Book Review: First Gaudi English Biography

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Nov. 29, 2001 at 1:12 PM
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NEW YORK, Nov. 29 (UPI) -- The first biography in English of Antonio Gaudi, arguably the most controversial architect of the 20th century, has been published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of his birth in the Spanish province of Catalonia in an era of cultural and political ferment in which he took a leading role.

Gaudi (1852-1926) has been subjected to a refreshingly balanced, clear-eyed critical examination by Gijs van Hensbergen, an international lecturer on architecture with roots in Spain, in "Gaudi, A Biography" (HarperCollins, 322 pages, $35).

Van Hensbergen strips away much of the myth about Gaudi as an eccentric and reveals a man who was very much of his time, a conservative who was also a great innovator.

It is the story grippingly told of the visionary who is best known for his still unfinished Church of the Holy Family (Sagrada Familia) in Barcelona, the Catalan capital that is the showcase of some of his best work. The grandiose, four-towered church became the prime mecca in Spain for architectural aficionados after a resurgence of interest in Gaudi's work in the 1960s, a distinction it now shares with Frank Gehry's post-modern Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao that shows strong Gaudian influence.

Gehry has picked up on Gaudi's fluid use of space made possible by designing structures to stand on their own without interior bracing or external buttressing. This often resulted in columns that tilt to transmit diagonal thrusts and thin-shelled vaults that exert very little thrust.

Actually, Sagrada Familia is the ultimate salute to Modernismo, as Art Nouveau was called in Spain. It was begun in 1882 on commission from the Roman Catholic Church, of which Gaudi was a devout son, and is schedule to be completed in 2030. By that time the Vatican as the patron saint of architects may recognize Gaudi, his beatification process having begun three years ago.

The perforated towers of Sagrada Femilia form a twisted central mass above an edifice flanked by smaller spires and fronted by three densely sculptured Gothic entrances of dizzying scale, the central one adorned by a depiction of the Nativity of Jesus. Much of the external decoration is colored and formed of animal and vegetable sculptures of carnival variety.

"Gaudi and his patrons had struggled hard in a 'godless time' (most Catholic institutions in Barcelona were destroyed in anti-church demonstrations in 1909) to reinvest religious buildings with moral purpose and religious authority," writes Van Hensbergen.

"Typically, Gaudi tried to solve the problems by reaching for the high moral ground through a programme of orchestrated vulgarity. The scale of it all is sheer madness, a folly. But, as Seneca wrote, 'there is no genius without madness'."

Van Hensbergen devotes much space to Sagrada Familia and Gaudi's insistence on versimilitude in sculpture, including making plaster casts of stillborn babies at a Catholic hospital. But he also focuses on several of the architect's other important commissions including private homes and apartment houses, country houses, shops, and Barcelona's famous Park Guell.

The amusement park's sinuous terraces and benches, richly adorned with bits of broken porcelain plates and gilded tiles, and its fairy-tale pavilions are never less than theatrical and rank high on the list of Barcelon a's favorite tourist attractions. Colorful surface adornment reflects Gaudi's interest in Mudejar decoration, a combination of Islamic and Christian styles that dates back to Spain's long occupation by the Moors.

Of all of the town houses he designed, the Casa Batllo is the most eye-popping. Located on a Barcelona block known as The Block of Discord because of five buildings constructed in different architectural styles by five different architects, this house has an explosive stucco façade imbedded with sparkling shards of ceramics in haphazard patterns that are as surreal as any dream of Salvador Dali, a great admirer of Gaudi.

Another structure analyzed by Van Hensbergen is the impressive Casa Mila, a corner apartment house with serpentine balconies and organic clusters of honeycomb rooms. It is most famous for its roofscape of monstrous, spiraling sculptures that disguise chimneys and ventilator and elevator shafts and whose presence can be felt even in the street below.

"The roofscape can be read as a three-dimensional diary of Gaudi's desperate struggle in the face of tragedy and isolation; each mute figure is another paragraph in a painful confession."

Unfortunately, the personal problems that Gaudi took to the confessional are lost to us because most of the documents dealing with his life and his work were destroyed when Sagrada Familia's crypt was desecrated during the Spanish Civil War. We know that he lived a celibate, hermitic life after he proposed marriage and was rejected at age 27. He even lived the last six months in a cave beneath Sagrada Familia as did other poor workmen.

Gaudi was struck by a trolley car and taken to a hospital where he died. He had no papers on him, only a few nuts and raisins, and he was so poorly clothed that authorities thought he was a drunken tramp. Once identified, he was given the equivalent of a state funeral and buried beneath the church that had become his life's obsession.

"His death underscored the passing away of a heroic age in Catalonia's long battle to re-establish its true independent identity (from Castillian-dominated, Madrid-centered Spain)," Van Hensbergen concludes, adding that Gaudi's dream remains unrealized.

"Gaudi's epic ambition to construct a three-dimensional record of the history and credo of the Catholic faith, placing Catalonia at the center of Christendom, had been an impossible one, (and) his legacy in terms of the strict canon of architecture is still far from clear. He had some followers but created no global new style."

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