Antoni Gaudí i Cornet (1852-1926).
On a late afternoon, on June 7, 1926, a shabbily dressed elderly man was knocked down and dragged by a tram as he made his daily trip to pray at the church of St. Philip Neri in Barcelona.
He was unconscious but several taxi drivers refused to drive him to a hospital. Passers-by cared for him until a police officer finally took him to the Hospital de Santa Creu. He carried no identification, so nobody knew who he was. Only after he was reported missing did it become clear that he was Antoni Gaudí i Cornet, Catalonia’s best known architect.
Three days later Gaudí died. The news spread like wildfire and thousands of mourners lined the streets to pay their respect. He was buried in the crypt of the Sagrada Familia (Holy Family), the church (basilica since 2010) to which he had devoted his life since 1883, and exclusively from around 1913. Not unsurprisingly, Gaudí never married.
Antoni Gaudí was born on June 25, 1852, in the Catalan town of Reus, just inland from the ancient Roman sea port of Tarragona. There are, however, some who argue he was born in the nearby village of Riudoms, where his parents had a house.
Early in his life Gaudí called Reus his birthplace in his documents, but in 1915 he claimed he was born in Riudoms. The change may have been prompted by the rejection of his plans for the restoration of the Misericordia sanctuary of Reus at around this time.
Son of a modestly prosperous family of metalworkers, Gaudí suffered when still young from bouts of rheumatism. Advised by doctors, he became a vegetarian, and took country excursions to help improve his health. On these excursions, he developed a passionate interest in nature: from the shapes of rocks and stones to the interrelationship and structure of trees, plants and flowers, the detailed forms of birds, insects and animals and the weird and wonderful variety of sea creatures.
These all became integral elements of his architecture, and underlined –as he became more religious– his belief in the sanctity of nature as an expression of God’s omnipotence. In short, Nature was God’s creation, His “building.”
When he was 17 (1869), Gaudí went to Barcelona to study at its School of Architecture. He proved to be an unorthodox student, neglecting course work and spending hours in the school’s library devouring books on Moorish or Indian architecture.
It was here that he was exposed to the writings of the English art critic and social thinker, John Ruskin, and the French architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc whose book on French Gothic architecture was widely admired.
Gaudí’s years at the School of Architecture coincided with Catalonia’s Renaixença (Renaissance), a cultural rebirth that reflected the European Romantic movement’s love of local colour and historical exoticism. In Spain, one of the strongest offshoots of Romanticism was costumbrismo, a deep interest in local traditions and regional history.
By about 1890, the Renaixença had morphed into another movement called Modernisme as Catalonia absorbed and adapted a widespread European cultural movement known as Art Nouveau. Modernisme combined the Renaixença’s revival of Catalonia’s cultural history with Art Nouveau’s love of aesthetic, decorative elements: e.g. stained glass, ceramics, sculptures, mosaic tiles, wrought ironwork and vibrant colours.
Together with Art Nouveau’s preference for curves over straight lines, Modernisme also combined brick and unfinished stone and wood, and integrated elements of Oriental/Moorish and Gothic architecture. Nature was incorporated into designs, often stylised but recognisable: e.g. plants, leaves, flowers, butterflies, shells, sea creatures, and humble objects such as insects and bugs.
For the modernistas, their products were to be beautiful, not merely functional. Although Modernisme extended to literature, music, art, sculpture, it was in architecture that it made its mark in Catalonia.
Besides Gaudí, two contemporaries, Lluís Domènech i Montaner (1850-1923) and his student, Josep Puig i Cadafalch (1867-1956), produced remarkable works that would have drawn more attention but for Gaudí’s prodigious inventiveness and originality.
Despite his mediocre academic record, Gaudí impressed the faculty at the School of Architecture sufficiently to graduate in 1878. At his graduation, the chair of the faculty is reported to have said that Gaudi was either a madman or a genius.
Even before enrolling in architecture, Gaudí had developed a great interest in Catalan history, especially the medieval period when Catalonia was a major player in Mediterranean trade and commerce and enjoyed a vibrant literary tradition.
One day, during an excursion into the countryside, the youthful Gaudí and a friend, Eduard Toda, came across Santa María de Poblet**, an abandoned Cistercian monastery and one time royal pantheon. Moved by the ruined state of arguably Spain’s finest and largest Cistercian abbey, the two drew up detailed plans to restore and repopulate it. For Gaudí and Toda, Poblet symbolised Catalonia’s past identity and greatness and its religious commitment to God; its decay mirrored Catalonia’s fall, the abandonment of its ancient values. Their projected restoration reflected the vibrant activity of the Renaixença, the rebirth of Catalonia’s cultural and, eventually, political identity.
As a young man Gaudí was something of a dandy. Blond, blue-eyed, boasting a tinted beard, and elegantly tailored, he cut a fine figure in the streets of Barcelona (a marked contrast to the last years of his life during which he led an ascetic existence).
He enjoyed high society and in 1878 met the industrialist and conservative nationalist Eusebi Güell i Bacigalupi, with whose name Gaudí became indelibly linked. Güell had studied in England and France and in 1878 attended the Paris Universal Exhibition. There he had been very much taken by an unusually designed cabinet and upon enquiry learnt that its designer was one Antoni Gaudí from Barcelona.
Back in Barcelona, Güell quickly tracked Gaudí down in his workshop and soon Gaudí was a welcome guest at the Güell home. Their friendship lasted until Güell died in 1918.Güell was one of several manufacturers dominating Catalonia’s industrial scene during Spain’s Restoration period (1876-1923).
Thanks to Güell’s patronage, family connections and introduction to other business men, Gaudí enjoyed wide support for his ideas.
With the support of like-minded patrons, Gaudí enjoyed steady employment. Early on he did do some public work (a design for street lamps for the city of Barcelona in 1878 and a building for a workers’ cooperative in Mataró, also in 1878), but most of his major works were designed for the wealthy of Barcelona. Of his eighteen buildings, twelve are located in or near the city, and seven are designated as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.
Outside of Barcelona, Gaudí’s main works are to be found, curiously, in the north west of Spain: the Casa (House) El Capricho in the coastal town of Comillas (1883-85), the Bishop’s palace in Astorga (1889-1915) and the Casa de los Botines in León (1891-93). These unexpected locations for Gaudí all have one thing in common: Catalan connections.
The Capricho was commissioned by Maximo Díaz de Quijano, brother-in-law of Antonio López, first Marqués de Comillas (and Eusebi Güell’s father-in-law). The Bishop’s Palace was built at the request of Bishop Juan Bautista Grau, a good friend of Gaudí and also native of Reus, Gaudí’s birthplace. The Casa de los Botines was commissioned by Leonese textile merchants who had formed a business relationship with a Catalan merchant, Joan Homs i Botinàs, who had settled in León. These same merchants also bought fabrics from Eusebi Güell, who recommended Gaudí for the commission.
Over his life, Gaudí fashioned his own style, a synthesis of orientalism (especially Moorish decorative arts, but also Indian and Japanese), Art Nouveau, and Neo-Gothic elements.
“Planning” might not be the right word, because Gaudí did not like to tie himself down to detailed architectural plans but often let his buildings develop organically in imitation of nature.
To illustrate, we can take the description of the art critic, Robert Hughes, of the porch columns of Güell Crypt of Santa Coloma which “are a grove of brick trunks, leaning and striated, sending out branches –the rib vaults—that lace into one another” (Hughes 470).
Nature was God’s greatest work and nature came in all shapes and avoided straight lines. “Straight lines belong to men; curves to God,” Gaudí famously explained (in Eaude 96).
As a result, Gaudí’s buildings often seem free of architectural restrictions, expressing the same kind of spontaneous freedom found in nature. Unfinished stone, brick, wood “grow” and light filters through “trees” and “foliage.”Inside, Gaudí’s buildings tend to be intimate and warm, a combination of curves and colours, with ample use of tiles, wrought iron, and stained glass.
Ceilings curve or undulate and roofs are topped by imaginative, even whimsical chimneys. The buildings seem alive, restless, almost fussy in their detailed decoration (e.g. the exterior of Casa Vicens); it can take some effort to absorb it all (e.g. dining room of Casa Vicens, entrance to El Capricho or eastern entrance to the Sagrada Familia).
Gaudi was an innovative architect. He borrowed widely, but his buildings were unorthodox, and he regularly adjusted and modified his ideas for them as he went along. Nevertheless, the complex structural forms were carefully calculated with mathematical precision using models and strings and weights rather than flat drawings or plans. In many ways, this procedure anticipates digital three-dimensional designs done on computers. Gaudí was in many ways a radical architect well ahead of the times.
Reactions to his work have been mixed, and the Sagrada Familia in particular has elicited both condemnation and praise. On the whole, however, opinions are positive. Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró, two fellow Catalans, were enthusiastic in their praise. Even the Swiss-French architect, Le Corbusier –known for his rationalist, straight-lined buildings— in 1928 called Gaudí “the builder of the twentieth century … a great artist” (Eaude 98).
Gaudí’s star dipped with the arrival of Noucentisme in the 1920s with its addiction to straight lines, neoclassical harmony and avoidance of decorative adornments. It also suffered under the dictator Francisco Franco (1939-75) when triumphant civic buildings obeyed the architecture of power, and dreary apartment blocks were reduced to bare-boned functionality.
Nowadays, Gaudí is “in” as endless queues outside the major buildings, and especially the Sagrada Familia, attest.
Since 2000 there has been a formal move to seek the beatification of Gaudí, popularly known as “God’s architect.” The campaign has been favourably received in the Vatican, and the lengthy process of investigation will probably be completed this spring (2015). Gaudí’s piety and humility, his scandal free life and his attribution of his work as a manifestation of the Great Architect (God) all argue in favour of approval.
Beatification, the third step towards sainthood, normally requires evidence of one miracle, canonization –the status of saint—requires proof of two miracles. Whether Gaudí will achieve either of these two ranks remains to be seen; but he will almost certainly be accorded the status of “Venerable,” the second step towards beatification.
List of 14 of Gaudí’s most important works: Asterisks** indicate UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Casa (House) El Capricho in Comillas 1883-85. Summer residence.
Bishop’s palace in Astorga 1889-1915. Palace.
Casa de los Botines in León 1891-93. Palatial residence.
Casa Vicens 1883**. Residence.
La Sagrada Familia 1883-unfinished (Nativity façade and Crypt**) church.
Gúell Pavilions 1884-87. Country estate stables.
Palau (Palacio) Güell Palace 1885**. Palatial residence.
Colegio Teresiano 1888-89. Religious school.
Casa Calvet 1898-1900. Residence and commercial building.
Chapel in Colonia Güell 1898-1917**. Chapel/crypt of an unfinished church in a workers’ housing estate (colonia) in an industrial quarter.
Park Güell Park 1900-1914**. Park.
Bellesguard 1900-09. Country residence.
Casa Batlló 1904-06**. Residence.
Casa Milà 1906-10**. Residence
Eaude, Michael Catalonia: A Cultural History Oxford 2008
Hughes, Robert Barcelona New York 1993
Stich, Sidra Art-Sites Spain: Contemporary Art and Architecture San Francisco 2003
Zerbst, Rainer Antoni Gaudi Koln 1991
Image of Gaudi’s funeral: “Funeral Gaudí” by Unknown – Joan Bassegoda i Nonell, El gran Gaudí, Ed. Ausa, Sabadell, 1989, ISBN 84-86329-44-2. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Funeral_Gaud%C3%AD.jpg#/media/File:Funeral_Gaud%C3%AD.jpg
Image of Santa Coloma: «Cripta Güell02» de Canaan – Trabajo propio. Disponible bajo la licencia GFDL vía Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cripta_G%C3%BCell02.jpg#/media/File:Cripta_G%C3%BCell02.jpg
Image of the crypt of Santa Coloma: «Cripta de la Colònia Güell (Santa Coloma de Cervelló) – 40» de MARIA ROSA FERRE ✿ – Flickr: Cripta de la Colònia Güell, Santa Coloma de Cervelló. Disponible bajo la licencia CC BY-SA 2.0 vía Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cripta_de_la_Col%C3%B2nia_G%C3%BCell_(Santa_Coloma_de_Cervell%C3%B3)_-_40.jpg#/media/File:Cripta_de_la_Col%C3%B2nia_G%C3%BCell_(Santa_Coloma_de_Cervell%C3%B3)_-_40.jpg
Gaudí as young man: “Antoni Gaudi 1878” by Pau Audouard – Immediate image source:  at the Gaudi and Barcelona Club.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Antoni_Gaudi_1878.jpg#/media/File:Antoni_Gaudi_1878.jpg
Gaudí with Cardinal Ragonesi: “Gaudí-Ragonesi (1915)” by Unknown – Ana Mª Férrin, Gaudí, de piedra y fuego, Ed. Jaraquemada, Barcelona (2001), ISBN 84-932015-0-2. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gaud%C3%AD-Ragonesi_(1915).jpg#/media/File:Gaud%C3%AD-Ragonesi_(1915).jpg