From the stone-melted spires of the Sagrada Familia, all shrouded in scaffolding and scuff-marked by crowds, to the swirling cream chimney tops of the Casa Mila to the cheeky blue lizard that slides down Parc Guell… Gaudi’s work defines Barcelona – in pictures, postcards, storybooks and stone.
A stroll down the iconic Passeig de Gracia reveals much of his work, most notably through the extravagant Casa Mila (nickname La Pedrera.)
Commissioned by a showy couple mired in scandal, on completion La Pedrera aroused the outrage of the local press and the inner Scrooge on account of the residents who refused to pay for the “eyesore.”
No wonder, then, that Gaudi refused all civilian commissions after this. Instead, he retreated to a solitary and soulful life, shuffling back and forth between his humble abode and the always- in-progress Sagrada Familia (construction began in 1882 and has never yet stopped.)
The world, it seems, wasn’t ready for recycled mosaics and curving architecture. Mind, this was the same world that saw the Eiffel Tower as a metal monstrosity and fired the architect of the Sydney Opera House.
But still, the story often told involves one lone man (or woman) beating all the odds and creating something overnight that stops the world in its tracks while riding through town on a cavalry of cliches.
But the story’s true…and yet it’s not true, as a stroll down Passeig de Gracia reveals.
I’ve walked this roadway many a time, in bone-chilling snowflake-touched winter and the golden-lit summers when Barcelona embraces its place on the beach. I’ve walked it and noticed, quite rightly, those malevolent chimney tops and even Gaudi’s earlier work, the dragon of St George clambering about the rooftops of the well heeled nobility. But I’d never walked it with a professor of architecture, or not until I booked a tour through Context.
Guided by a local architecture professor, I saw things I’d never seen before. Through her words, I saw the development of Gaudi’s process long before he even arrived on the scene. I saw the work of his professors, who slowly, cautiously, gently eased away from hard-edged window pieces and introduced those Catalan curves. I saw the features of the Rose of Fire, Barcelona’s nickname thanks to its clashes with Madrid over the years.
And through that, I saw the whole raison d’etre of the Passeig de Gracia and its success.
The wrangling between Catalonia and Castile, two great regions within Spain, was bloody over the centuries. The short version: Barcelona picked the losing side. Twice.
For years, Madrid forbade Barcelona from expanding beyond its medieval city walls and when that law finally broke, architectural creativity exploded onto the scene.
Both old and new money gasped for air beyond Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, turning their attention to the dirt track leading to the nearby village of Gracia. They founded an architectural college – and built Barcelona’s version of the Champs Elysees.
My on-hand professor pointed out doorways and hidden accolades, gremlins buried in stone and stained glass rose motifs that I now understood to mark the fierce spirit of rebellion. How had I missed so much before?
Then even La Pedrera shed her secrets.
Inside the darkness designed for an attic, La Pedrera’s museum explores the workings of Gaudi’s mind.
And like many a genius, the man turned to both art and science for inspiration. Through silver chains and mirrors, Casa Mila illustrates the curves in nature that give strength to the skeletal structure of centipedes …and also the floor beneath your feet. (Genuinely literally in this case.)
Amid the gloom and the flashes of brilliance, my mind wandered, as it often does, to the contents of the world’s creative cauldron. How does one mind, one man or one place pull off such magnificence and, I suppose, how can any of us do it again?
The story of the overnight success or the “genius” that our culture so longs to project misses out some vital steps. The work of others and the coincidence of history have to happen alongside that “genius spark.”
The real question, though, when it comes to Gaudi and Barcelona is whether or not you should queue to see his work. Cynics will tell you that that’s what “tourists” do, that the summertime queues are overwhelming and that real travellers don’t bother with it all.
But the man and his work are a symbol of the city, a lifeline to its creative past and… more importantly…they’re still just incredible things to behold.
Of course you should. And you don’t need a genius to go ahead and tell you that.
I was in Barcelona as part of the Must Love Festivals project and the whimsical Festival de Gracia. I went on a complimentary tour provided by Context Travel, a company I would highly recommend. They run tours across the world staffed by academic guides and provide an in-depth, questioning and curious look at the world. I’ve tested them out in London, Istanbul, Berlin and now Barcelona and each time they’ve excelled in uncovering and explaining hidden parts of cities.