Antoni Gaudi
Biography of Catalan Art Nouveau Architect.

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Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926)


Training and Formative Years
Renaixenga: Catalan Cultural Movement
Early Architecture
Baron Eusebi Guell I Bacigalupi
The Palau Guell (1886-91)
The Park Guell (1900-14)
More Controversial Building Designs
The Sagrada Familia (begun 1882)
Further Resources

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.

The Sagrada Familia (begun 1882).
Designed by Antoni Gaudi, one of
the greatest architects of Catalonia.


A leading contributor to modern art, the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi synthesized a number of influences into a magnificent style of architecture that is so personal that it defies categorization. Incorporating the organic forms of Art Nouveau, his architectural design is part of the Catalan Modernism movement, developed in the context of his Gothic Revivalist training and passion for medieval Mediterranean architecture. Reinterpreting early Modernists like the unconventional French designer Eugene Viollet-le-Dec (1814-79) - who held a passionate belief in both the style and function of Gothic architecture - Gaudi studied structure as a way to convey imaginative forms. In the end his extraordinary building designs were a product of his intense Catholic faith, his dedication to Spanish culture and his obsession with the structural logic of nature. A genius of 19th century architecture, he was - along with Victor Horta (1861-1947), Hector Guimard (1867-1942) and Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) - one of the great Art Nouveau architects, as well as being among the most influential modern artists in Spain. His most famous works include: the Episcopal Palace in Leon (1889-93); Casa Calvet (1898-1900); The Sagrada Familia (begun 1882); Guell Park (1900-14) and Casa Mila (1906-10). But Gaudi has also attracted significant controversy. He was a man whose life, works and even death were marked by extremes, and he has been equally praised and demonized by art critics and writers of the twentieth century. It is fair to say that his architectural legacy continues to generate controversy, while his iconic appeal within his native Catalonia has not noticeably decreased during the nearly 90 years since his bizarre death in Barcelona in 1926. On the contrary, in late 1998 the Cardinal of Barcelona nominated Gaudi for sainthood.



Training and Formative Years

Born a Catalan in Reus, Spain, Gaudi was trained as a craftsman in ornamental and utilitarian copperwork and metal smithing by his father. His natural orientation towards a very direct, hands-on approach to both the designing and making processes was well suited to his future architectural profession. During his formative years as an architectural student in Barcelona from 1869 to 1878 he witnessed the strengthening of the city's umbrella nationalist movement which included both regionalists and separatists, and here developed the passionate Catalan sympathies that characterized his life and career. In Barcelona's architectural culture he was at the vanguard of the nationalist sentiment shared by the majority of leading Catalan architects including Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano (1828-1901), Joan Martorell i Montells (1833-1906), Lluis Domenech i Montaner (1850-1923), and Josep Puig i Cadafalch (1867-1956), whose largely regionalist ideology even infiltrated Gaudi's education at the Escuela Superior de Arquitectura where he matriculated in 1878.

Renaixenga: Catalan Cultural Movement

Two of Gaudi's earliest projects carried further undertones of the ideology of the Catalan cultural resurgence movement known as the Renaixenga. Joining Villar at work on a neo-Romanesque chapel at Montserrat in 1877, he worked briefly within an architectural style promoted amongst "national" idioms by Renaixenga protagonists. In the following year he exhibited preparatory drawings in Paris for a new settlement comprising residential facilities and a factory for the co-operative of textile artisans at Mataro; a program betraying Renaixenca ideology in its paternalistic sentiment and the influence of John Ruskin's social ideology. By the time Gaudi began his first independent architectural commission, the Casa Vicens in Barcelona in 1883, he was saturated with a pietistic utopianism that professed cultural resurgence and argued for a unification of the ancient with the contemporary as the means to a better future.

For other great Catalan artists, see: the colourful expressionist painter Joaquin Sorolla Y Bastida (1863-1923), the great Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), and the surrealist Salvador Dali (1904-89).



Early Architecture

His earliest works as an independent architect in the 1880s all show his ability to communicate political and social meaning through the visual vocabulary of architecture and decorative art. Buildings like the Casa Vicens (1883-88), the rural villa "El Capricho" (1883-85) and the remarkably elegant Guell Pavilions (1884-87), with their honeycombed stucco are well known for their expression of a "Moorish", but more accurately Mudejar style at which Gaudi became an acknowledged master.

The Mudejar style, an art and architecture of Islamic derivation arising on the Iberian Peninsula in the eleventh century, was revived during the late nineteenth century within a specifically Catalan context. It appeared in Gaudi's work and elsewhere as part of a synthetic, decorative approach at the vanguard of the Catalan medievalist revival, which also included the neo-Gothic idiom.

The exteriors of Gaudi's buildings mentioned above are indicative of his personal interpretation of the Mudejar style. The crowning minaret-like turrets recall indigenous Islamic art; in their largely decorative rather than functional purpose becoming leitmotifs in Gaudi's oeuvre. A Mudejar style is also noticeable in Gaudi's preference for dense surface ornamentation and patterning, created by horizontal and stepped detailing of decorative brickwork and finely polychromed, ceramic cladding.

An expressive use of coloured ceramic tiling became one of Gaudi's stylistic trademarks, suggesting a personal taste in crafts-based media. A consistently strong emphasis on materials in his work betrays his intrinsic understanding of craftsmanship and crafts-based methods as being at the very heart of good design. In this, he was a man of his time in Barcelona where a prominent crafts resurgence was fuelled by the desire to reassert local traditions.

A similar resurgence of folk art and applied art was taking place in Vienna, thanks to the Wiener Werkstatte (Vienna Workshop). This was a decorative arts studio founded by Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, who - along with Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) and the architect Joseph Maria Olbrich (1867-1908) - founded the Vienna Secession.

Count Eusebi Guell i Bacigalupi (1846-1918)

Gaudi's Catalanist ideals were perhaps most in sympathy with those of his most important patron, the Catalan industrialist and paternalist, the Count Eusebi Guell i Bacigalupi. He first met Guell in 1878 and would go on to design some of his most persuasive structures for this patron. Over 20 years, Guell commissioned from Gaudi a series of substantial projects, their authority and sheer creative drive attesting to the intimate and nurturing bond between architect and patron. These projects included the Guell Pavilions outside of Barcelona (1884-87), the Palau Guell (1886-89), the Crypt and Chapel of the Colonia Guell (1898-1917), modest warehouses and a chapel at the Bodegas Guell, Garraf (1898-1917) and the checkerboard-like Park Guell (1900-14) overlooking Barcelona.

With Guell, Gaudi became ever more rooted within Catalan cultural politics. At his patron's house he met with other avant-garde and romanticist artists, poets and novelists of the Renaixenga movement, discussing among other topics the social reformist writings of the art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) and the French neo-Gothicist Viollet-le-Duc, both of whom advocated a regionalist approach to architecture. Clearly Guell saw himself as a new patron of the emerging Catalan avant-garde art, and he employed Gaudi as part of an aesthetic power base which derived from the political and paternalistic affinities shared between the two.

The Palau Guell (1886-91)

The Palau Guell is a palatial, marble encrusted urban residence, also intended as a luxurious focus for Renaixenga cultural activities. Its massive column between the entry portals of the ground storey exhibits the Catalan emblem. Built as a showcase for the forthcoming 1888 Barcelona World Exposition, the palace displays the patron's taste, aesthetic erudition, and political persuasion. It also exemplifies Gaudi's synthetic incorporation of elements from Mudejar, Gothic and Renaissance sources fused into a thoroughly individual statement.

The simple facade is punctuated by two archways containing a intricately woven wrought-iron lattice fabricated to include allusions to Gaudi's patron. Wrought-iron ornamentation was deeply indicative of Gaudi's aesthetics and allowed him to achieve an unlimited degree of self-expression via crafts-based skill. This is borne out early on in the delightful iron-work benches, arbours and little balconies of "El Capricho", and thereafter throughout his oeuvre.

The grandiose, prison-like "Dragon Gate" which links the two small Guell Pavillions is, however, one of Gaudi's greatest realizations of exotic fantasy in wrought-iron. Of ceremonial bearing, the gate gives access to a recreational estate. The dynamic tension of the design is equally two and three dimensional, relying on nervousness of line as much as texture. It displays a huge frightening dragon with splayed jaws and extended wings emerging from a twisted body.

The Park Guell (1900-14)

The Park Guell, a landscape of extravagance nestled in the hills above Barcelona, was equally meant to express Guell's confidence in the reformist ideology of the Renaixenga. It was conceived by Gaudi as a "garden suburb" accommodating as many as sixty individual middle-class households in a walled community, complete with infrastructure such as viaducts, avenues, play area, covered market and plaza. Only two houses were built, while the church planned to symbolically arise from the summit of the hill was never constructed. In effect the Park Guell celebrated a middle-class "pleasure principle", underpinned by morality and family values, but nevertheless manifest in Gaudi's unprecedented fusion of texture, colour, natural and artificial space and structural form.

Still popular as municipal grounds, the Park Guell is at once impish and surrealistic; a fairytale garden combining the ethos of Disneyland with that of an anti-diluvian Jurassic Park. The site is circumscribed by serpentine enclosing walls setting the festive tenor of the recreational area within, while barring "the other" from outside the perimeter. Sloping walled grottoes excavated from the hillside, and columns and walls constructed of rough-hewn rubble introduce the concept that nature itself generates architectural form. The polychromatic, tiled parapet-bench which effortlessly curls around the flat roof of the market hall is amongst the most famous examples of Gaudi's use of ceramic, porcelain and glass shards in abstract collages which also embellish fountains. With this commission Gaudi firmly established his reputation as an eccentric genius.


More Controversial Building Designs

Paul Guell was the start of a critical period of Gaudi's mature work in which conventional architecture decomposes and he conscientiously begins to subvert accepted norms of structural form and space.

The Casas Batllo and Mila represent the clearest assertion of Gaudi's mature organic style and represent the pinnacle of his achievement in design for secular buildings. The buildings arose near one another in the heart of Barcelona, each comprising multiple rather than single apartments. They constitute highly self-assured architectural statements intended to be seen and to provoke.

The remarkable and unprecedented absence of straight lines and right angles either inside or outside the Casas Batllo and Mila have caused them to be consistently described by reference to botany, geology and zoology, in order to explain what Gaudi himself called their thoroughly "anti-classical" and "anti-historicist" character.

Gaudi's intentional evocation not merely of nature, but more specifically of the emerging natural sciences is perhaps one of the most under-explored aspects of his architectural identity. During the late nineteenth century, religion and science were still brimming with animosity. But in northern Europe several early practitioners of Art Nouveau (called Jugendstil in Germany and Austria) combined a keen pursuit of the natural sciences with parallel careers in design. Among these, for example, the works of the progressive Scottish architect Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo (1851-1942), and the Scottish designer Christopher Dresser (1834-1904), a respected Doctor of Botany, would have been accessible to Gaudi through British Arts and Crafts sources such as The Studio Magazine. But it is somewhat less the point that their works embody osteomorphic linear swells and undulating organic surfaces as leitmotifs of the emerging Art Nouveau style,than that they acutely studied the natural sciences in and of themselves. In Mackmurdo's case, this also included the new social sciences as espoused in the evolutionary theory of, for example, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903).

Gaudi's own visual - not architectural - language in the Casas Batllo and Mila was drawn from paleontological, as well as geological sources. At the Casa Batllo this is patently apparent in the fossil-like column of vertebra, which appear to remain implanted within the rock-like stratum of the stairway. At the Casa Mila the cave-like articulation of windows and interior spaces betrays a similarly scientific tone, which in part then belies the steady claims that Gaudi's mature works, but for the excellence of their engineering, amount to nothing more than the musings of a madman.

The sculptural tendencies in both buildings are equally pronounced, confirming Gaudi's complete transition to a conceiving of architecture as a form of plastic art rather than immovable structure.

The Sagrada Familia (begun 1882)

Mockingly referred to as a "pile of stones", construction on the Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family began in 1882 and was entrusted to the 31-year-old Gaudi in November 1883. Before this Gaudi had completed no major independent architectural commission, although his first residential commission in Barcelona, the Casa Vicens (1878-1888), was well underway. During 1882 he had worked alongside the medievalist Catalan architect Joan Martorell i Montells, under whom he learnt an eclectic formulation of revivalist idioms in the popular neo-Gothic style. The older Martorell must have been impressed, for it was with his endorsement the following year that Gaudi obtained the coveted post of Director of Works at the immense Basilica of the Holy Family.

Gaudi's supervision of the cathedral building-program lasted for 43 years to 1926. Among the best-known anecdotes of Gaudi's life is that he resided in modest workshops in the cathedral precinct during his final years: a decision no doubt dictated by a combination of logistical convenience, the effects of increasing ill health and his fervent devotion to the realization of this monumental and enigmatic shrine. Such an apparently idiosyncratic gesture confirms the depths to which Gaudi had entrenched himself within a crafts ideology, if not an historicist allure of great past traditions of Medieval French and Spanish cathedral construction.

The complexity of the building program required a host of master craftsmen and engineers performing as a unified team committed to Gaudi's architectural agenda. Within their midst Gaudi himself is said to have scurried about attending to every manner of structural, engineering and aesthetic detail. The fulfilment of the undertaking remained dependent upon established architectural traditions of expertise and multi-disciplinary endeavour.

All too often overlooked, this is well worth highlighting for despite the controversial forms of the church, Gaudi bequeathed to Barcelona a legacy of co-operative workmanship to which generations of craftsmen like him have devoutly contributed. Historically, the cathedral has been heralded not exclusively as Gaudi's endeavour, but in a more nationalistic vein as that of all Catalans, invoking John Ruskin's deeply romantic espousal of the authority of medieval architectural practice with its intimate brotherhood of masons, cutters, pavers, tilers, glaziers and sculptors working in tandem with the local community, dedicated en masse to actualizing an architectural and devotional ideology intrinsically linked to the tangible, economic well-being of the their "extended" community.

Gaudi saw the near completion of only one of three main facades of the church - the eastern Nativity facade; three of four eastern towers, less their kaleidoscopic, ceramic-encrusted pinnacles which were then finished almost immediately following his death; the crypt begun in 1882 by the first architect Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano (1828-1901); and a substantial segment of the outer apse wall.

As a church of atonement, resources for the new cathedral were insufficient from the outset. Never receiving municipal assistance, the church was to be constructed entirely from the private sector by donations, some of which Gaudi himself solicited on foot in Barcelona during the First World War.

Sons and grandsons of craftsmen who worked there with Gaudi continue a resolute familial association with the controversial, but perpetually unfinished project.

The Sagrada Familia is neo-Gothic only in its emphatic height and ideological purpose. The cathedral's first architect, Villar, was responsible for the conventional Latin Cross plan and overall disposition. The building's imposing proportions are meant to harbour five naves, the central one measuring a formidable 95 metres in length, with the transept length two-thirds of that and 30 metres across. It's choir galleries could ideally accommodate a daunting 1500 vocalists.

Gaudi's training had essentially been an inculcation into neo-Gothicism. As an architectural student at Barcelona's Escuela Superior he became immersed in the popular stylistic approach of Barcelona's most persuasive medieval revivalist architects. Nevertheless, his two early buildings considered the "most" neo-Gothic merely bow to medieval styling on their exteriors and in some internal features. Both the Bishop's Palace at Leon, and the residential Casa de los Botines (1881-84) use neo-Gothic elements with sophisticated economy, such as tripartite glazing, corner turrets, pointed arches, French Gothic capitals and rounded towers. Motifs drawn from medieval secular precedents also appear and are combined by Gaudi in a thoroughly eclectic fashion. These buildings prove Gaudi's intimacy with medievalist styling and suggest the neo-Gothic typology which might have been used at the Sagrada Familia, but wasn't.

His unusual design of the eastern Nativity facade, surmounted by those looming parabolic bell towers, which measure approximately 100 metres each, is anything but conventional. This is not only the most photographed section of the existing building, but provides the most tangible evidence of Gaudi's mature, increasingly aberrant architectural vision.

Gaudi's busy and interpenetrating surfaces confirm his interpretation of architecture as organic structure which expresses the growth potential and evolutionary properties of nature. The facade of Sagrada Familia is a purposeful visual statement of this architectural approach, and parallels the equally geological, but more tentative "jagged" undulations of his Casa Batllo (1904-1906,) and the broader, more intrepid triple facades of the famously cliff-like Casa Mila (1906-1910). On all three buildings Gaudi looked upon the rock-coloured faces as opportunities to meld sculptural plasticity with architectural mass; to the extent that it becomes impossible to see were one structural or decorative element ends and the next begins. (See also: Architecture: Glossary.)

The colossal bell towers equally defy comparison with any architectural precedents outside of Gaudi's own oeuvre. Initially conceived as square, with Gaudi they evolved into rounded majestic protuberances. Their tapering, futuristic appearance does not derive from antecedent Gothic spires, but rather from their idiosyncratic parabolic configurations, complemented by an open network of square and columnar braces producing a honeycombed effect. Their aggressive upward thrust acutely expresses Gaudi's predilection for growth metaphors, the labyrinth of towers suggesting an otherworldly "forest in stone".

Likewise, figural sculpture depicting Biblical scenes and meant to adorn the cathedral throughout, fulfilled not only a conventional didactic purpose, but also symbolic and metaphorical ones. Based by Gaudi upon a series of plaster moulds and photographs taken frm living models, the implicit human fragility of these stone sculptures must be seen against the elemental brutality of the facade's pulsating surface.

Among his most daring innovations at the Sagrada Famila, the parabolic arch - one of Gaudi's most notorious personal trademarks - is worth focusing upon. His experimentation with its potential may have begun as early as 1882, its first proper appearance was in the stables of the Guell Pavillions (1887) where it facilitated the infusion of soft natural light through the arched openings in the roof. At roughly the same time at the Palau Guell (1887-91), Gaudi employed the parabola as a significant engineering, as well as theatrical feature in a residential setting of some magnificence. Here, the parabolic arch appears in two ways: firstly in twin arches of the entrance, and on bay windows above; secondly, as the main structural element creating the apparently monumental interior spaces grouped about the reception area covered by the substantial parabolic vaulting. At the Colegio Teresiano, Barcelona (1889-94) Gaudi made the parabolic arch the main architectural motif of the interior. The most dramatic precedents for the forceful treatment of the parabola at the Sagrada Familia, however, can be seen in some especially fantastic plans for two unexecuted projects, both known today through drawings: firstly, in sketches (1892-3) for a church and monastery for the Franciscans of Tangier; then in 1908 in sketches for a hotel complex in New York City.

While working on the Sagrada Famila, Gaudi was simultaneously engaged on another important commission - the unrealized Chapel and incomplete Crypt (1898-1917) of the Guell Colony in Sant Coloma de Cervello. The Guell Colony Crypt is extraordinary. Its slanting columns and arcuated structures disable conventional perceptions of interior space and architectural support. But for the the exquisite craftsmanship of the brick and basalt work and the sophisticated arrangement of the many polychromed, ceramic surfaces, the crypt gives the impression of having been excavated from slanted fissures in the hillock of which it forms an organic part. Within the crypt Gaudi excells as a structural engineer. It is impossible not to praise such an enchanting and yet brutal spiritual space where the altar chapel ceiling suddenly proliferates in a cage of primitive arches and columns which seem to be driven by centrifugal force.

Further Resources

For more about architecture and building design through the ages, see the following resources:

- Egyptian Architecture
- Baroque Architecture
- Baroque Architects
- Neoclassical Architecture
- Guggenheim Bilbao

• For biographies of other modern artists from Spain, see: Famous Painters.
• For more about 19th/20th century architectural design, see: Homepage.

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