The Surprises of Gaudí

I had seen my fair share of photos of Barcelona before visiting, and almost all show the various outside delights of the fanciful, mosaic-encrusted benches and such, giving me the impression of Gaudí as a fanciful, over-the-top, Disney-like designer of his own colorful and, to my eyes, silly but unmistakable look. I am embarrassed that I knew so little and that I did not understand just how brilliant and humanistic he was.

David insisted on purchasing advance tickets to 5 distinct Gaudí works: Sagrada Familia, Park GuellPalau Güell, La Pedrera, Casa Batlló. I objected. Too much of the same stuff! Four is plenty, or even three! You are crazy! I thought I was on a forced march that would be tiresome and boring. Wrong.

(Follow the links above–we tried to keep our cameras under control–for pictures and information.)

Sagrada Familia. Words are insufficient. While just seeing a soaring cathedral, under construction and due to be completed in 2026, is thrilling, and the exterior detail is full of surprises (for example, all the figures of saints, etc., look like real people because they were based on people of the neighborhood and individuals on the construction crew) the interior is a thrill. Gaudí believed both the design of, and strength of, the natural world was the most effective and apt basis for a monument to God, and so the columns are very plain, unbelievably tall, branching way above as a tree does in a narrow Y-shape. The effect is stunning.

David was smart to get us tickets to the towers on the nativity side. After maybe a 15 minute wait in line we got into the narrow elevator and zoomed to the top. Warning signs are clear–do not go if you have heart trouble, claustrophobia, vertigo, asthma–and one should heed them. Extraordinarily narrow and steep stairs must be navigated, and they seem to wander all over the place, yielding not only panoramic views of the city below but take you very close up the the construction underway. Well worth it if a teeny bit scary.

La Pedrera was probably our favorite of his residential work and to us best displayed his approach to design. Perhaps because he worked in a time of scientific discovery and rapidly modernizing city and political life, his work combined brand new engineering approaches with overtly naturalistic and flowing design. For example, none of the interior spaces depend on load bearing walls…his “superstructure” was put in place first, and the curving walls and abundant windows were possible because he had total freedom to put them wherever he chose. The rooms of the furnished apartment in La Pedrera are human scaled and intimate, nothing grandiose, and windows facing the outside and the interior light well/atrium make each room including servants quarters feel airy and also practical. Here and in his other more grand houses he used textured glass doors and “windows” to bring light in to areas with fewer real windows. He used subtle design cues, such as tiling the servants areas, kitchen, and children’s bedroom, with wooden parquet for the rest of the apartment. The master bedroom is perhaps 1 1/2 times larger than the maid/nursemaid’s.

La Pedrera also has a detailed museum explaining his life and his times. The museum is in the attic which, as in his other houses, was intended for storage and laundry and has a parabolic ceiling design that makes the space feel both larger and more intimate than its actual dimensions suggest.

Audio Tours

Each of his residences is managed by a different organization and so each has a distinct audio tour style and technology. Some, like at Sagrada Familia, are a bit elementary teacher-sounding with periodic questions…”Look up. Can you see the (something or other)? What does it remind you of?…” which got a bit tiresome. But Casa Batlló, which is privately owned and operated, has a virtual reality audio tour on an Android phone.  When you point it at anything in the house the little screen shows that spot furnished as it was originally.  Some were even animated, as a fireplace that has the General shape of a mushroom.  The animation shows the fireplace as a mushroom which then disappears in a cloud of dust to reveal the fireplace as it is today.  Pretty cool. And they don’t give you any hint of how it works, which was entertaining as it dawned on us what it was doing.

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