Thursday, December 2, 2010

(No.125) Antoni Gaudi of Barcelona: the Catalan Elvis Presley?

One cannot visit Memphis Tennessee without being submerged in references to Elvis Presley. On a different cultural plane the same can be said of Barcelona Spain and the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi. [The Spanish translation from the Catalan language of his name is Antonio, a rendering one also sees in English.]

Antoni Gaudi i Cornet was born in 1832 in a rural part of Catalonia, a region of Spain then as now a home for the very nationalistic Catalan people -- and Gaudi was a nationalist. Today Catalonia is one of Spain's 17 autonomous regions.

A lifelong bachelor Gaudi grew increasingly eccentric as his religious piety intensified. He was knocked down by a tram in 1926 after leaving his work at the site of the Segrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona (where by then he had taken up residence in the crypt). He died several days later in a pauper's hospital from which, because of his political convictions, he refused to be transferred. He is buried in the crypt of the cathedral.

While Gaudi is not as widely known outside Spain as he deserves to be, in his hometown he is omnipresent as both a Catalan hero and cultural icon as well as the creator of what have become major tourist attractions in Barcelona. He was the key figure in the design and construction of the cathedral Sagrada Familia begun in the 1880s. Today it is still not completed although it was consecrated on Nov.7, 2010 by Pope Benedict. By coincidence Pat and I were in Barcelona that day.

In the older part of Barcelona one can travel up the marvelous avenue Passeig de Gracia and view a five story house, Casa Batllo, the renovation and decoration of which Gaudi designed (it was completed during the 1906-08 period) for the industrialist Joseph Batllo. It forms part of the island of buildings known as the "manzana de las discordia" (block of dissension) because its buildings belong to so many different architectural styles.

Gaudi's work on Casa Batllo included enlarging the building's patio, changing the ground and main floor facade, crowning the roof and redistributing the building's interior spaces. The interior patio was enlarged and covered with ceramic pieces designed by Gaudi. They are dark blue at the top and their hues get progressively lighter toward the ground floor, eventually reaching white.

It is difficult to convey how striking the combination of room design and colour is in Casa Batllo (see the pictures on the websites listed at the end of this column). Gaudi's approach to the design of the interior space makes it remarkably striking. So representative of the architect's style is the space that even in the second floor lounge one can gaze out of the Gaudi-styled bay windows while sitting on a reproduction of one of the chairs he designed.

On the sidewalk fronting the building on de Gracia people often crowd around taking pictures of the exterior of Casa Batllo. The interior is open to the public and attracts visitors in droves. It is in the heart of the old city on a highly fashionable avenue and is considered to be a fine example of the modernista building, a style also referred to as Catalan Art Nouveau.

When it comes to unusual creations in which Gaudi had a major role I would award the leading position to the Sagrada Familia (about which I will write more in another column) but Casa Batllo is unique -- in the proper sense of that word.

Across de Gracia and up a few blocks is Casa Mila, a large Gaudi-designed apartment building. It was the last great civil (i.e., non-religious) work with which Gaudi was involved as an architect before dedicating all his time to the construction of the Sagrada Familia. The owner, Pere Mila Camps, had liked Gaudi's transformation of the Batllo house and asked Gaudi to construct a large building of apartments on land he owned at the corner of de Gracia and Provenca street. Gaudi designed a structure based on wrought metallic girders and Catalan-style vaults and it was built between 1906 and 1910.

Owned since 1986 by a Spanish bank (Caixa Catalunya), the building is popularly referred to as La Pedrera which means the 'quarry". It is another of Gaudi's impressive creations which survive in Barcelona today.

La Pedrera occupies an entire block and has a huge interior space, from bottom to top of the building, for air and light and around which the apartments are situated. The building's rippling facade of roughly finished stone is moulded and rounded to resemble cave dwellings, a supposed reference to caves although I don't see as all that apt. The building's rock-like exterior appearance accounts for its nickname. Its strangely shaped wrought-iron balconies do enhance its exterior appearance.

The building was restored in 1996 and since 1999 the public has had limited access to La Pedrera, limited because most of the floors are still occupied (as they have been since 1911) by private apartments. The roof has strangely shaped chimneys and ventilators with undulating walkways and magnificent views of old Barcelona. On the top floor are located a Gaudi museum and a furnished apartment recreating a bourgeois family's home in Barcelona as it would have been in the first quarter of the 20th century.

Casa Batllo and La Pedrera are both so unusual and impressive that any visit to Barcelona could be considered incomplete if they were not seen. There are other places around the city with which Gaudi and his highly distinctive designs (including furniture and gardens) are also associated but Casa Batllo, La Pedrera and Segrada Familia should provide any visitor to the city more than enough to be getting on with -- unless that visitor is a devotee of both architecture and Antoni Gaudi and wishes to dedicate a Barcelona visit entirely to Antoni Gaudi.

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Information about these three Gaudi-related locations can be obtained at the following websites, all of which are excellent and each of which provide impressive pictures of the structure's interior and exterior:

1. www.casabatllo.cat

2. www.lapedreraeducatio.org/

3. www.sagradafamilia.cat/sf-eng/

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Alastair Rickard

RickardsRead.com

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca