Monday, October 8, 2012

Say Howdy to Gaudi!

Even when Mr. Tiny comes to town, there is still only one, indisputable, and supreme king of wacky tacky in Barcelona and that is Antoni Gaudi.

Antoni Gaudi
25 June 1852 - 10 June 1926

Architect, artist, designer, theist, naturalist, and innovator, Gaudi is synonymous with Spain's Modernista movement and, in turn, the very skyline of Barcelona.

Barcelona doesn't abound with the kooky, vernacular architecture that is so easily identifiable in America.  During our stay, we didn't see any buildings shaped like the merchandise or food stuffs being sold within; there were no oversized, cement fish, and nary a dinosaur nor flying saucer in sight.  There were no scale replicas of the Parthenon and nothing that we encountered with a circus theme.  While many American architects of the 20th Century veered towards the populist extreme, Gaudi's approach to his commissions was at once decidedly cerebral and unapologetically emotional.

Much like a tagger, Gaudi's signature is peppered all over the city but I thought for the purposes of this, our third and final blog about our Spanish adventure, we would focus on a few of Gaudi's major works, Casa Batllo, Casa Mila, La Sagrada Familia, and Parc Guell. (Note: please forgive my lack of appropriate accents; I have no idea how to add the "`")


The first bit of Gaudi we saw, we actually stumbled upon by accident.  Attempting to acclimate, we took a long walk all over town.  Slightly lost and looking to the North Star for guidance, we gazed up at just the right time to behold one of Gaudi's most recognizable works, Casa Batllo.  We learned that wealthy families would build these huge homes with the intention of living on the first levels and renting out the rest.  In a culture of penthouses and "Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous," it only occurred to me after I had climbed mountains of stairs everyday just why the wealthy families would opt for the lower floors.

La Casa Batllo

Originally built in the 1870's, Gaudi was responsible only for the building's early-20th Century facelift.  From that time on, Casa Batllo has become recognized for its mask-like balconies, its refined Gothicism, and its ridged roof - covered in variegated, scale-like tiles to emulate a the body of a dragon.  It should be noted that Gaudi's signature fascination with lizards and dragons can be seen in nearly all of his work. 

The balcony faces of Casa Batllo

We did manage to view the building again during the day to get a better look at the colorful roof.
Devoutly religious in his Catholic faith, Gaudi also incorporated religious symbols in much of his work -
 usually in the form of a cross.

CASA MILA (La Pedrera)

During our midnight stroll through the city, it became evident that one can't throw a stone in Barcelona without hitting a Gaudi structure.  Immediately across the street from Casa Batllo is Casa Mila, a Gaudi masterpiece through and trough.  Commonly referred to as La Pedrera (The Quarry), Casa Mila typifies Gaudi's aversion to right angles and tradition.

Casa Mila aka "La Pedrera"

Another residential commission, La Pedrera has become a UNESCO World Heritage sight and is available for touring.  As I mentioned in our post about Barcelona, the best money we spent was on our bus tour of the city.  At first I thought it was lame to follow the herd; getting on a bright red, double-decker tour bus was little, well, "touristy."  I quickly learned that we could cover a lot of ground and be dropped at the doorstep of many of the landmarks that we had planned to visit anyway.  So, setting my pride aside, I buckled my sandals over my socks, slung my camera around my neck, and boarded the bus.  What was I, if not a tourist?

Mary stands at the entry of La Pedrera.
In art history we learned about Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns and even Caryatids;
I think Gaudi's work requires an entirely new vocabulary.

The cavernous lobby of La Pedrera as seen through the front door

Inspired by the organic and the divine, Gaudi created forms that had never been seen
before.  In a world where it seems like the only innovations left are technological, I can
 only imagine how exciting it must have been to create something so utterly new
 and unprecedented.

After seeing the building at night, we knew we had to come
back during the day for the full tour.

I think this might've been a contemporary model, but I read that Gaudi
found it difficult to work from two-dimensional plans and preferred to
reference scale models of all his buildings.

The building surrounds a central courtyard.  The area of La Pedrera known
as the attic is lit indirectly by these eyebrow windows.

The ultimate destination is the roof - a labyrinth of spires, chimneys, vents, arches, tunnels, and stairs!
  The only way to get up there was by, you guessed it, 8,000 flights of stairs.
Maybe it was altitude sickness setting in, but it was at this moment where I began
 to question the "genius " of Antoni Gaudi.  Was he just being weird for the sake of weirdness?

Mr. Tiny making like David Bowie in Labyrinth.

My favorite part of the tour was visiting the period apartment that was arranged as it would have been during the first days of habitability.

I'm not sure if it was the intended direction, but the fairy
tale, Art Nouveau moldings around the doors of varying sizes instantly
 read "Goldilocks" to me - Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and Baby Bear.

When the furnishings are such spectacular examples of
Art Nouveau, it is acceptable that the decorations are
fairly spare.

The sewing/mending/work room

I think the whole of my first apartment could have fit inside
the bathroom.

I even fooled myself with this picture.
This elaborate chapel is actually just one of the rooms
in the nursery's dollhouse!


Anyone will tell you that Gaudi's, nay Barcelona's, crown jewel would be La Sagrada Familia - the ultimate symbol of his faith and fanaticism.

The construction of La Sagrada Familia began over forty years before Gaudi's death in 1926.  An active construction site to this day, it remains unfinished more than 80 years later.  In fact, I'm of the opinion that it will forever remain unfinished because that is half of the mystique.

Shadows of cranes sweep through the cathedral as they pass over the central dome. 

The doors into the cathedral are covered in Biblical
references and what I can only conclude is Catholic sudoku.

Indeed, many people will tell you that LSF is Gaudi's magnum opus.  It probably is, but for all the faith that Gaudi was purported to have, LSF feels like a beautiful, experimental, quasi-religious tourist trap.  I'm probably taking my life into my hands here, but this landmark (sanctioned as an official Basilica by the Catholic Church only as recently as 2010) feels much more like a monument to man (one man in particular) than a monument to God.  Don't get me wrong, this place is unbelievable but it inspires none of the reverence or awe that one might feel when entering the older cathedrals around Barcelona.

My negative feeling was in no way assuaged by the odd
 crucifix carousel arrangement.  It was weird.
I was not raised in a tradition with a physical crucifix as a
 centerpiece to my worship but it would seem to me that, given
the enormity of the building, something equally as artsy but
 grander in symbol and scale would have been more appropriate.

I think we were also a little put off because there were so many rules.  Have I mentioned before that I HATE being told what to do?  The staff seemed so much more inclined to "tsk-tsk" unruly behavior like sitting in the wrong seat or taking a photograph two paces to the left of the approved photo-taking zone, than to be of any legitimate help that it became a distraction.  Actually we kind of turned it into a game to see who would get in trouble next, the tourist who came into the church wearing a baseball cap or the local who ducked the stanchion to avoid having to walk to the very back of the basilica just to walk the full length of the aisle to get to the hardcore prayer section at the very front.

I imagine the impish grin of the face of this angel in relief is similar to the
expression on Gaudi wore when he was  cashing his checks.

With my ranting completed, I can tell you how crazy and cool LSF was.  Part Gothic cathedral, part modernist masterwork, part acid trip, LSF is the definition of pastiche.  Given that it has endured over 100 years of construction, scattered direction, and lack of funding (continued construction relies on ticket sales and private donations), the stylistic elements are all over the design map.

Upon first gaze, this blockhead didn't seem to fit  but given the wealth of disparate
elements, it only made sense.  The unquestioningly antiquated and the forgivably modern
come together under, around, and above the same roof at La Sagrada Familia -
a defining characteristic of wacky tacky.

Limited international travel experience combined with a childhood spent in the shadow
of Hollywoodland- makes it difficult for me to discern reality
 from scenic design.  Give me a break, my frame of reference is built solidly by the
 "frame makers" at Disney.

Speaking of Disney, doesn't the interior of La Sagrada Familia
 remind you of Eyvind Earle's art direction for Sleeping Beauty?

Seriously, I can't escape it...The ornate ceiling of La Sagrada Familia reminds me of Mary Blair and "It's A Small World."

Holy water in giant clamshells - LOVE!!!
The eastern facade of LSF is encrusted with Biblical figures,
angels, stylized nature, animals and even lizards.  Yes, only at LSF will one find
a scene of Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, and an iguana.
I bet you were unaware (probably because you weren't paying attention
 in Sunday School), but there was indeed a giant lizard sitting right
between the ox and ass on that wonderful night 2000 years ago.

I kept marveling at the magnitude of the building and the ability of workman to accomplish the job set before them.  Could you imagine putting plans for LSF in front of a contemporary construction crew and telling them to get going?  They would understand the term "open concept" but would immediately get tripped up by the lack of granite countertops.

Scale models helped solve that problem.
The basement museum showed the progress of LSF from concept to current

After traversing nearly every inch of the earthly level, just like an ascension into Heaven, we made our way skyward to the top of the towers.  An elevator was the only way they would allow us to the top; I'm thinking they saw us coming and didn't want to have to perform a special rescue when we gave up in exhaustion halfway up the tower.

A bird's eye view of Barcelona and of the mosaics that are so
common in Gaudi's work.  The work on LSF is a constant
balance of new construction and restoration.  Because elements
 of the building are so old they have started falling into disrepair;
the gauzy nets reflect the preservation efforts.  

Yes, we took the elevator up, but we took the stairs down.

The enclosed spiral with the occasional lookout point wasn't so bad but it
took a long time.  The only time I got nervous was when Mary offered to help me
 take the quick way down - right down the middle!!! 

This section os stairs was a little unnerving.
One false move and a normal person could've met his doom.
Mr. Tiny would have simply been wedged in the middle until
 a a jackhammer or a sufficient amount of oil could set him free.
I still have nightmares about these stairs!


Envisioned as an answer to the pristine, symmetrical, manicured parks of other great European cities, Parc Guell is my favorite entry in the Gaudi oeuvre.  Of course, as a natural skeptic, I couldn't shake the thought that all of this was a calculated effort to put one over on society.

The entrance to the park is like a mosaic-heavy version of Hansel & Gretel; instead of icing and candies of every kind, shards of recycled pottery and ceramic tiles adorn the fairy tale structures. 


Parc Guell was more than a park; it was also an experimental real estate development that by all accounts was a dismal failure.  In the end, the business loss was the world's gain and the Park is open to the public.

If one thing says "Gaudi" more than any other, it is this lizard.
It goes without saying then that photo ops with the lizard are hard to come by.
Unwilling to compete for a spot, I settled for a candid of this lovely, Asian woman.

This huge testament to Gaudi's apparently-unyielding belief that function follows far behind form,
is at its core, a shade structure, a glorified shade structure, but a shade structure, nonetheless. 

Still, it's hard to deny the beauty and craftsmanship that
cannot be seen in contemporary buildings of any sort.

One of the highlights of Parc Guell is getting to visit the Casa Museu Gaudi, the home that served as Gaudi's private residence during his tenure over the construction of La Sagrada Familia and where he lived until his death in 1926.

It was interesting to me that as flagrantly experimental as
 Gaudi was with his commissions, his own home evidenced the
most recognizable elements of classical (?) Art Nouveau.

Beautiful ceiling!

Who knew Gaudi was such a player piano enthusiast?
A sucker for a good, old-fashioned sing-along, I have
 friends who are tortured into playing their antique
 player piano every time we go over to their house.
Unfortunately, we couldn't get close enough to read
the titles on the cabinet full of rolls.  I'm hoping they were
all wild, gypsy flamencos!

There was no lack of decorative arts in Gaudi's home.  My affinity for crazy light fixtures
was momentarily distracted by this metal wreath that I seriously considered bringing home as a souvenir.

One of Gaudi's famous sofas Batllo.
Because we weren't allowed to sit on it, I'll never know if it the most comfortable
seat in the world, or an emergency chiropractic appointment in the making.

The funniest part about Parc Guell is that it was impossible to escape the feeling that we were on a  never-ending hike.  The park is the top of a hill, ugh.  The park itself is built into the side of a hill so there are stairs upon stairs upon stairs to climb once inside the park, double ugh.  So why, with all of this hiking and stair climbing did I not return home as lithe as a gazelle and light as a feather?  Why? (please see: La Colmena Bomboneria)

Even in the early part of the 1900's, Parc Guell would have seemed
anachronistic as it is also filled with references to Ancient Rome.

I really like these stacked-stone pillars filled with succulents.
They reminded me a bit of The Grand Canyon. And gave me ideas
for the scale-model, train landscape that will be in my backyard someday.

In the end, I have not made the decision for myself whether Gaudi was a genius or a madman.  With every work that we viewed, the story of "The Emperor's New Clothes" kept entering my mind.  Differing from the story in the fact that Gaudi actually fabricated a product, I couldn't help but feel that he was gaining fame and earning money by creating the most bizarre forms he could muster and convincing his patrons that the results were the inspired creations of a genius Modernista.  Was his real gift the charisma of a brilliant salesman and the fervor of a religious convert?  I wonder.  

Don't rush me!  I'm still wondering....

A "bill of goods" or the groundbreaking ancestor to modern architecture, Gaudi's body of work is, at its core, a healthy dose of Spanish-flavored wacky tacky.  

I hope you've gotten your fill of Spain as we now return to our regularly-scheduled wacky tacky programming - American style!!!


Mr. Tiny


  1. I love Gaudi, and especially enjoyed Park Guell when I last visited Barcelona a few years ago. So cooooooooool...

    Also: awesome post title!!!!!! :D

    1. Thanks IB!!! It seems like such a long time ago that we were there. I'm ready for a return visit already!

  2. I like ART NOUVEAU but Gaudi style is definitively too strange for me....
    There is a big museum about that style near home because we live near where Art Nouveau was born between Bruxelles and Nancy.
    It's one of the rarest style in Europe, it's for example difficult to find Art Nouveau stuff in flea market but Art Deco is really easy to find...

    1. Gaudis style is definitely weird!!! I can't wait to explore more areas in Europe.

  3. So beautiful! I love the ceiling of the church! So Mary Blair!

  4. Holy Crow!!! No seriously...trip of a lifetime!! WOWZERZ!! Everything is just mind blowing!! Hooray for you guys! Thanks bunches for sharing all these amazing photos! I'm just crossing my fingers to see some Redwoods in person...ha!

    oh and Antoni would make a super fun Halloween Nutcup!! ;)

    Happy October!

    1. Thanks Jenny! He would make an awesome and entirely apropos nutcup!!! I think he may have been a little nuts anyway!!!

  5. Thank you for sharing your Gaudi experiences and superb pictures!! Love this so much! Definitely on my bucket list to see these buildings in person someday.

    1. You must go! I hope you get there sooner rather than later!!!

  6. Patty ChristiansenOctober 10, 2012 at 9:40 PM

    Chris--I've got a series of books you might love. Carlos Zufon is the author. Start with The Shadow of the Wind. All of his books take place in Barcelona, and they are written in Spanish and translated into English. The writing is beautiful! And the story is filled with adventure, mystery, with a little bit of a cafe noir feel. You will like it!

    1. Thanks! I will definitely check those out. I love to read, but I always wait for reliable recommendations!!!