God’s Architect

Most of Antoni Gaudi’s work is categorized as Catalan Modernisme. Park Güell, Palau Güell and the Casa Milà are amongst his most notable exertions. Gaudi worked feverishly for 43-years to design the Sagrada Família, a structure that now dominates the skyline of the Eixample district in Barcelona.

Published Categorized as Biography
Park Güell Entrance - shows two houses
"Artists do not need monuments erected for them because their works are their monuments." – Antoni Gaudí

Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) – Architect

The story starts in England.

‘Ut pendet continuum flexile sic stabit contiguum rigidum’ – Robert Hooke exclaimed in an article originally famous for presenting the Hooke’s Law.

To explain this Latin innuendo, I will need help from David Gregory, who in explanation remarked,

’…none but the Catenaria is the true figure of a legitimate arch’.

The Catenaria (or Catenary in English), is the shape a chain will take when supported at it two ends only. It is very similar to a parabola, but isn’t a parabola exactly. In purely geometrical terms, it is the solution to a differential equation that describes a shape that directs the force of its own weight, along its own curve. What Robert Hooke discovered was that, by inverting the geometry of a catenary curve, the arch thus formed is the most stable shape that can be achieved in architecture.

So, what does Catenaria and Robert Hooke have to do with an obscure Catalan architect, little known outside his native Spain?

A view of the Casa Milà attic which shows multiple Catenary Archs supporting the structure
Catenary Arches support The Attic, Casa Milà

A lot, in all honesty. Antoni Gaudi was born in 1852 to a coppersmith Francesc Gaudi. Whether the exact town of his birth was Reus or Riudoms, is a topic of debate among art historians. What can be agreed universally though, is that he showed a keen interest in architecture from a very young age.

At a nursery school in Reus, Gaudi showed promise despite suffering from rheumatism, a disease that ran in his family and kept him from attending classes regularly. It is widely accepted that when he wasn’t spending time in school, he used to wander around in the fields of Riudoms, exploring the riches on display in the countryside. Little doubt then that these experiences as a child shaped a career that spawned countless works of art renowned for their parity and closeness to nature.

“Nature is the only real teacher.”

— Antoni Gaudi

His decision to go vegan at a very early age is put down to his poor health. The decision was supplanted by his staunch belief in Christian symbolism and a deep admiration for all life.

In 1868, Gaudi moved to Barcelona to pursue a professional career. A graduate of the Llotja School and the Barcelona Higher School of Architecture, he spent most of his compulsory military service on sick leave. Gaudi’s poor health also meant that he wasn’t deemed physically fit enough to participate in the Third Carlist War, and could focus on his architectural aspirations.

Upon graduation from the Provincial School of Architecture in 1878, the then dean of faculty, Elise Rogent, remarked, ‘We have given an academic title to either a fool, or a genius. Only time will tell’.

As time surely would tell, it turned out to be a genius after all!

A portrait photograph of Antoni Gaudí, Gaudí sports a beard
Antoni Gaudí at age 26

The conditions in which Gaudi’s thought was nurtured, were one of constant struggle. Carried on the back of the Steam Engine, winds of change had already swept through Europe. Catalans had been humiliated and defeated by both the Spaniards and the French in the last century. All over the Iberian Peninsula, the Carlists fought the liberals in an attempt to dethrone secularism. In Catalonia itself, years of suppression and oppression had led to a very hostile stance towards all belligerents.

Famous for his quirkiness and eccentricity amongst his fellows, Gaudi initially worked in the same Gothic and Baroque architectural styles that were popular to the era. Soon though, the Catalan Modernist movement caught, his eye and he was entranced. This didn’t last very long though, as he were to develop a style entirely unique to him that became the emblem of Barcelona. Today, the church of Sagrada Familia dominates the skyline of the Eixample district, and is listed as the top tourist attraction in the city.

Gaudi’s life can be divided into two periods based on the style of architecture he followed. The earlier days of his life as an architect are characterized by popular beliefs and designs. For instance, in 1878 Gaudi showcased his work at a display held in Paris which earned him a patronization form Count Eusebi Güell. The patronization culminated in the construction of a series of buildings in the Park Güell area. The patron and the architect grew closer as a result of this partnership, and Gaudi ended up designing the Palau Güell for the magnate, a building designed and completed somewhere in between 1886-1888.

Roof of the Palau Güell in Barcelona shows chimneys designed by Gaudí
Roof of the Palau Güell in Barcelona shows chimneys designed by Gaudí

The transition from popular to weird, and from weird to uniquely eccentric, and being regarded as a genius, isn’t linear and abrupt. Rather, Gaudi’s childhood experiences are revamped, and his passions reignited after visiting and exploring similar childhood themes all over again, chief among which is the visit to Minorca (and its more renowned neighbor Majorca) and getting a glimpse of the culture and architecture of the Talaiotic civilization. This time though, it isn’t a naïve kid gamboling around in a field. This time, it is a somewhat seasoned, yet nubile architect, with a rather vague sense of the direction he is about to head in.

The turn of the century marks the time when Gaudi started to reform his approach. The patronization won in 1878 started to bear fruit by this time. The idea behind the design of the Park Güell was to allow inhabitants to afford a comfortable life-style accompanied with modern technology, all the while, staying in touch with Mother Nature and the roots of mankind. The Park was commissioned as an urbanization project, and work on its construction started in 1900. It was completed in 1914, and officially opened to the public in 1926. The Park is lauded as one of the most beautiful system of parks, not only in Barcelona, but the world.

Gaudi sought to come up with a style of his own during these years. Gothic and Baroque styles of architecture came under scathing criticism from him. He disliked rigidity in structures, and interpreted space as free flowing. Numerous examples of this can be found in the Sagrada Familia. He spent years perfecting the interpretation of the Catenaria, and this allowed him to leave room for colossal windows in the walls of the main chamber of the basilica. Traditionally, these walls would have supported the weight of the ceiling, and the addition of windows would have weakened the structure. By introducing the concepts of catenary, Gaudi had much more room to maneuver!

La Sagrada Familia - Three columns of stained glass windows illuminated by sunlight
The Catenary arches allow the inclusion of massive windows in the walls of the Sagrada Família.

The final years of Gaudi’s career (1910-onwards) are plagued by severe financial crisis. To compound the difficulties, Francesc Berenguer, his school fellow and chief collaborator, died in 1914. In 1918, things took a turn for even worse when his longtime admirer, close friend, and patron-in-chief, Eusebi Güell, also passed away. This left Gaudi devastated. His social circle was already so small that after these deaths, he didn’t really have anywhere to go!

There’s a silver lining to every dark cloud, and that was exactly the case with the protagonist of this story as well! Penniless, and a without a shoulder to lean on, Gaudi gave himself up entirely to the Sagrada Familia. The ‘Church of the Poor’ as it was humorously called due to the project’s lack of funding, became Gaudi’s abode from hereon. He dedicated the best years of his life to designing and building clay models of the church, writing and drafting techniques to be used in construction, leaving no stone unturned in the quest for perfection. He went so far as to install a bed in his workplace, and usually slept on site!

Magnificent view of the Sagrada Família Cathedral from outside
Gaudi devoted the last 12 years of his life entirely to designing Sagrada Família.

Gaudi was a man of commitment and humungous will; evidence of which can be seen in his dedication to the Sagrada Familia. He remained single throughout his life. In his youth, he was known for his flamboyance, often donning costly attire and appearing in elite company. Things changed when he decided to take his religion seriously, and in his later days, was usually dressed in the manner of a tramp.

On a fateful day in the June of 1926, he was hit by a tram while attempting to cross the street. The crowd mistook him for a vagrant and he was therefore, deprived of immediate medical attention. His condition worsened once he arrived at the hospital, and fell victim to the injury two days later.

Gaudi may not be here anymore, but his legacy will remain with us as long as we have the Sagrada Familia to rest our eyes upon. He admitted that it was a project too big for a single generation to carry out. He, therefore, took the liberty to cast the design in molds and shapes, in order to facilitate the coming generations. Sadly though, as if enough hadn’t already happened to him, his workshop in the Sagrada was assaulted by a mob during the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Many drawings and drafts were compromised or destroyed. Most of the cache was later collected and restored, but a sizeable portion was lost in the turmoil that ensued.

Today the structure is still under construction, and is currently the longest building project in contemporary history.

May Gaudi’s soul rest in peace!

Further Reading

Images on this page

Leave a comment

%d bloggers like this: