Antoni Gaudi Museum
If we were in Barcelona, we had to explore the works of Antoni Gaudi. The city of Barcelona is, in some ways, a living museum to an architect who died unknown—mistaken as a homeless beggar—in 1926.
The city, and every tourist to it, seems to have a severe, chronically fun case of Gaudi fever. His still unfinished church, the Sagrada Familia is the city’s most prominent icon; people stand, admiringly (or in open-mouthed awe) in front of his quirky, chaotic, discordant buildings. In fact, the street on which a number of them are located has been nicknamed Ille de la Discordia for the structures’ striking facades and rooflines. All the buildings that are open to the public require waits in line and the most popular require that you buy a timed-entry ticket hours in advance—otherwise you will be disappointed to be turned away until the next day as tickets are sold out very early (hint: go online to buy tickets). Every store and souvenir stand meanwhile, is crammed with Gaudi tee-shirts and memorabilia.
But just who is Antoni Gaudi and why he is important—and so amazingly popular?
Gaudi Walking Tour
Although we took a Gaudi walking tour and visited his signature Sagrada Familia church the first and last time we visited Barcelona (about 35 years ago), we were more than ready for another dose. So, before we even arrived in the city, we signed up for one of the many guided walking tours.
Get Your Guide Gaudi Walking Tour, as led by the incredibly enthusiastic, knowledgeable Tatiana (or Tati, as she prefers) was a great start. The tour began in Plaça Reial where we learned of the future architect’s history of growing up on a farm and graduating as an indifferent student where a professor concluded that he would end up either or a genius or a madman. In the square, we saw his first and only public commission—design of the square’s lampposts for an agreed upon fee of 5E, which was eventually negotiated up to 12E.
We then walked a few blocks to his first large private commission from industrialist Eusebi Guell who would not only become Gaudi’s best friend and lifelong patron, but also introduce him to society and the other people who would commission him for their own residences: Commissions that would total 230, but result in only 23 buildings–13 of which are in Barcelona. (The remaining buildings would either never be started or finished.) As discussed below, this first building, Palau Guell, on which Gaudi was granted total artistic and financial freedom, provides evidence of a number of innovations and themes that would carry thought to his later work.
We then boarded the metro to the few blocks of Passeig Garcia that would be named “Ille de la Discordia” for the effect that two Gaudi buildings, plus one by one of his professors and another by a fellow student would have on the neighborhood’s previously staid architecture. The blocks, beginning with Josep Puig i Cadafalch’s Casa Amatller, Domenech Montaner’s Casa Lleo and culminating in Gaudi’s Casa Batllo and La Pedrera helped mark the beginning of Art Noveau architecture, or, as it is known in Barcelona, Catalan Modernism.
The Gaudi buildings in particular, demonstrate the ornate, abstract balconies, the fanciful chimneys, and the use of organically-shaped wavy lines as an alternative to traditional right angles, the irregular rooflines, the use of recycled materials and broken tiles and glass and the incredibly imaginative and artistic balconies and chimneys that are characteristic of most Gaudi buildings. So imaginative that La Pedrera’s chimneys are said to have served as George Lucas’ inspiration for the design of Star Wars’ storm trooper uniforms.
We learned of some of Gaudi’s architectural and aesthetic innovations used in these building. These include his pioneering use of parabolic and later Catalan arches to open up interiors, the use of natural ventilation and lighting and rainwater capture. Then there is the softening of shapes attributable to his use of natural waves and curves as alternatives to sharp angles and the shear whimsy attributable to his merging of art and architecture. Indeed, how he created abstract art before abstract art had even been defined or practiced.
We then learned how the experiences of working with the city and the wife of La Pedrera’s owner, and the initial public rejection to his work, caused him to reject work on future private commissions to devote the rest of his life to his real passion—designing and managing construction of Sagrada Familia. So, we hopped back onto the metro for a quick ride to Gaudi’s yet to-be-finished masterpiece.
Tati gave us a great explanation of the building, Gaudi’s intentions and its future. We learned of his creation of the overarching design, the plaster models and drawings that outlined his vision for the massive church and the detailed instructions as to the artistic designs he was looking for and how each one must be hand carved. We learned how the art on one façade tells the detailed story of the birth of Christ and on the other side, his crucification (with the gaunt angular figure on the cross, and above that, the dazzling bronze figure’s ascension to heaven). We learned how each of the 110 meter spires is dedicated (via art) to a specific disciple, how another is being built for Mary and how the final, main spire will tower above all of these at 170 meters. We learned of the plans for the one side that, as of now, remains a blank concrete wall and the intent to create an underground parking garage that is to represent hell.
Tati then explained the financial problems and engineering challenge that created delay after delay and how Gaudi resorted to going house to house to beg for money to keep the project going: until, that is, he as killed by a streetcar and was mistaken for a homeless person and left on the side of the track until someone finally recognized him and rushed him to the hospital, where he died three days later. And, while the work has been proceeding for the last century, it still remains to be completed. The good news is that the admission fees and continuing flow of donations has been more than adequate to allow work to continue. Some, in fact, even expect the work to be completed by 2026. Few, however, are willing to take bets on the actual completion date.
Outside of this tour, we did have tickets to go inside. How the inside has changed since we were last there about 35 years ago It is dominated by the cavernous chapel that is supported by such an ingenious system of tree-like columns and parabolic arches that its exterior walls are almost totally available for stained-glass windows that bath the entire interior in colored light. An exhibit discusses how Gaudi’s childhood led him to look to nature to solve difficult architectural challenges in innovative, organic ways. A structure that even now, in its semi-finished form, is as ingenious as it is beautiful and awe-inspiring.
What was less than inspiring was the audio guide that we paid for. We had to wait 20 minutes in a separate line to get it. And once we had it, it contained so little information that it wasn’t worth the wait or the money. You have no need to get this unless they put some meat into it.
We then went inside other Gaudi icons on our own
- Palau Guell. The interior poses elegant solutions to problems including creating an entry way that could be used to guide horses to their elegant basement stables while also accommodating guests for elegant parties, accommodating and hiding a chapel inside a ballroom, accommodating an organ with 20 meter pipes and creating a balcony for an orchestra without impinging on precious family space. Gaudi addressed all of these challenges with innovations including parabolic arches, natural lighting solutions and a semi-self-supporting spiral staircase, all while creating an incredible concert chamber and family space deemed the Hall of Intimates. And don’t forget the wonderful, fanciful roof space with its broken recycled tile (that had to be broken to accommodate Gaudi’s curved and irregular surfaces) and its playful chimneys.
- Casa Batllo, reflects a maturation of Gaudi’s architecture and his art with his fanciful Carnival mask-like balconies, his approach to using strong catenary arches to open up space, providing even light to all levels of the courtyard, ventilating the attic with louvered walls, and bathing inner rooms with light with courtyards and skylights. Then there is the huge broken tile and glass-adorned back patio and of course, the rooftop deck with its wild, mosaic chimneys.
- Park Guell, which Gaudi worked on from 1910 to 1914, was intended as a commercial real estate development. It became a home for Guell and Gaudi, but little else—at least until it was donated to the city for use as a park. As with other popular Gaudi places, get a ticket in advance online as admissions are timed and limited. The park includes homes, covered walking paths, a large elevated patio, a chapel, a hidden water collection system and a school (which is used as such today). The Porter’s Lodge, at the complex’s entrance, provided a fanciful, yet practical solution to the need to house staff and receive visitors within a showcase building that currently houses displays on Gaudi and the development. The dramatic steps up to the next level of the park is framed with convex walls and gargoyles and leads to an outdoor “hyperstyle room” whose roof, which is supported by 86 columns, becomes a large patio and leads out to an elegant garden. A covered walkway is hewn into natural rock and supported by a series of roughly carved buttresses that look almost natural. Much of the complex, meanwhile, consists of Gaudi’s trademark freeform curves and arches and is covered with artistic, broken tile designs.