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Travel: Oh My Gaudi!

Antoni Gaudí, the eccentric, genius architect who defined Modernism is synonymous with Barcelona

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From the moment one steps into Barcelona and takes in the sights and sounds of the city, it’s obvious that there are two things which encapsulate the spirit of the city — FC Barcelona, their football team, and Gaudí that eccentric, genius architect who defined Modernism and gave the city its most iconic buildings.

I am lucky that FC Barcelona is playing a match during my trip and so I make a beeline for Camp Nou, the football stadium along with the already delirious fans. The spirit of the supporters only soars higher every time Barcelona score a goal. The war cry Barça, Barça, Baaarça! drives home the point that for soccer fans, the game is a religion, the stadium their cathedral and the chants, their hymns. The atmosphere is magical enough to keep out the numbing cold and as I wrap my coat around tighter on the way back to the hotel, I decide to take a walking tour of the city to understand that other icon — Gaudí — better.

“You need to open your mind to understand the genius of Gaudí,” says Javi, my friend, philosopher and (tour) guide for the day. “Barcelona-Gaudí, Gaudí-Barcelona, the words are synonymous. He has left his stamp on the city,” he says animatedly, as we walk towards Casa Batlló, one of the seven Unesco World Heritage Sites in Barcelona designed by Gaudí.

At first glance, I can’t help but wonder what Gaudí was smoking when he designed the building. Josep Batlló, an industrialist who had made his riches with the textile trade had desired a house like no other to establish his rank in the city. Audacious and creative is the brief he gave Gaudí and as one’s eyes take in the masterpiece, it’s clear that the architect exceeded his expectations. The outside facade has pillars shaped like bones, balconies that look like hollow eyes, a roof that could be a dragon’s back and Gaudí’s trademark broken china mosaic work that remind one of lilies in a pond. It’s been over a 100 years since it was built and people are still trying to come to terms with it. I wonder aloud how the city reacted to this masterpiece when it was first unveiled. “Batlló loved it and the Barcelona City Council selected the house as a candidate for that year’s best building award,” informs Javi. “However, Gaudí did not win and the award was given to another architect.” Thats easy for an Indian to appreciate. After all, Gandhi, too, never won the Nobel peace prize.

Casa Batlló is Gaudí’s architectural rendition of the tale of St. George and the dragon. The cross-shaped chimney appears to be the sabre which Barcelona’s patron saint plunged into the back of the dragon (the multi-coloured ceramic tiles on the roof represent the dragon’s back) with the columns forming the dragons bones. Morbidity couldn’t get more creative.

The legacy of Gaudí permeates Barcelona. Just a block away from Casa Batlló is Casa Milà that looks like Gaudí used clay and moulded it with his own hands. It is difficult to believe the building is made of brick and mortar. Inspired by the sea, the building which was built in 1906, looks like a wave, with iron balconies designed like sea weed strewn on the beach. A Unesco World Heritage Site, Casa Milà is also known as La Pedrera, or ‘open quarry’ a reference to its rough-hewn appearance.

“For Gaudí it all started with Park Güell,” says Javi as we make our way towards it. Eusebi Güell, a rich Catalonian entrepreneur wanted to develop a residential estate in 1900. “Something like a modern-day gated community. The rich Catalonians were supposed to move here and build their mansions. Gaudí was hired to design the public spaces,” explains Javi. But it was a flop. Over a century ago, it was too far from the city centre (around 7km), not convenient to travel by horse carriage and the Catalonians did not invest in the land. However, Gaudí and Güell had a vision and the estate has a complex network of paths, viaducts and steps to cope with the steep topography. The highlight of the Park is the Nature Square, a kind of public square with a ceramic bench running around it. On a warm sunny afternoon it is the perfect place to enjoy the sun and hear more about Gaudí and Barcelona in general. Javi is from Cuba but has been living in Barcelona for over a decade. He loves the city and it is easy to understand why — great weather, finger-licking food, and a culturally rich and vibrant city.

The smallest houses which Gaudí designed were the couple of porter’s lodges at Park Güell. They are on each side of what was supposed to be the main entrance to the residential complex. These lodges come as close to fairy tale houses as can be. You expect them to be edible as in Hansel and Gretel or may be see Goldilocks walk out anytime. I ask Javi, what he thought Park Güell would have been like if all the 60 plots had been sold and Gaudí designed all the houses. “It would have been a sight to behold like none other,” he says confidently.

“Gaudí was very religious and inspired by nature. Architects across the globe are now using nature-inspired motifs, but Gaudí was ahead of them all,” says Javi as we return to the city centre and take a short metro ride towards La Sagrada Família, Gaudí’s masterpiece that is still under construction.

The enormous Catholic church that has been under construction since 1882 will finally be completed in 2026 — a 100 years after Gaudí’s death. Gaudí did not start building the cathedral but when he took it over as lead architect he had such grand plans for it that it has become reminiscent of cathedrals of the middle ages that took years, sometimes a couple of centuries, to make.

“When someone asked Gaudí, what’s taking so long to build the cathedral, Gaudí replied ‘My client is in no hurry,’ meaning God had all the time in the world,” says Javi as we marvel at Gaudí’s most ambitious work. The Sagrada Família which has been paid for entirely by private donations and sale of tickets to the 2.5 million people who visit it each year, will be the world’s tallest church, when completed — its highest point, towering 560 feet above sea level. In Catalan, only Mt. Montjuic at 600 feet will be higher. “But then that’s God’s creation, and man cannot overtake it, is what Gaudí believed,” says Javi explaining to us how deeply religious Gaudí was.

When completed, the basilica will boast of eighteen spires — only eight have been built so far. Of the 18, 12 will represent Christ’s apostles, four the evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), one the Blessed Virgin Mary and the tallest, Christ the Saviour.

Like all of Gaudí’s creations, the Sagrada Família has divided public opinion. While some marvel at his genius, others consider it a folly. Not surprising, considering a part of it looks like a vegetable patch, another part could be mistaken for a gingerbread house, and yet another, a forest.

George Orwell described it as “one of the most hideous buildings in the world” and hoped that it would be destroyed during the Spanish Civil War. Salvador Dali said it should be kept under a glass dome because of its “terrifying and edible beauty”. More recently, a columnist for the Madrid daily El Pais, wrote, “The only saving grace of the Temple of the Sagrada Família was the fact that it was unfinished, the dream of a genius driven crazy by mystic reveries. Now it will be completed with the money of tourism, and when its walls are finally enclosed, there will be no one inside but Japanese tourists.”

Say what others might, I, for one, am fascinated with the building and hope to visit Barcelona again in 2026, to see Gaudí’s vision finally come to life. Gaudí, who was struck by a tram in 1926, is buried at the Sagrada Família and it’s almost like his spirit hovers over the place, overseeing the construction of his master piece, a tribute to God and nature, itself.


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