Living in Southern Europe, I embrace a regular tendency to want to visit those national memorials celebrating the icons of local culture. One of the finest examples of this is the work of the Catalan Modernist architect, Antoni Gaudí.

I am not talking solely about his trophy buildings, the outstanding and outrageous – if a little claustrophobic if you’ve ever tried to climb one of the spires of La Sagrada Família – but while magnificent there is much more to his wonderful work. Gaudí’s place in the history of iconic architects and his influence on a pantheon of modern art, including the likes of the fourteen-year-old Pablo Picasso, who moved to Barcelona in 1896 and into Gaudí’s circles, was immense.

Gaudí’s opus – much of which is now classed as having World Heritage Site status – stems from an era of the Renaixença (or Renaissance) in Barcelona at a time of prosperity and vision. His work remains much appreciated by the likes of the writer Lorca and the artist, and fellow Catalan, Salvador Dalí, as a vibrant legacy to this era.

He was born on 25 June 1852, the son, grandson and great-grandson of boiler workers from the Baix Camp (Catalonia). Growing up appreciating the fusion of copper and iron enabled Gaudí to claim that when he imagined, it was in three dimensions. This became core to his fluid and evolutionary work. Indeed, he rarely created detailed plans, preferring models of his proposed buildings. Similarly, he was enraptured by perhaps the conflicting mysteries of nature, especially that of his beloved Mediterranean coast, his vegetarianism and profound Roman Catholic faith.

After school, where he excelled in art, in 1868 Gaudí moved to Barcelona to study teaching followed by some time of compulsory military service that was punctuated by ill heath. In 1878 he graduated from the Llotja School and the Barcelona Higher School of Architecture having funded his training by working as a draftsman for various notable local architects. Gaudí’s rise was meteoric. His first important commission was for Manuel Vicens i Montaner, the Casa Vicens, a Moorish revival palace, which, after 130 years as a private home, recently reopened to the public.

Over the subsequent thirty years his work and Barcelona were synonymous. The City changed, and under the patronage of Eusebi Güell, Count Güell, a Catalan industrialist, many fine examples of Gaudí’s best work can be seen, including the Parc Güell, the Crypt at Colonia Güell, and Palau Güell.

Astounding Architecture

Casa Batlló was commissioned in 1904, by Josep Batlló. Gaudí’s task was to design and renovate this extraordinary property, to create a house like no other. He completed the project in 1906, becoming a masterpiece on Barcelona’s Passeig de Gràcia.

Another fine example is the Casa Milà, commissioned in 1905 by Pere Milà, a developer, and his wife, Roser Segimon, the widow of a wealthy Indiano coffee plantation owner.

In 1883, at the age of 31, Gaudí was appointed to the Sagrada Família project, becoming Architect Director in 1894. From 1915 until his death on 10th June 1926, having being struck by a tram at the age of 73, Gaudí focussed his entire creative energy on the development and construction of this amazing building. Said to be the most important piece of Gothic architecture in Europe since the Middle Ages, Gaudí combined Gothic and Art Nouveau forms together in the Sagrada Família with naturalistic and flowing details of plant life and clever uses of light throughout. The work on this fine building has been halted over the years while additional funds were collected. It is anticipated that construction will finally be complete by 2026 to coincide with the one hundredth anniversary of Gaudí’s death.

As a matter of interest, we learn in Dan Brown’s excellent Origin, set almost exclusively in Gaudí’s Barcelona, that the Roman Catholic Church has not funded either Gaudí’s final resting place or the building surrounding it, the Sagrada Família.

One of the few projects that Gaudí undertook away from Catalonia was the minaret-like country lodge – a fine example of his oriental influences – of El Capricho in Comillas, Cantabria, in Northern Spain. Built between 1883-85 as a summer home for returning Indiano Maximo Díaz de Quijano, the Marquis of Comillas and father-in-law of Count Güell.

Atypically for Gaudí’s work, the stained glass, wood rafters and metal work are exemplary. The emblematic flowers, oriental and stylised ceramics look like they may have come straight from the palette of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (another modernist architect I am a huge fan of). It’s thought that Gaudí and Mackintosh never met, though they died just two years apart, but their naturalistic work, resplendent with great drama, vision and charm, is firmly rooted in the same Modernist and Art Nouveau movements.


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