Barcelona has a fascinating architectural heritage and one man was responsible for much of it – Antoni Gaudi. His modernist style is best described as being fantasy architecture. Prominent at the turn of the 20th century, this Catalan architect was conceiving his magic long before terms such as modernism had been invented. His extraordinary buildings, parks and creative works will certainly grab your attention on any visit to Barcelona.
Introverted and highly religious, Gaudi was inspired to reshape his urban city surroundings by introducing his architectural style into the staid historic city. Like his Spanish artisan peers – Picasso, Miro and Dalí – Gaudi abhorred straight lines and boxy buildings. Instead, he built soaring spires, serpentine rooflines, bulging windows and stooge-like chimneys. Gaudi’s second passion was colour. As his work progressed, he introduced glossy ceramic mosaics in vibrant primary colours that he used to cover many of his buildings. This ‘trencadis’ was a radical style in the late 19th century, yet it still contributes a unique wow factor to Barcelona’s landmark architecture.
Seven of Gaudi’s avant-garde projects are UNESCO World Heritage listed but his pièce de résistance is the Sagrada Familia, a magnificent landmark cathedral, which remains a work in progress. Living like a pauper, hardly ever leaving the building site of the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi was totally absorbed by seeing his art nouveau designs take shape. What wasn’t in the plan was that his life would come to a sudden end when he was killed by a tram in 1926.
Gaudi’s residential architecture
Casa Vicens provides early evidence of Gaudi’s developing style. Designed as a private home for the owner of a local tile factory, it seemed fitting that the façade should be covered in gorgeous coloured tile. You can almost sense Gaudi’s tentative foray into modernism as he experimented with oriental motifs and pushed the boundaries of tradition by introducing organic, curved lines. Located in Barcelona’s quieter neighbourhood of Gracia, this Casa can only be viewed from the street, but note the cast-iron railings with their plant motifs which Gaudi created by making clay moulds of fan palms. After years of repair Casa Vicens will soon open be to the public for the first time. Although a date has not been set, September 2017 seems most likely.
Casa Batlló is one of Gaudi’s most visited works, located on the fashionable shopping street of Passeig de Gracia. The gaudy mosaics covering this iconic home take on an almost reptilian sheen in the sun. Rising six storeys above the famous street, the house was designed and built for the Batlló family. Check out the skull-like conformity of the undulating facade and appreciate its local name, Casa del Ossos – House of Bones. The similarities continue in the ribcage-like attic, the roof shaped like a dragon’s back and the skylights covered in tortoiseshell. When it was unveiled, the house caused uproar as the unconventional design broke every by-law in the city. Fortunately, it was allowed to remain and was later voted one of Barcelona’s three best buildings.
The nearby Casa Milà (also known as La Pedrera) was designed as a block of apartments set behind an ornate iron gate. This nine-storey complex has two curving buildings enclosing a centre courtyard above an underground car park. It showcases a typically Gaudian contorted façade of limestone (Pedrera means quarry) with tiers of irregular balconies twisting as if to escape from beneath the wavy roofline. The irregular shape extends inside, where early tenants must have been flummoxed by how exactly to furnish the irregular-shaped rooms! Now open for public tours, this extraordinary building is hard to miss on Carrer de Provença.
The Güell connection
Palau Güell is another lavish piece of Gaudian fantasy, combining an exuberant mix of Gothic detail with modernist surrealism. Eusebi Güell was Gaudi’s patron, hence his name being associated with many of Gaudi’s projects. After designing a remarkable wrought-iron gate of a dragon’s tail (El Drac) at Finca Güell, Gaudi was commissioned to design Palau Güell. The mansion was completed in 1888, just in time for the Universal Exhibition when visitors poured through the seaweed-decorated gates to admire this innovative home with its dramatic staircases, high ceilings and massive ballrooms.
With a nod to tradition, the palace has many marble features and beautiful coffered ceilings. In contrast, the roof is decorated with 20 moulded chimneys, standing like a hunched audience in a lofty exhibition of contemporary art.
One of Gaudi’s earliest commissions, Parc Güell was intended to be a park housing estate. Fortunately for us, the project was deemed a flop and instead the area was landscaped to make a gorgeous park. The first two model homes were built at the entrance to the Park and Gaudi took up residence in one of them from 1906. The iconic residences now flank the entrance to this green urban park and house a museum collection of Gaudi’s designs and original furnishings.
Parc Güell is a popular place for visitors to relax, enjoy city views, or rest weary feet while sitting on one of the sinuous benches that are decorated with Gaudi’s trademark multi-coloured tiles. Stroll along the winding footpaths that Gaudi laid out over 110 years ago and appreciate the flight of mosaic-dressed steps that were designed as a dragon or look up at the Hypostyle Hall, which is supported by 86 crooked columns. Although Gaudi gets the credit for this wonderful city amenity, his young partner and assistant, Josep Maria Jujol, did much of the work.
Gaudi’s crowning glory
No visitor to Barcelona can fail to notice the knot of knobbly towers piercing the skyline and announcing the location of the magnificent Sagrada Familia. This enormous, roofless place of worship is still a building site in parts, due for completion around 2028. However, the parts that have been completed are well worth exploring on a guided tour.
The exterior is a breathtaking apparition of sculptures and symbolism. Biblical scenes of the childhood of Christ cover the east façade of this architectural masterpiece, which is likely to be the tallest church in the world at 170 metres when completed. The 18 iconic spires are covered in Venetian mosaics and visitors can ride up them in the lift and enjoy unrivalled city views.
The crypt became Gaudi’s tomb, as he is laid to rest within his crowning glory work. Prepare to be wowed by the adjacent museum, which is filled with scale models of how Gaudi envisaged his creation would be.
Lesser known works in Barcelona by Gaudi include another unfinished church – Colonia Güell. Designed to be a neighbourhood church on a suburban development in the outskirts of Barcelona, only the angular crypt was completed before the project was abandoned. However, the rounded brick arches and mosaics of this UNESCO-listed shell echo what was to come three years later in the Sagrada Familia.
Other Gaudi creations worth seeking out are the Casa Calvet, a baroque building of iron fretwork and grand columns; the College of Teresians which was built in suitably modest design to house the nuns; the Cascada Fountain in the Park de la Ciutadella and the monstrous hilltop Bellesgard topped with gargoyles and a glorious Catalan banner.
In between visiting these Gaudi attractions, Barcelona serves up designer shopping, a 13th century cathedral, tasty La Boqueria food market, street entertainment on Las Ramblas, historic monuments, world-class arts museums and sandy beaches in a sunny climate. There’s definitely something for all tastes in Gaudi’s Barcelona.