Barcelona’s architectural heritage may span 2000 years, but in recent decades this most visited of Spanish cities has become all but synonymous with Gaudi, the undisputed master of Catalan Modernism. His indelible influence helped shape the design of the city during its industrial renaissance heydays.
Who was Gaudi?
Born Antoni Plàcid Guillem Gaudi I Cornet in 1852 in Reus, some 100 kilometers (65 miles) south of Barcelona, in 1852, he studied architecture in the Catalan capital. Here, he quickly embraced the Art Nouveau style and its predominance of curves, dynamic shapes and elaborate decorations that favored the use of organic motives. His work was controversial and not widely appreciated during his lifetime. It was not until well after his death in 1926 that he became recognized as the most influential leader of the Catalan Modernist movement.
Now admired worldwide, his buildings figure among the top tourist attractions in Barcelona. Seven of them have been designated as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO since 1984, for their “exceptional creative contribution to the development of architecture and building technology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”
Which Gaudi sites to visit? Unless you are an architecture student or an inveterate Gaudi fanatic with several days on your hands, a couple should suffice to get an understanding of the master’s achievements. In addition to which you are sure to catch a walk-by look at a few others, just by wandering around the central Eixample district.
A Gaudi Crash Course – Casa Batlló
This is the first of Gaudi’s works I ever came across, and it remains my favorite. On my first visit to Barcelona some 20 years ago, I had the good fortune to attend a reception here. Our host had privatized the property for the evening, offering guests a unique opportunity to experience at leisure one of the most emblematic works of this brilliant architect.
The house was originally constructed in 1877, and by all accounts was an architecturally unremarkable classic building, albeit located at a desirable spot of the Passeig de Gràcia, in the fashionable new Eixample district. It was purchased in 1903 by Joseph Batlló y Casanovas, a prominent textile industrialist who granted Gaudi full creative freedom to design his residence here. Although the commission initially entailed demolishing the original structure, Gaudi ruled it out. He proposed instead an extensive remodeling effort that redesigned the façade, redistributed the interior spaces and radically expanded the central skylight. Thus transforming the building into a functional, modern home and a striking Art Nouveau showcase.
Covered with a mosaic of glass shards in a palette of blues and greens, the undulating façade, under the effects of the changing light and sunshine, gives an illusion of water in motion. The dramatic arch of the roof, tiled in electric blue Majorca ceramic, tops the building with a giant wave. Many also see in it an interpretation of the legend of Saint George (the patron saint of Catalonia) slaying the dragon. Then, the roof become the scaly back of the dragon, with the cross-topped tower representing the knight’s lance entering his victim. Either way, the house exudes a surreal fairytale look.
Behind this Modernist façade, visitors enter a symbolic Jules Verne underwater world, where the grand staircase undulates like the spine of a giant marine beast, up to the 700 square meter (7500 square foot) “noble floor,” which the Batlló family occupied until the mid-1950’s, Here, Gaudi transformed the original layout, opening partition walls with large stained glass-paned double doors to create a vast gallery of multi-purpose areas. Today, Casa Batlló is broadly viewed as the ultimate expression of Catalan Modernism.
Park Güell and the Gaudi House Museum
If Casa Batlló is Gaudi’s fantasy house, Park Güell is his quintessential dream park. Built between 1900 and 1914 as a collaborative venture between entrepreneur Eusebi Güell (hence its name) and Gaudi, the park was originally conceived as a luxury gated community for the Barcelona elite. However, due to its remote Carmel Hill location on the northwestern side of the city, there was little interest in the planned 60 construction plots. Only two houses were built, neither designed by Gaudi. Ironically, he purchased one of them in 1906 and resided there for the remainder of his life. He did, however, design the park, an 18-hectare (45-acre) wonderland with some 3 kilometers (2 miles) of walks and steps, fascinating stone structures, wooded areas laced with pathways and two Hansel and Gretel-style gatehouses.
The steps at the entrance are guarded by one of the most famous lizards ever: the colorful mosaic dragon fountain whose likeness can be found by the shelf-full in gift shops throughout the city. At the top of the hill, a large square surrounded by a sinuous tiled bench offers a spectacular view of the park and the entire city. Gaudi’s home is now a museum housing a comprehensive collection of furniture and decorative elements of his own design.
Iconic Casa Milà
Casa Milà is considered Gaudi’s most iconic residential design, due to its structural and functional innovations as well as its striking ornamental solutions. Formally named after the businessman who commissioned it, it is better known by the moniker originally given to the structure for its pale, irregular stone façade appearance: La Pedrera (the Quarry).
The curved façade is a unique example of organic architecture, looking like a massive rock softened by its wavy lines and undulating wrought iron balconies. The house actually consists of two separate buildings that share only their façade and roof. Both have their individual entrance and atrium. The interior is equally groundbreaking, including an elaborate ventilation system that eliminates the need for air-conditioning. But it is the roof that is the most startling part of La Pedrera.
Aside from its remarkable views of the city, the roof terrace is a unique maze of unbridled creativity. Here, convoluted flights of stairs and walkways lead to and around clusters of giant helmet-clad stone warriors and Darth Vader look-alikes that conceal chimneystacks and ventilation towers. Beneath it, the soaring attic space supported by 270 parabolic brick vaults houses a modest museum with a display of architectural models of Gaudi’s buildings and some of his furniture creations. It is the last residential building designed by Gaudi before he devoted himself entirely to the construction of La Sagrada Familia.
An Overwhelming Architectural Hallucination
A work in progress for the past 136 years at the time of this writing, La Sagrada Familia (the Holy Family) is one of the most overwhelming catholic sanctuaries ever devised and Gaudi’s most famous work. Financed from the start solely with private donations, and more recently with the steep “donations” levied from tourists, its construction was interrupted in the mid-20th century by the Spanish Revolution. It began to gather momentum again after the Second World War, and the process accelerated exponentially over the past four decades with the introduction of computers into the design and construction process. The project was declared to have passed mid-point in 2010, and to be 70 percent complete in 2016. However some of the greatest challenges remain, including the construction of six additional giant steeples.
Of the three great façades, the Nativity to the East, the Passion to the West and the Glory on the South side, only the Nativity was completed in Gaudi’s life time. It is easily recognizable for its molten wax look and its scenes reminiscent of the birth and early life of Jesus. The construction of the Passion façade, built from 1954 to 1976, is especially striking for its stark, gaunt characters, including an emaciated figure of Christ being scourged, and the crucifiction. The Glory, started in 2002 and still unfinished, will the largest of the three. In addition to the Ascension of Christ to heaven, it is expected to represent various scenes of Hell and Purgatory as well as the seven deadly sins.
If time allows, and you have anticipated by purchasing your entrance tickets well ahead (it is the most visited tourist attraction in the Spain), do step in and gawk at the soaring flower vaults and rainbow-colored stain glass, and experience this grandest of architectural hallucination ever.
Good to Know
- Visiting – Casa Batllò, Passeig de Gràcia 43. Metro: Passeig de Gràcia.Open daily from 9:00 am-9:00 pm. Contact: tel. +34 932 160 306. Park Guell, Carrer de Larrard (main entrance). Opendaily from 8:00 am-9:30 pm. Contact +34 934 091 831. La Pedrera, Passeig de Gràcia, 92. Metro: Passeig de Gràcia. Open daily: November through February 9:00 am-6:30 pm and March through November 9:00 am-8:00 pm. Contact: Tel. +34 934 845 900. La Sagrada Familia. Metro Sagrada Familia. Open daily: October through March 9:00 am-7:00 pm, April through September 9:00 am-8:00 pm and November through February: 9:00 am-6:00 pm. Contact: tel. +34 932 073 031;
- Budget considerations – Entrance fees to the Gaudi landmarks can get expensive. While I am not usually a fan if city passes, in this case, it could pay to research ahead the various tourist passes for Barcelona, most notably the Barcelona Pass and Barcelona Card. But do check their offerings carefully to make sure they correspond to your plans for visiting the city. You can also save money and time by booking your tickets directly from the various sites. And of course you can always walk by and enjoy the exterior of Gaudi’s buildings for free.