A lot has changed in Barcelona since 1992. Back then, the city was known for being the most Europe-facing city in Spain and the venue for the Olympic Games of that year. The shadow of Franco’s fascist government was finally dispelled and it seemed that the brave new world of post-Soviet Europe had arrived. Twenty five years on, Barcelona seems to be known chiefly for two things – the recent Catalonian independence movements and… Gaudí .
He’s everywhere! Photos of his architecture seem to be the wallpaper for any website dealing with the city. It makes sense though – Gaudí produced some of the most remarkable buildings anywhere, ever, and they’re an obvious selling point for Barcelona. However I worry that plastering them across every spare pixel devalues his work by undermining just how unique and unusual his work was at the time.
Gaudí worked in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was a time of great change and turmoil in Catalonia as the semi-medieval Spanish monarchy and Catholic church were forced to give ground to the forces of modernism. This period of transition is reflected in the person of Gaudí himself. His style of architecture and decoration was modern to the point of being uncomfortable, and yet he was a profoundly religious man who had the greatest possible respect for the Church.
Nominating a series of works by a single artist is an interesting choice by UNESCO, something they’ve also done with the architecture of Le Corbusier. Most world heritage sites are either natural environments of great ecological value, complex urban agglomerations, or specific structures of significance. The nomination of an individual person, through the mechanism of their key works, treads uncomfortably close to hero worship for my tastes.
Gaudí’s earlier works were mostly commissioned by wealthy barcelones are scattered around Barcelona – the Parc Guell and several apartment buildings. While all are quite different, they share certain common decorative traits – lavish colour and unusual decoration, and ornamentation that resembles a bag of bones or some kind of half-grown tumour. The interiors are similarly unconventional. There are no boxy spaces and hard angles. Instead everything seems to flow into everything else, ceilings are held up by spans of stone like a ribcage and the overall effect is of being inside a spacious and glittering cave.
When I saw these buildings I had two parallel thoughts – firstly that they resembled work by the Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, who lived some time later; and secondly that the exteriors reminded me of the “fairy chimneys” of Goreme in Turkey. I don’t know whether Hundertwasser directly drew from Gaudi, or whether they both had access to the same semi-organic wellspring of inspiration.
La Sagrada Familia
However the work which consumed the latter part of Gaudí ‘s life, and by general consensus his masterwork, is la Sagrada Familia, the gigantic basilica near the centre of Barcelona. I’ve seen a lot of churches in my time, and I’ve never seen anything like this. There is an underlying Gothic quality to it, with gargoyles peering down at passers-by and a grand stained glass window. However it feels like the fundamentals of Gothic architecture have been left in a petri dish to evolve, congeal, and transform into something new. The degree of complexity is crushing – from a distance it looks like a fuzzy blob, until you realise when you get closer that it’s an optical illusion caused by overlap of detail upon detail.
Much like Gothic cathedrals elsewhere in Europe, this one takes a very long time to build and isn’t yet finished. It’s expected that major structural work will be done in 2026, and decoration will be finalised in the 2030s. Part of this is financing, but I think part of it reflects Gaudí ‘s extremely religious outlook on life. He lived and behaved much as a monk would, and like a monk I think he had a longer view of time than most people. The fact that la Sagrada Familia is likely to take more than a hundred years after his death to complete seems fitting.