As architects, one of the things we were most looking forward to in Barcelona was seeing some of the built works by Antoni Gaudi, Barcelona’s (and the one of the world’s) most famous turn of the 20th century architects.
Gaudi is best known for his unique style that combines architecture and nature (to put it very simply) and his own take on the Modernisme style that was popular at the time in Barcelona. He was also a master at combining other arts into his works such as ceramics (tile work), iron & metal work, unique wood work and stained glass. I’m sure there are architectural courses that spend an entire semester discussing and analyzing Gaudi’s works, his influences, and his legacy. I will present photos of a few of the Gaudi places we visited in Barcelona.
We will start with the Casa Batllo, a private residence in construction from 1904-1906. This project was actually the remodel of an existing 1875 building. The client requested an entire overhaul of the structure. The house was located in the L’Eixample (pronounced Lay-Shamp-luh) neighborhood, which in the early 20th century, was a very fashionable neighborhood to live in if you were part of the wealthy set. What Gaudi created for his client was a one of a kind masterpiece in terms of uniqueness, function and even technology. I have to say that this was one of the most amazing spaces I’ve ever visited. The fantastical use of material and light is unbelievable.
When you arrive at the roof top, you are greeted with dynamic chimneys adorned with mosaic tile work that resemble scales…and at the street facing edge you see what could possibly be the form of a dragon. Now is probably the time to explain the legend of Sant Jordi (St. George) who is very revered in Barcelona. Apparently, Sant Jordi slew a dragon to save a princess who was to be sacrificed. After killing the dragon, a beautiful red rose bush sprouted from the ground in the exact same spot that the bleeding dragon had died. And to this day, on April 23rd, the men in Catalunya and Barcelona give their sweetheart a red rose and the ladies give their men a book. And you will see images of dragons and Sant Jordi throughout the city. Gaudi incorporated the legend as part of the design of the facade and cornice of the house.
As I said, I could have posted hundreds of pictures of Casa Battlo and gone on and on about the clever design and originality throughout, from door handles to how windows opened and closed, but there is so much more Gaudi to see in Barcelona.
Just across the street from Casa Battlo is Casa Mila, from 1906. Another residential project by Gaudi. Once again, the facade is full of movement as it undulates in and out. And like Casa Battlo, unusually shaped chimneys seem to be at play at the roof top. Organic balcony railings don’t look like anything man-made…more like a twisted grape vine. We chose not to go inside of Casa Mila, but tickets and tours are available.
(A vintage view of the building below):
We also visited Park Güell designed by Gaudi and built between 1900 and 1914. At the turn of the 20th Century, Count Eusebi Güell purchased a plot of land in Barcelona located at the top of what was called Bare Moutain, which was far from the putrid air of the working city down below. The Count wanted to create a housing development at the mountain top where he could build mansions for the wealthy and they could enjoy the fresh, healthy air and admire the stunning views of Barcelona and the Mediterranean beyond. They only ended up building two houses (not designed by Gaudi) but Gaudi explored his keen interest in organic forms in his designs for the parkland that was to encompass the failed housing development. Despite its failure for its intended purpose, in the end, Barcelona was rewarded with a lovely park, which was donated by the Güell family to the City in the early 1920’s.
Travel Tip: Plan your visit to Park Güell on every level…from transportation to tickets to food & water. We simply (and naively) added it to our itinerary….as in “we will visit the park on Saturday morning!”. The night before, my wife figured out how to get there by metro….but that’s about all of the planning we did…which was a bit of a mistake. We took the Green Line (L3) to the Lesseps station, but you should be well aware that it is a 5 minute walk from the station to the start of a major vertical hike up to the park that involves several escalators and stairs… and after this long climb, you end up at the bottom entrance to the park that still requires a steep walk up to the top.
If you are traveling with small children…or kids + a stroller….or with anyone with a disability or who isn’t the comfortable doing a lot of walking….reconsider this route, for sure. Take a taxi or find a route that involves a bus!
The other things to consider…there is very little food for sale in the park. Bring food and water if you plan on staying for a while. We found a little place at the top of the long climb up (or at the bottom of the park) with sandwiches and water…coffee, etc. Very nice people. We left our mark there.
And the last tip for visiting Park Güell is that while entry to the Park is free, you can’t visit the most iconic parts of the park without a ticket (the “Monumental Zone”, see the highlighted section in the image below), and as we didn’t know this, the timed tickets were sold out until 5:30 or 6PM…which was not an option for us. It was a bit of a letdown….so I would advise pre-purchasing tickets if you want to visit this part of the park….tickets can be purchased months in advance.
Visiting the park was a bit of a let down because we couldn’t see (up close) what we really wanted to see, but we did get a chance to see Gaudi’s very sculptural and very organic structures in the park, most of which looked as if they were carved out of the earth rather than built by man.
Moving on…..I saved the best for last! When you picture Barcelona in your mind, I think it is safe to say that the image that comes into the minds of most people is of the famous church….the Sagrada Familia. It is THE symbol of the City.
Formally known as Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia (The Basilica and and Expiatory of the Holy Family), the structure is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Unlike Casa Battlo or Park Güell, I will not even attempt to scratch the surface of all of the history behind this building. The actual construction story spans 150 years, but the further complexities of the the design and all of the many different individuals and entities involved would take a very lengthy narrative. I will merely attempt to describe what I learned about the Basilica.
Not the original architect, Gaudi took over the project in 1883 and didn’t take long to take the design of the church from a traditional, neo-gothic style to something far different. Gaudi’s design was a radically new interpretation of the gothic style with its basis in Modernismo (Art Nouveau) and Gaudi’s own influence from natural and organic forms.
The design called for three featured facades: that of the Nativity, the Passion and the Glory. The Nativity facade was constructed between 1894 and 1930 and was the most “traditional” of all of the facades (believe it, or not). Gaudi felt that construction had to start with this facade because if he started with the more radical Passion or Glory facades, the public (and those funding the church) would reject it and either pull the plug on funding or more likely scrap it and let another architect take over. The Nativity Facade (obviously) tells the story of Christ’s birth and was the only facade that Gaudi saw completed.
In stark contrast, the Passion facade is a stark, minimalist and brutal creation featuring raw, bone-like supports and gaunt, cubist-like figures showing obvious pain and grief. This is the facade that Gaudi knew would be hard to sell to the public, but to the modern eye, it is such a fascinating take on the Gothic tradition.
The Glory facade is still under construction and is currently covered (and not conducive to taking pictures) but it will be the grandest of the facades and feature depictions of the Last Judgement and Heaven and Hell.
The most striking thing about the Sagrada Familia are the towers that seem to sprout from the ground up. When complete, the church will have 18 spires, the tallest being the Jesus Spire (which is not complete). 12 spires will represent the apostles, 4 will represent the Evangelists and the last spire is that dedicated to Mary..
We had pre-purchased our tickets to visit the church as well as to climb one of the towers. Unlike many of the medieval towers that we climbed on this trip, here, you are taken up via elevator in small groups of 4 or 5 to a base point, where you continue the climb up typical wedged-shaped, narrow, twisting stairs which offer great views of the other towers as well as the ongoing construction.
The facades are fascinating, the towers are remarkable and striking, but there is nothing that prepares you for what happens with you step inside La Sagrada Familia. The overwhelming verticality, the streams of colorful light intersecting and creating a kaleidoscope of shapes and patterns on the floor. Other cathedrals in Europe offer similar “WOW!” moments upon entering…St. Chappelle in Paris, Siena’s Cathedral, Chartes…but personally, for me, Sagrada Familia was otherworldly and heavenly and in a league of its own.
The lofty columns resemble trees with branches, holding up a rainbow colored forest.
Gaudi was a deeply religious man, and spent his last years completely devoted to the construction of La Sagrada Familia. In the years after his passing, an army of architects, engineers, artists, sculptors, contractors, laborers, politicians, patrons, etc have continued the construction of Gaudi’s masterpiece.
I would say that of all of the places that we have visited in Europe, this was THE hardest to describe with words. Words can’t describe the color and the light and the sense of scale. To understand its real beauty, you have to stand inside and gaze up and all around to truly realize what a wonder it is.
This has been my report of Gaudi in Barcelona.