Progression of Art
The Casa Vicens, opened to the public for the first time in 2017, is often considered Gaudí's first significant work. Conveniently for Gaudí, the project was a residence for the tile and brick manufacturer Manuel Vicens i Montaner, who had just inherited the land from his mother-in-law when he hired Gaudí in 1877, though construction would not start until 1882. As a result, Gaudí had a ready supply for much of the building materials, and the structure itself shows off the capabilities of Vicens' factories, functioning as an advertisement for its owner's business ventures, the Barcelona construction industry, and the skill of the region's prodigious craftsmen.
Gaudí's design, in the neo-Mudejar (neo-Moorish) style that references the Islamic architecture of medieval Spain, is poised specifically to take advantage of these readily-available construction materials. The red brick structure, with stone infill, uses sawtooth patterning, stepped arches, elaborate bracketing under protruding balconies, pointed arches, and rooftop turrets to demonstrate the various constructive properties of the material. Similar strategies are used with the skin of green-and-white checkerboard-patterned and floral ceramic tile that create a kaleidoscope of color - features common to Muslim architecture.
The connection with nature, characteristic of Art Nouveau, which this building helped develop in Barcelona, can be seen both inside and out. Not only is it featured in the tile, but the ironwork of the fence (which used to encircle a more extensive set of gardens than that which exists today) features a prominent motif of the Margallo palm, a plant native to Catalonia, and the iron grilles over the windows bear a striking resemblance to twisted vines. These natural motifs extend to the interior, where the dining room's domed ceiling has been painted to resemble looking upwards to the sky, embellished with plants and floral imagery.
Brick, stone, iron, ceramic tile - Barcelona
The textile magnate Eusebi Güell's relationship with Gaudí began some eight years before he commissioned the architect to design his principal residence in the El Raval neighborhood in central Barcelona. Gaudí did not disappoint his patron. The house is approached by a double arched entryway covered with dramatic looped vine-like ironwork which allows for the entrance of horse-drawn carriages through one archway and their exit through the other. Between the twin arches sits a massive piece of wrought iron resembling tangled seaweed or a horsewhip; at the center is a banner with the characteristic stripes of the Catalan flag, disclosing Gaudí and Güell's staunch regionalism.
The interior design is focused on an ingenious square-plan central space that extends upwards four stories through the heart of the edifice and functions as a large reception hall for guests, who meet with somewhat of a surprise as they must turn around to enter from the top of the stairs leading up from the garage below. The more private spaces, as is traditional in an urban European palazzo, are located on the upper floors, with hidden windows overlooking the reception space that give the residents the chance to glimpse their guests in advance of meeting them below. Also ingeniously, the reception hall is covered with a high paraboloid domed ceiling painted dark blue to resemble the night sky; Gaudí perforated it with small holes so that lanterns could be hung above (inside a tall spire that caps the ceiling) so that the glow filtered into the space below resembled twinkling stars. The overall effect seemingly transformed the interior reception hall into an exterior courtyard illuminated by starlight.
Stone - Barcelona
Gaudí's second large project for Eusebi Güell, the Colònia Güell at Santa Coloma de Cervelló, just west of the city of Barcelona, is noteworthy for two reasons. In the first place, it demonstrates the way Gaudí and his patron understood the potential of modern architecture to shape and transform the lives of people from all different classes in both material and spiritual ways; and second, it was a means by which Gaudí continued to refine the parabolic system of structure that became virtually a hallmark of his later work.
The Colònia Güell was a means by which Güell sought to quell the tendencies towards anarchism and socialism shown by workers in many large cities, including Barcelona, at the turn of the century. He selected thus a rural location for his factory town, and provided his workers with the facilities needed for their education, health, governance, and spiritual well-being. The latter was intended to be provided by a large stone church with several parabolic spires, ornamented with ceramic tiles and designed by Gaudí in 1898, though the foundations for it were only laid in 1908.
Gaudí's designs for the workers' houses used a humble, neo-Mudejar architectural style reminiscent of his earliest works, and many of the service buildings were constructed by his assistants, such as Francesc Berenguer. Architecturally, the most important part of the complex is the church (whose design is pictured here), conceived by Gaudí using a weighted model of interlaced strings hung upside down from the ceiling in his studio in order to work out the properties of the parabolic structure of the main sanctuary space. This model is on display now in the Sagrada Família Museum in Barcelona, and undoubtedly influenced Gaudí's design for the massive urban church and its eighteen spires. Güell's continued difficulty in funding the massive Colonia project meant that only the church's crypt - supported by inclined, flattened arches and an undulating, vaulted ceiling delineated inside by massive stone ribs - was completed before his sons abandoned the project after his death in 1918.
Santa Coloma de Cervelló Spain
The Casa Batlló is unusual among Gaudí's works in that it comprises a renovation of an existing structure, originally built in 1877. Josep Batlló, the house's owner since 1900, commissioned Gaudí thinking that he would tear the building down and start anew, but Gaudí convinced him to merely renovate it. Located on the Passeig de Gracia, one of the main boulevards in central Barcelona, the house sits adjacent to the Casa Amatller (1882), designed by Josep Puig i Cadafalch, and down the block from the Casa Lleó Morera, designed by Lluis Domenech i Montaner; both of these are grand Modernisme houses and together with the Casa Batlló they form a group colloquially called the "Apple of Discord" due to the way each seems to be jockeying against the other for curb appeal. Gaudí knew he had to create a building whose forms would daringly hold its own against these other examples.
The ultimate (re)design has often been termed the "House of Bones" due to the cage-like framework over the second-floor windows, whose vertical members resemble the shapes of human bones with their slender curves. The comparison is apt, as the house appears to have no straight lines anywhere in its design; the light fixture above the dining room table is set into a blue ceiling whose spiral contours appear like water circling a drain. The facade surface is covered in intricate trencadís tiles mixed with glass, giving it a shimmering effect among the various sculptural balconies, which appear like face masks that could be used by revelers during Mardi Gras. Day and night (when it is lit artificially), the building acts as a magnet of attention like a huge vertical sheet of intricately arranged jewels, thus bringing new energy into an ordinary, unremarkable structure.
Most important, however, is the symbolism at the top of the structure, which includes a tower crowned by a cross, studded with the tiled monograms of Jesus, Mary and Joseph of the Holy Family in the Christian tradition. This turret rises from an undulating roof covered in iridescent tiles. It is said that the form of the turret is supposed to resemble the hilt of the sword of St. George, the patron saint of Catalonia, whose blade is piercing the skin of the dragon that he slays. In this way, the building indicates the deeply personal nature of the design, reflecting both Gaudí's regionalism and his mindfulness of Catholicism.
Stone, tile, iron, glass - Barcelona
Two-person sofa for the Casa Batlló
Gaudí's furniture is sometimes overlooked when considered in the context of his buildings and richness of his entire interior environments. Yet the individual pieces still hold their own under close examination, especially given their unconventional appearance, even in comparison with furniture from other Art Nouveau designers. Many of them have been reproduced in the decades since the architect's death from his original specifications.
This two-person sofa from the Casa Batlló is emblematic of Gaudí's designs, with a rather spindly frame of five legs that reflects an economy of materials. The two seats share an armrest in the center that is no larger than the exterior ones as well as the leg that supports it. Meanwhile, the irregularity of the panels for the back and seat make them appear to have been taken from whatever materials were available. The connection with nature is likewise emphasized by the shapes of these panels, particularly the backs, which appear like apples, as well as the frank exposure of the wood grain. Despite the sofa's strange appearance, Gaudí has been praised in recent years for the ergonomic qualities of his furniture, which is supposedly quite comfortable and intended to accommodate the natural contours of the human frame. It thus speaks to Gaudí's ability to design every aspect of his spaces with care and precision.
Ash - Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Barcelona
The last project Eusebi Güell entrusted to Gaudí was a speculative hillside suburban community located on Carmel Hill, a rugged piece of terrain he had bought east of central Barcelona, to be called the Parc Güell. The impetus for the project was the Garden City Movement in Great Britain that grew out of the ideas of Ebenezer Howard at the turn of the century. The development displays Gaudí's innovative design capabilities over an entire landscape, even though the only homes completed were his own house (intended to be the model residence to show to prospective lot buyers) plus one other residence, and like many other Garden City-inspired endeavors outside Britain, the project is basically a financial failure. The park's design is thoroughly integrated into the terrain, with rough-hewn inclined columns seemingly excavated out of the hillsides and covered by vines. Its irregularities and inclined slopes allowed Gaudí to experiment structurally with various ideas that more conventional sites, like flat city lots, did not accommodate.
The centerpiece of the Parc Güell consists of a columned market space supporting an open plaza bounded by a serpentine bench covered with a conglomerate of discarded ceramic tiles, called trencadís, a hallmark of Catalan craftsmanship. The plaza drains into channels within the columns that collect rainwater and flow it into cisterns for reuse by the Parc's intended residents. The market is connected to the Parc's entrance by a grand staircase with a tiled fountain sporting the face of a dragon and the striped Catalan flag. There, the gatehouse and concierge's residence consist of rocky lodges crowned by irregular, conical spires, appearing to be crafted out of gingerbread. The undulating forms, inspired by inverted catenary arches, and brilliantly-colored tilework point to the collaborative nature of Catalan Art Nouveau, involving teams of craftsmen specializing in different media and the reliance on the honest treatment of ecologically-sensitive materials.
Nicknamed "La Pedrera," which translates to "open quarry," the Casa Milà, also located on the Passeig de Gracia in central Barcelona not far from the famous "Apple of Discord," is one of the relatively few apartment buildings Gaudí designed. Today it houses the Fundació Catalunya-La Pedrera, which manages exhibitions inside the building and provides tours.
The building's moniker "La Pedrera" is apt, since many of its features speak to the relationship to a quarry. For one, it consists of essentially two ovoid structures that encircle a pair of courtyards, much like the rock is excavated and stripped off the sides of a quarry; and the undulating curves of the building resemble the irregular surface bands that are left on the face of quarries after stone is removed. The balconies are fabricated from twisted, irregular scraps of iron designed by Gaudí's collaborator, Josep María Jujol, recalling the abstraction of natural forms, such as leaves and blades of grass as well as the economy of materials. Its roof is punctuated by groups of chimney pots shaped like knight's helmets and spiral turrets crowned by crosses. Originally, Gaudí designed religious statuary to also occupy the roofline, but anticlerical riots in Barcelona in 1909, known as "Bloody Week" prompted his patron, Pere Milà, to forgo this choice. The building's flamboyance, including its often garish interior colors - some walls are actually lime green - reflects the personality of Milà himself, a wealthy developer known for his ostentatious lifestyle. Likewise the sensuous curves of the exterior skin, which makes the building appear to be in constant motion, reflecting the frenzied pace of activity around the busy intersection fronting it - as if to suggest that the speed of modern life seeps into even the most static aspects of human existence.
Stone, tile, wrought iron - Barcelona
Expiatory Church of the Sagrada Família
The Sagrada Família remains Gaudí's most famous - and most controversial - building. When finished, it will be the tallest, if not one of the largest, churches in the world. The project is an immense undertaking, to which Gaudí was appointed in 1883 (officially in 1884), a year after its conception. It occupied him continuously for the rest of his life, and when he died in 1926, the basilica was only about 20 percent complete (despite Gaudí's exclusive focus in the last twelve years of his life). It is representative of the architect's devout Catholic faith, as Gaudí knew that he would not come close to live to see its completion, but this did not deter him. Once, when questioned about its timeline, he supposedly replied, "My client is not in a hurry."
Paul Goldberger has declared Gaudí's church to be "[t]he most extraordinary personal interpretation of Gothic architecture since the Middle Ages," and indeed the building, like many of Gaudí's other works, can be rightly compared to the timeline, craftsmanship, and formal qualities of the great Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages. It may be truly the "last" real Gothic building, as its various facades are covered in didactic sculptural decoration from the life of Christ and it uses a five-aisle Latin cross plan reminiscent of traditional Catholic cathedral architecture. It is not, however, the cathedral church of the Archdiocese of Barcelona.
The Sagrada Família also represents arguably the culmination of Gaudí's parabolic and catenary structural system, evident in numerous other designs, including the unbuilt scheme for the Colònia Güell church outside Barcelona. Not surprisingly, Gaudí's designs only use curved forms - an homage to the conditions of nature, in which, Gaudí declared, "there are no straight lines." Nonetheless, many of Gaudí's ideas for the completion of the church were lost in a fire that destroyed the workshop on the site during the Spanish Civil War in July 1936; subsequently, the project's chief architects have tried to piece together Gaudí's original vision in concert with their own designs for the structure. In some ways this is in keeping with Gaudí's wishes, as most of his works had been collaborative efforts with numerous other craftsmen and designers, and knowing that he would not live to see the church's completion, he envisioned the finished product to be a collaborative inter-generational design.
The church, which has welcomed visitors ever since Gaudí's time, is today about 70% finished, with the last phase of work to be completed consisting of the raising of the six massive central spires, and its structure (minus the exterior decoration and embellishments) is scheduled to take place in 2026. While admired by many, including Louis Sullivan and Walter Gropius, it has had its detractors, including the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner and the writer George Orwell. Others have called for work to be terminated definitively, citing large expenses (the annual budget for construction runs to 25 million euros), though the construction has always been funded by donors or, more recently, by visitors' entry fees, not by government or church sources. Yet it remains a prized landmark (even well before completion) and one of the most recognizable symbols of Catalonia and Barcelona and likely will for decades to come.
Stone, tile, stained glass, iron - Barcelona, Spain