882-), which wasn’t even one-quarter of the way finished by the time of Gaudi’s death in 1926 and is still being constructed today. The church incorporates the lavish decoration of Byzantine architecture alongside the ribbed vaulting and rose windowing of Gothic architecture; however, these characteristics are significantly amplified, particularly through the curving diagonals and elongated verticality of the towers. Like with the floral and Mudéjar elements, Gaudí hearkens back to a pre-industrial age for inspiration. His use of light is equally fascinating. The skylights between the branching columns imitate the sun peeking through a towering copse, incorporating Gaudí’s biomorphic tendencies and reflecting the harmony of nature and God. The sculptures both inside and outside the basilica are also rife with Christian iconography, with each of its 18 towers holding particular significance to the teachings of Jesus, the Gospels, the Virgin Mary, and the Apostles. As much as the building is grandiose and symbolic, it is also a space of spiritual introspection.
Antoni Gaudí. Sagrada Família, 1882-. Barcelona, Spain.
Sagrada Família. Ceiling and columns of the nave.
Sagrada Família. Detail of the roof in the nave. Gaudí designed the columns to resemble trees and branches.
Overall, Gaudí has had an undeniable effect on the face of Barcelona, as well as on the architectural methods in Spain and beyond, bringing to prominence the artistic and historical significance of Catalan culture. His bright and organically mesmerizing approach to structure catalyzed Europe into Modernism and continues to enliven millions of city dwellers and tourists alike.
“Nothing is art if it does not come from nature.” – Antoni Gaudi
“There are no straight lines or sharp corners in nature. Therefore, buildings must have no straight lines or sharp corners.” – Antoni Gaudi
“In the Sagrada Familia, everything is providential.” – Antoni Gaudi
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