The architecture of Antoni Gaudi is eye candy for the imagination. Creativity, inventiveness, form, function, visual daring, grandeur, and playfulness merge into structures as dramatically pleasing as they are superbly functional. And despite Gaudi’s immense talents he was a pious and humble man. His work is so impressive that seven of Gaudi’s projects, all in Barcelona, have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Two of those landmarks, one a completed project and the other a dream not fully realized, are highlighted here.
Casa Batlló may well be the most notable building renovation in history. Originally constructed in 1877 along Barcelona’s Passeig de Garcia it was an uninspiring multistory building but was nonetheless in a highly desirable location. The owner, Josep Batlló, a Barcelona textile magnate, wanted to raze the structure and replace it with something entirely new and dramatic; he wanted to attract attention. Batlló and his wife, Amalia, turned to Gaudi based on another of his Barcelona projects that had tongues wagging. When Batlló hired Gaudi, the couple wisely gave the architect free rein.
Gaudi’s first piece of advice would save Batlló time and money – don’t tear down the building – renovate it. And renovate Gaudi did. In a few short years, from 1904 through 1906, Gaudi transformed the building and added additional floors, while managing to flummox both Barcelona city officials and neighbors along Passeig de Gracia because the design was initially judged to be appalling.
The result is a timeless masterpiece, and even more than a century later, it is an ode to innovation. Gaudi discarded rigid notions of straight lines, square windows and right angles. Instead, he lavished Casa Batlló with an abundance of curves, swirls, vivid colors, delightful views and a riot of colors that burst forth. You do not stand in this space but rather you become immersed in it. Visitors find wonder in the smallest of details, and the House of Bones, as locals refer to it, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.
The first floor of Casa Batlló was an apartment for Josep and Amalia and at more than 7,500 square feet in size it provided ample room for the couple and their five children. Apartments on the floors above were rented out. The family lived at Casa Batlló for decades, though Josep died in 1934. Amalia and her children remained there until she died in 1940, whereupon the children managed the building until 1954, when it was sold. It has since been resold and in 2002 it was opened for tours to the public. Casa Batlló is a top tourist attraction in Barcelona and a must-see for architecture and design aficionados.
Nearly every element at Casa Batlló is special, so to suggest any one thing is distinctive misses the point. The building feels as if it possesses a life of its own, from the massive dragon-look of the brightly colored tile roof, the vivid colors and tile work, and smokestacks on the roof that appear to be sentries standing guard. Under the roof is a loft that includes 60 arches curved like a ribcage, evoking the feel of being inside the roof’s dragon. Throughout the building Gaudi uses broken tiles, known as trencadis or pique assiette, to decorate spots with a mosaic of colors.
One visit to Casa Batlló and the way you look at living spaces will never be the same.
It was Gaudi’s work at Parc Güell that caught the eye of Batlló. Like Batlló, Eusebi Güell was a Barcelona textile industrialist (and it is possible the two men knew each other). Güell had become interested in Gaudi based on his design of the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair in 1878.
And Gaudi and Güell shared a number of interests. Both were devout Catholics, they were fiercely proud of their Catalan heritage, they both shared utopian ideals, and the two men had a deep love of nature.
Güell’s concept was to convert his family estate into a high end housing community of 60 villas sited on triangular lots in the hills above Barcelona. A selling feature would be the location up in fresh air, far away from the smokestacks of industrial Barcelona. The park and its amenities would offer tranquility from the hustle and bustle of the city and the homes would have the newest amenities and comforts.
Gaudi labored at Parc Güell from 1900 through 1914 (while at the same time working on other projects like Casa Batlló). The first step for the Güell commission was to design and build the park and grounds. In the end, Güell’s vision of a utopian enclave never came to be (only two homes were built on the property), but Gaudi’s park would become one of the most famous in the world.
Like much of Gaudi’s awe inspiring work, the architect cast aside normal rules that lines must be straight or that angles must be “right”. Even though Gaudi had nearly 42.5 acres to work with, he employed innovative techniques to maximize land use, create as much natural space as possible and to reduce the footprint of vehicle traffic that would impact the site.
There are four entrances into Parc Güell and the most popular is at the gate on the south side that is flanked by two buildings, known as the Caretaker’s House with its adjacent waiting area. And located in the only villa constructed at Parc Güell is what now houses a museum about Gaudi and his work, the villa was once owned by Gaudi. What is now a school on the west side of the park is Güell’s former mansion.
Among the more popular features at Parc Güell are the municipal garden, the colonnaded pathways, the Hypostyle Room (which would have housed stores and shops for the community), and the Dragon Stairway. The predominantly blue mosaic dragon, or salamander, is the symbol of Parc Güell and may be the most photographed dragon in the world.
Upon Güell’s death in 1918, the dream of a utopian community of upscale villas also passed into memory. In 1926 the City of Barcelona opened the park to the public, and in 1984 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Parc Güell continues to be a wildly popular attraction, drawing millions of visitors each year.
In recent years Barcelona’s growing popularity as a travel destination is being crushed by the weight of its own success. Crowds, intrusive selfie sticks, long lines of people, and a growing lack of patience – from locals as well as tourists – is putting a strain on attractions like Casa Batlló, Parc Güell and other venues in the city. As an example, Parc Güell is limiting access to some areas of the park by requiring visitors to purchase tickets, noisy crowds can drown out the tranquility of the park’s nature, and vendors hawking trinkets detract from the experience. Barcelonan residents are becoming less tolerant of foreign visitors, and in some cases locals have voiced disapproval with the crowds and some of the misbehavior. City officials continue to consider and adopt strategies to protect their treasures and enable Barcelona to remain a livable city.
Despite all the pressures, the incredible works of Antoni Gaudi prove the enduring brilliance of one man’s vision and his lasting impact on one of the world’s great cities.
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