What comes to mind when you think of Barcelona? Perhaps the football team, one of the best in the world. Or the Ramblas with its hustle and bustle, human statues, street artists and pavement bars. And then there is the distinctive architecture of Antoni Gaudí with barely a straight line in sight.
(Sagrada Familia: credit: https://pixabay.com/en/users/KarinKarin-145974/)
Born in the southern Catalan city of Reus, Gaudí moved to Barcelona in 1875 for military service. For most of those three years he was on sick leave though and continued his studies, enabling him to graduate as an architect in 1878.
One of his earliest projects was to design the lampposts in Plaça Reial, a square just off the Ramblas. Since the Ramblas is a must for anyone visiting Barcelona it is easy to spend a few minutes in Plaça Reial and if you visit in the evening there are several bars with tables outside.
But it was his design for a display cabinet in the Spanish Pavillion at the 1878 Paris World Fair that brought Gaudí to the attention of Eusebi Güell. He was soon to become Gaudí’s most important patron.
The Güell Patronage
Gaudí’s first job for the Catalan entrepreneur was the design of a hunting lodge and wine cellars in 1882. Although the hunting lodge was never built, the wine cellars were eventually constructed in 1895 near Sitges, south of Barcelona. Gaudí also designed a wrought iron main gate in the shape of a dragon for one of Güell’s properties, the family home on Carrer Nou de la Rambla and a number of other projects.
But perhaps the most dramatic of Gaudí’s projects for Güell was an unsuccessful housing development for the wealthy. Built between 1900 and 1914, only two houses were eventually constructed within the landscaped gardens of Park Güell. Instead it opened as a public park in 1926.
(Trencadís lizard in Park Güell: credit: https://pixabay.com/en/users/quimuns-985093/)
Here you can see the organic forms of Gaudí’s early 20th century work, also seen in Casa Batlló and La Pedrera on Passeog de Gràcia. Despite the Park Güell housing development not being completed, Gaudí did design and build a covered market with pillars at all sorts of crazy angles. You’ll also find seating, statues and fountains all decorated in broken pieces of ceramic, a technique known in Catalan as “trencadís”. Although Gaudí had been using the technique for some years he made extensive use of the technique during the latter part of his career.
Gaudí had been invited to work on the Sagrada Familia in 1883, after the original architect resigned due to creative differences a year into the project. Initially Gaudí continued to work to plan on the crypt until completion in 1889. But when a massive donation was received he proposed an ambitious and much more innovative concept in place of the original neo-gothic design.
As part of his vision for the church, in 1892 Gaudí started work on the Nativity Facade. This was followed by the Rosary portal, completed in 1899. But during this time Gaudí continued to work on his design and develop his ideas.
(Detail of the Nativity Facade: Credit: https://pixabay.com/en/users/Mario555-174635/)
The on-site museum shows how the great architect worked out the complex shapes using strings, ties and weights. This method allowed him to create an upside down design that was load balanced to perfection. He then photographed his string models from various angles and inverted them to create the plans from which to build.
Finally, after the Park Güell housing project was abandoned in 1914, Gaudí decided to devote himself exclusively to Sagrada Famila. As a result he produced no other major work in his latter years.
His design for the naves and roofs was finalised in 1923 and the only tower completed in Gaudí’s lifetime was on the Nativity Facade, completed at the end of November 1925. Some six months later he died of injuries sustained after being hit by a tram.
Although it is estimated that perhaps 10 or 15 percent of the project was completed by Gaudí, construction has continued at a variable rate ever since. Various architects have worked on Sagrada Familia and although the intention is to achieve Gaudí’s vision, techniques have changed radically. Whereas Gaudí used strings and weights, computers are used to calculate the complex loads. And where stone was once hand carved, today it is milled to shape off-site.
Of the 18 planned towers eight have been constructed to date. Although not included in the standard ticket you can visit the tops of two of them, towering 65 metres above, but both are accessed by lift.
From the outside the spires stand out from afar, unmistakably Gaudí. It has to be said, they don’t stand out from afar as much as when construction started when the church was in the middle of a field. How the city has expanded.
(Central nave: Credit: https://pixabay.com/en/users/Angelo_Giordano-753934/)
Inside you have the awe-inspiring cavernous central nave supported by huge columns. Gaudí found his inspiration in trees, from which branches, twigs and leaves all grew and result in extremely organic looking designs. Skylights provide natural illumination, which plays across the columns to create the impression a forest of stone trees.
Currently the project is projected to end in 2026, the centenary of Gaudí’s death, but time will tell. But even if you think you don’t like churches it is a must for the incredible architecture. Both the scale of Gaudí’s vision and his design of make it far more than just a church. When you visit Barcelona Sagrada Familia is a must-see.
Thank you to David Leigh of Barcelona ticketing company, www.simplybarcelonatickets.co.uk, for such an enjoyable article – I can see I am going to have to go back there! It fits perfectly with our other articles on Barcelona – we really are building up quite a guide!
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