Love him or hate him; there seems to be little room for opinions between those extremes when it comes to Antoni Gaudi, the architect who is more closely identified with transforming a single city than anyone perhaps since Sir Christopher Wren and his additions to London’s skyline. When visiting Barcelona, it is impossible not to see Gaudi’s works. They never fit in, seeming to be completely at odds with the buildings surrounding them.
My first impression when visiting the city nearly a decade ago was one of sheer hatred. I found his designs gaudy (and I am not the first nor the last to point out the similarities between his name and that seemingly-appropriate adjective), a cross between Willy Wonka and a bad acid trip. So on this visit to Barcelona, I decided that it was time to force Gaudi on myself, to determine if that first instinct was correct, or if the architectural “genius” could win me over.
I set out to see five of his most famous local designs: Casa Milà, Casa Batlló, Parc Guell, Casa Vicens, and his masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia. Here is what I learned of the man, the style, the buildings, and the impact to the city.
Casa Milà – My First Opinion was Correct
Casa Milà, also known as La Pedrera, or the stone quarry for its curving stone exterior, is an apartment building on Passeig de Gràcia, Barcelona’s main thoroughfare. The Milà family commissioned Gaudi to design it, and their flat was the largest inside. Built from 1906 to 1912, the building was initially poorly received by the other members of Barcelona’s elite who lived along the street, and its nickname reflects their disdain.
The outside of the “stone quarry”
To me, the outside appears to be stone melting away, and I don’t find the interior a ton more appealing, especially as the audio tour tells me how full of “life” and “nature” the design is. The building is light and airy, constructed around a central courtyard, and I do like that, though!
The courtyard is fairly pleasant.
The tour begins on the roof, where I am confronted by stone pillars – many with the Cross of St. George on top – known as the “guardians of the roof.” While more interesting than normal chimneys, I find them ugly, gaudy, and – to be honest – a bit scary.
These rooftop chimneys and adornments are not my favorites.
By the time he designed Casa Milà, Antoni Gaudi was already quite famous in Barcelona, and his works were spread out all over the city. Known as a bit of an eccentric, his style is unique, but so is his method of design. He actually designed the structural elements of his buildings upside down, with weights hanging from chains representing the amount of stress on each portion of the building. Inside one of the apartments of Casa Milà – only one is part of the tour – is the original such model of the Sagrada Familia!
What a unique way to design!
While there are some things that I didn’t hate, this was not a building that would change my impression of Gaudi, and especially not at the upwards of €20 price.
Casa Batlló – I Don’t Hate This
A few years earlier and just a short distance from what would become Casa Milà on Passeig de Gràcia, Gaudi was commissioned to do a renovation on the home of the Batlló family. In 1904, the architect was brought in for a two year project redesigning the facades, expanding the central light well – more on that in a bit – and adding new interior and exterior touches for the home, Casa Batlló. The outside looks to me like a masquerade ball, which is a bit weird, but I find myself attracted to the color.
The main feature here is the tile work, one of Antoni Gaudi’s staples. It seems abstract, patterns of blues and purples that are meant to remind passers-by of the ocean, a theme that will carry to the rest of the home. This tile has been emulated all over Barcelona. Just take a look at the columns of the Palau de la Musica Catalana, designed by a contemporary of Gaudi.
Can you see the similarities between these columns from Palau de la Musica and Gaudi’s work?
Casa Batlló is, as mentioned, largely ocean-themed. The interior has some incredible stained glass and curved features resembling seashells, bubbles, and waves.
An interior room. Note the curves, and the coral-sequence ceiling work.
A shell-shaped ceiling
However, what was most impressive to me was the light well. Casa Batlló is a fairly thin and tall building with neighbors on both sides, so getting natural light into the house was key. Light wells were common in such buildings, but Gaudi designed some innovative additions to this one. First, it narrows closer to the top so that light is even throughout, even though some of it is closer to the sun than other parts. He also had the tile change shades of blue so that it appears uniform from any angle, regardless of the amount of light getting in. Seemingly small features like this jump out on my €25 tour, and I find myself a bit more intrigued by the architect.
The light well. Note the narrowing and darkening as it gets closer to the top.
Parc Guell – Weird but Beautiful
At first glance, Barcelona seems fairly flat. However, it gradually slopes upward away from the Mediterranean, culminating in the hills of the Collserola range. At the top of Carmel Hill sits Parc Guell, a public park – although part of it charges admission – designed by Antoni Gaudi on behalf of Count Guell, one of the major benefactors of the city and the most regular sponsor of Gaudi’s works. (The architect designed the Guell family home, mausoleum, and more.) While Gaudi obviously didn’t design the view, many aspects of the park feature his unique takes on modernism, and accent what is probably the best viewpoint of the city.
The park was completed in 1914 – though it didn’t open as a public park until 1926 – and is built as a large municipal garden. Indeed, it was originally envisioned to be the communal garden of a development of luxury homes in the area. Gaudi’s work can be easily spotted. We see his tile work, fanciful geometric shapes and curves, and the playfulness of the many levels of the park, and the opportunity to use those for interesting water features and staircases.
Tile and cement animals like this lizard are water features lining some of the central staircases.
The most interesting portion is the Greek Theatre, though outside of columns it doesn’t resemble any Greek theatre I’ve ever seen. This is in the portion of the park with an entrance fee, as well as a strict cap on visitors, so be prepared to wait in a line. The rest of the park is open to the public, though, and is a popular picnic, walking, and jogging green space in one of the densest cities in Europe.
The Greek Theatre
Antoni Gaudi himself actually lived here in a small home within the park, from 1906 until his death – he was run over by a streetcar – in 1926. It is now a small museum, although unless you really want to see the home in which the architect lived, it is not worth the admission fee.
Casa Vicens – I Would Live Here
Did you know that before Gaudi developed his modernist style that he had an Orientalist period? I didn’t either, until I came to Casa Vicens. This was the first house that Antoni Gaudi designed, way back in 1883. It is in Gràcia, now part of Barcelona but previously a village outside the city. Unlike his later works where tile would feature, the outside is much more about wood paneling.
Already the bright colors that would come to define him are easily seen, and the wrought iron has begun to come into play – though at this point it takes more traditional shapes instead of the abstracts seen in Casa Batlló or Casa Milà.
The wrought iron here is whimsical but with familiar forms.
Casa Vicens is all about nature, taking its cues from flowers and plants, and occasionally animals. While there is a small garden behind the home, the inside is so heavily decorated that it can almost seem like being outside. The wood paneling continues inside as well, giving this home a more somber – and a less abstract – feeling. For me, this is what makes it more livable. While some of the decor is a bit overwhelming, the house still feels like a house, rather than a confluence of random shapes and curves.
A nature-inspired room
As this was his first house, Gaudi was still “finding himself.” One room in particular stands out as not really feeling like part of the rest of the space, although it definitely reminds me of what an Orientalist period should look like. (Also, since this was his first house, there is an exhibit upstairs featuring models of the first houses designed by more than a dozen famous architects. It is awesome!)
Even this room, while overweening, was lovely.
Overall, the combination of wood, nature, light, and a more traditional design makes this house one I’d actually live in, and I can honestly say that – with a couple small exceptions – I loved it!
Need more light? Paint a skylight!
Sagrada Familia – Too Much For Words
Sagrada Familia was, by design, my last stop before having to cut my Barcelona trip short due to the arrival of COVID-19 in Spain. Begun by Gaudi in 1883, at the time of his death it was less than 25% complete. While it is considered to be his masterpiece, and one of the most famous buildings in the world, only a single facade was really completed by Antoni Gaudi himself, the facade depicting the nativity.
Part of the nativity facade
And depict it, it does. One archway features Mary, another Joseph. Here are the wise men, there other scenes. Everywhere you look, there are carvings. Not a single surface is left unadorned. It is, in a word, overwhelming, although the audio tour included with admission is thorough and explains much of it – as good a reason as any to purchase admission (besides the chance to see the inside).
The level of detail is extraordinary. Also, note the leaves. Even here, Gaudi is inspired by nature.
Even the towers are covered with adornment, some with crosses, others with fruit symbolizing life, harvest, and plenty.
Fruit atop some small towers
Perhaps the most “iconic” symbol of Sagrada Familia isn’t part of the church at all: the cranes that have been a constant feature for decades, as construction continues on the building to this day. It is expected to be completed in 2026, to mark the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death. Locals are hopeful but far from optimistic; the central and tallest tower hasn’t even begun to go up yet.
Cranes over the nativity facade
The other finished facade is of a completely different style – and color. (While it’s the same stone, it is much newer, and attempts to power wash the older facade failed, so the current plan is to just wait for this to age as well.) The third facade, which will focus on the glory, has not yet been started, again leading to pessimism about the project’s completion.
The passion facade
This facade, depicting the passion, was completed by Josep Maria Subirachs and features much squarer figures. It even has one designed to look like Gaudi!
The inside of the church is as opposite from the outside as can be. I find the outside to be akin to a Michael Bay film – the scene shifts constantly and it is hard for anything to keep my attention for more than a few seconds because there is so much going on. Inside is almost peaceful. Gaudi envisioned Sagrada Familia to be the opposite of most churches, which have heavily adorned interiors and relatively stark exteriors. Here, interior walls are mostly bare stone, although the columns and stained glass light up the room in a way that is magical.
I’ll include a few pictures of the inside below without description, taken from a few angles, but consider for a moment the columns. Designed to resemble trees in a forest – nature, as we have learned, has always been at the forefront of Gaudi’s works – they are different species of trees, with differing thicknesses and types of stone, depending on how much of a load they are to bear of the final tower structure. Remember Gaudi’s upside down hanging model from Casa Milà? This is where we will find out if it worked, as the central tower will put stress on the largest of the columns. Overall, the interior is airy and serene, and I am both blown away and enchanted.
Five designs, five very different projects, and for me, five completely different feelings. My evolution from hatred to appreciation to outright enjoyment of the works of Antoni Gaudi was a reminder that initial reactions aren’t always the right ones, and that being forced to experience something I don’t immediately love can be a helpful exercise in my life and travels. While I am not about to have a student of Gaudi’s style design my next abode, I can certainly understand why he is considered an architectural genius, and I am grateful to have had this chance to learn from him.
Note: thank you so much to Barcelona Turisme for providing me with a press pass that allowed for admission to all of the Gaudi sites included here. I am grateful for the partnership!
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