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Gaudi's Barcelona

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Chimneys designed by Gaudi on the roof of Casa Batllo in Barcelona, Spain Antoni Gaudí was Cataluña's1 most famous architect and produced most of his work in the decades either side of the turn of the 20th Century. Drawing on natural structures and designed with whimsy and imagination, his creations are some of the world's most distinctive and are unlike those of any other architect. Although he designed buildings in many Spanish towns, most notably in Astorga, Léon and Comillas, his name is most closely associated with Barcelona and the city contains his most famous works. Seven of his creations in Barcelona are listed collectively on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

It is almost unthinkable that anyone could visit Barcelona without seeing at least one of Gaudí's buildings. While there are many reasons to visit, his creations are among the most unique and easily-identifiable attractions in the city. Some make the city worth a visit on their own. Gaudí is inextricably linked with the city of Barcelona: one would certainly not be so great without the other.

The buildings are described in this Entry in chronological order, with the exception of Sagrada Familia, which Gaudí worked on for almost all of his professional life.

Early Years

Antoni Plácid Guillem Gaudí i Cornet, often Anglicised to 'Antonio Gaudi', was born in (or near to) the city of Reus on 25 June, 1852. The son of coppersmiths, he suffered from rheumatic fever for most of his life, and much of his childhood was spent alone outdoors. It is often speculated that this rural isolation in his early life heavily influenced his later work.

Gaudí trained at the ETS architectural school in Barcelona between 1873, and 1877 and was considered a fairly average student. He finally graduated in 1878 and was granted the title of architect. The head of the school, Elies Rogent, is quoted as saying 'Who knows if we have given this diploma to a nut or to a genius? Time will tell' as he signed Gaudí's diploma. Later that year he received his first commission, and designed the lanterns at the new square Plaça Reiel. They still adorn the square - his first public work, and unmistakably Gaudí. 1878 was an auspicious year, for it was also the year that Gaudí met the industrialist Eusebi Güell, who would become his patron. Many of Gaudí's creations were commissioned by Güell, and some carry his name.

Casa Vicens (1883-1889)

The timing of Gaudí's graduation was fortunate. The old city of Barcelona was undergoing rapid expansion, with a new district being built to connect the Cuitat Vella (Old City) with surrounding towns and villages that would ultimately become suburbs. Architects were set to work by wealthy businessmen all over the new district of L'Eixample, and in 1885 the first Modernist building was completed by Lluis Domenech i Montaner on Carrer d'Aragó2. Gaudí was commissioned by the industrialist Manuel Vicens to build a family house in Grácia, just north of the new district.

The building is a mixture of numerous architectural styles and is clearly of the Modernist era. Even at this early stage, though, it's clearly a Gaudí, and the top half is very Moorish in style, incorporating large tiled mosaics.

Casa Vicens is located halfway between Lesseps and Fontana metro stations - if you're visiting Parc Güell at the same time, Lesseps is perfect for both. The house itself is not open to the public.

Palau Güell (1885-1889)

Eusebi Güell commissioned Gaudí to design this building in 1880, but work did not begin in earnest until 1886. The building, close to La Rambla, was Güell's family residence. The building is quite sombre from the outside, but inside it is remarkable. Gaudí designed everything from the windows to the bathroom taps, and his use of light and natural forms are by this stage beginning to flourish. On the roof, chimneys and vents are decorated with his signature mosaics, a style that he would take to a perfect form on rooftops elsewhere in the city.

Palau Güell is just off La Rambla in the El Raval district, close to the Liceu metro station. It is going through its final phase of restoration and should fully re-open in the summer of 2011.

Casa Calvet (1888-1900)

This is the one Gaudí building in the world that you could walk past a dozen times and not realise it was one of his creations. Casa Calvet is symmetrical, orderly and, well, conventional. It is, by any definition, a beautiful building and blends in well with its elegant surroundings, but limited space didn't allow Gaudí to express himself fully.

Casa Calvet is just off Passeig de Grácia, close to other, more notable casas. Use either Grácia or Catalunya metro stations.

Bellesguard's Tower or Casa Figueras (1900-1909)

Located right on the outskirts of the city on one of the hills that surround it, Bellesguard is an attractive neo-gothic building begun when Gaudí was trying to find his unique voice. It's a long trip from the centre and, unless you're a really hardcore Gaudí fan, it probably isn't worth the journey - especially as you can only peer at it from outside the compound. Gaudí himself apparently wasn't overly enamoured with it himself, as after nine years of work he gave up and let another architect take over its completion.

By public transport, Bellesguard is a really long way from anywhere. The metro station at El Putxet is about 1km away.

Parc Güell (1900-1914)

The creation continues incessantly through the media of man. But man does not create... he discovers. Those who look for the laws of Nature as a support for their new works collaborate with the creator. Copiers do not collaborate. Because of this, originality consists of returning to the origin.

Parc Güell was originally planned as a housing development for the wealthier citizens of Barcelona. Güell planned to sell plots of land on Muntaña Pelada (Bare Mountain) in Grácia, where industrialists could set up home high above the smog-ridden factories they had built. With English-style garden cities such as Bourneville in mind3, Gaudí was recruited to lay out the design of the park while Güell attempted to sell plots of land inside it.

Commercially, it was a failure and was given over to the public of Barcelona in 1923. Artistically, however, it was an unqualified success. Gaudí merged nature and design in a unique and astonishing way. The entrance is guarded by two pavilions that are typically Gaudí; almost like buildings straight out of a fairytale. One is topped by the type of cross that would become his trademark. From the entrance, a sweeping staircase flows upwards either side of a water cascade defended by a mosaic-covered dragon. The stairs lead up to a 'hall of columns' which has wonderful acoustics and features more fabulous mosaics on the ceiling. The columns support the main terrace, an open balcony surrounded by one long bench in the shape of a sea serpent, again intricately decorated with colourful mosaic pieces. Elsewhere, terraced walls and viaducts are held in place with sculpted palm and pine trees which reflect the flora inside the park, even to the detail of a bird's nest in each.

It is an unmissable place, and one in which you can easily get a sense for Gaudí's complete immersion in his art. Shunned by Gaudí's contemporaries, it is now considered one of the world's great urban open spaces.

Inside the park, you can visit the house which Gaudí lived in between 1906 and 1926, which is now a museum. It was built by one of his collaborators, Francesc Berenguer, and contains furniture and artwork by Gaudí and some of the people who worked with him.

To get to Parc Güell, take the metro to Lesseps station. The park is well signposted and about 1km or so uphill from the station.

Casa Batlló (1904-1906)

The first of two Gaudí buildings that almost face another on Passeig de Grácia, this house was built in 1877 and redesigned by Gaudí and Josep Maria Jujol in the early 20th Century. Even if you've seen photos of it from every angle, you'll stop to collect your jaw when you see it for the first time. It's a truly fantastical building that eschews straight lines almost entirely, and is known locally as the casa del ossos (House of Bones) because of its rather macabre appearance. The mosaic-tiled front is spectacular enough, but the building is rightly famous for its roof, which shimmers in the sun like a dragon's scales. In fact, it is popularly supposed that the cross on the roof resembles the sword of St Jordi (St George) plunged triumphantly into the dragon's back4.

Casa Batlló is on the Illa de la Discórdia (Block of Discord), where two other buildings of the same era but in very different styles compete for attention. The other two are Casa Lleó Morera, by Lluís Domènech i Montaner, at the end of the block, and Casa Amatller by Josep Puig i Cadafalch next door. Fans of wordplay will be pleased to note that the 'Block of Discord' is translated into Spanish as Manzana de la Discordia, which also refers to the 'Apple of Discord' of Greek myth.

You can go inside Casa Batlló for a (fairly sizable) entrance fee. The ground floors of the other two buildings in the Block of Discord are open to the public, free of charge. The metro stations at Passeig de Grácia and Catalunya are equidistant from the casa.

Casa Milà (1905-1910)

Also known as La Pedrera, the Quarry, Casa Milà is almost opposite Casa Batlló on Passeig de Grácia. It was built as an apartment block for Pere Milà, a local developer who was fortunate enough to marry a millionaire widow. Casa Milà is a very different building to its colourful neighbour and looks very much as if it has been carefully carved out of one big lump of rock. Where Batlló has few straight lines, Milà has none, and the structure is supported entirely by pillars rather than walls. This quirk of design enabled Gaudí to vary the height of each floor and ceiling and give each apartment a unique layout. Walls could be taken out and added according to the needs of the residents, an asset that proved very useful when most of the first floor was converted into exhibition space without affecting the structure at all. The block also featured two atria, which ensured all the apartments recieved natural light, and lifts which only stopped on every other floor to encourage the occupants to encounter one another and socialise more often. The roof is extraordinary, and it is worth visiting just to go up and take a look at the surrealist chimneys close-up. If you don't have time, just take a look at a postcard stand - the strange warrior characters and swirling figures have become emblems of the city.

Shortly after the building was officially opened in 1912, Gaudí's life suffered a series of upheavals. His favourite niece died that same year, followed two years later by his close friend and collaborator Berenguer. Commissions dried up as Spain moved into a recession, and this was the last project Gaudí would ever complete.

Colónia Güell (1908-1914)

In 1890 Eusebi Güell decided to build a new suburb in the town of Santa Coloma de Cervelló, just outside Barcelona, to provide homes for the local factory workers. By 1898 the project was advanced enough to require a place of worship, and Gaudí was asked to design it. It took ten years before work began on the crypt, and in the end only one of two planned naves was completed. By 1914 the Güell family were starting to run short of money and Gaudí stopped work on the project.

This was, however, an important phase in Gaudí's creative life. He experimented with and refined many of his techniques, particularly his use of stained glass and natural supporting structures. Perhaps the most innovative of his ideas, in a purely technical sense, was his creation of the 'polyfunicular model'. Gaudi would create a model of his proposed structure, placing hanging lengths of rope from a plank on which a plan of the church had been drawn. The ropes connected points where columns would rise or walls would meet. He would then hang bags of lead shot, each proportional to the weight of the building materials they would support, from each rope, and these would pull the ropes into the ideal shape for the beams to support the structure. Gaudí would take photographs of the models and then turn them upside down to show the ideal natural supporting structure. This complex method allowed him to design buildings years ahead of his time.

Colónia Güell is quite easy to get to by bus from Plaça Espanya in the centre of Barcelona, and there is an excellent virtual tour of the church.

Sagrada Familia (1883-present)

My client is in no hurry.

The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família has been under construction for well over 100 years, and has been described as the world's most visited building site. Gaudí took over the construction of the building in 1883, at which stage not even the crypt had been completed. He radically revised the plans and, over the next 44 years, began to build one of the most astonishing buildings the world has yet seen. From 1914 onwards, Gaudí dedicated his life to the project, sleeping in his workshop and becoming more unkempt and ragged as the years went by. When he was hit by a tram in 1926, he was taken to a pauper's hospital and was found after a frantic search a few days later by his friends. He died on June 10.

Work continued, however, and the church was pieced together by a number of architects following Gaudí's plan. The church survived an attempt to raze it during the Spanish Civil War, and although work often stopped and started a real effort was made in the latter years of the 20th Century to bring the project to completion. Before the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the site was opened to visitors, who funded an acceleration in the building effort, and money has been pouring in ever since. After the nave was covered, the Pope consecrated the building in November 2010, and the architects are confident enough to have declared that it will be finished in 2026, 100 years after its designer's death.

Sagrada Familia is an astonishing building, even in its incomplete state. The existing spires soar above the surrounding cityscape, but it is worth reflect on the fact that the final spire (representing Jesus) will be 170 metres tall - and if it's hard to get an idea of how tall that is, Montjuic5 is only one metre taller6. Inside, the pillars are designed as tree-like structures holding the soaring roof, opening masses of space for light to flood in through the delicate stained-glass windows. It is truly an iconic place, and however long you're in Barcelona for, it's unmissable.

Sagrada Familia has its own metro stop, and is very easy to get to from central Barcelona.

1The Spanish name for Catalonia.2It now houses the Fundació Antoni Tàpies.3Originally, Güell even named the site with the English spelling 'Park'.4St George is the patron saint of many countries, including Cataluña, and also of cities as far apart and diverse as Genoa, Rio de Janeiro, Ljubljana and, apparently, Tamworth in Staffordshire.5The hill that overlooks and dominates the city.6This is symbolic: man can never be higher than nature.

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