We’re by no means art aficionados, but we know what we like and what gives us pleasure. Today we discovered that Modernism really works for us! We love the sinuous lines, curvaceous facades, intricate detailing, and colourful mosaics that characterise Modernist art and architecture. And given that Barcelona is a centre of Modernism, what better place to explore this unique style!
Modernism is a uniquely Catalan form of art, architecture, and design that flourished in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Like Art Nouveau, it characterises a period in history when things were optimistic; when business was booming, people were prosperous, and the future looked bright. What made Modernism a bit different to its contemporary Belle Epoque counterparts was how it drew on themes of nature and religion, pulling together elements from Islamic and Gothic art. Modernism is is characterised by curves, rather than straight lines; by rich decoration and detail, rather than minimalism; by the frequent use of motifs inspired by nature; and by asymmetrical shapes and design. The end result is sometimes chaotic, but always intriguing, as we discovered today.
Antoni Gaudi is perhaps the best known practitioner of Catalan Modernism, and given that most of his works are here in Barcelona, we set out today to explore the Gaudian side of this amazing city, starting first and foremost with what many say was his greatest work: La Sagrada Familia (i.e. The Holy Family).
Entire dissertations have been written about this incredible church; about the mystical symbolism captured in its many carvings; and about the insane creativity behind its design. All we can say is that La Sagrada Familia is one of the most beautiful, overwhelming, and ridiculous buildings we have ever seen.
Standing more than 200m tall, the building is still incomplete and is estimated to take another 10 years at least to complete. Despite being incomplete, La Sagrada Familia has already been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, and who could argue?! The twisting spires, reaching towards the heavens; the ornate facades, each telling a part of the story of the life of Christ; and the lofty interior are all magnificent.
The basilica’s 3 facades, the Nativity, the Passion and the Glory, tell virtually the entire story of the New Testament in sculpture. Many of its ornamental details also serve a purpose, such as the apse gargoyles, modelled after reptiles and amphibians, which drain excess water from the roof.
Even seen just from the outside, La Sagrada Familia seems like something out of a dream, or at the very least, a really GOOD trip. Which, it seems, may actually be where Gaudi got some of his inspirations from – apparently the man was fond of ingesting a certain hallucinogenic mushroom found in the hills around Barcelona. Magic mushrooms would go at least part of the way to explain the sheer fantasy of La Sagrada Familia, though you still have to admire the genius of a man that can take what he saw and turn it into reality.
With our pre-purchased tickets we managed to avoid the 2 hour queue (ah the joys of the internet!), and got to go inside the church. There we lost ourselves in the forest of columns, and in the colours from the stained glass windows.
The interior of the church is huge, with a central vault more than 60m high. The columns of the interior are a unique Gaudi design; seemingly inspired by nature, the columns branch like trees, supporting the lofty ceiling with apparently minimal effort.
Essentially none of the interior surfaces are flat and everywhere there is detail and elaborate ornamentation. No wonder La Sagrada Familia has taken 130 years to build – and it’s still not complete*!
*Construction of Sagrada Família had commenced in 1882 and has an expected completion date of 2026, the centenary of Gaudi’s death.
We spent a lot of time at La Sagrada Familia, trying to soak in everything around us. Eventually though we had had enough and decided it was time to leave. From there we headed up to another of Gaudi’s famous Modernist sites: Park Guell.
Built between 1900 and 1914, the park is named after Eusebi Guell, a wealthy Catalan industrialist who commissioned the work. Park Guell started out as a dry, rocky hill situated well outside Barcelona of the day. Guell set Gaudi to work on the project, asking him to devise a system whereby the area could be made green and fertile.
Guell’s plan was to create a residential enclave for the rich, where blocks of land could be sold to wealthy industrialists who sought fresh air and an escape from the gritty industrialised city of Barcelona.
What Gaudi did was truly ahead of his time; he devised a system to harness rainfall, store it and distribute it across the park to ensure the hillside bloomed. Still today Park Guell is alive thanks to Gaudi’s unique watering system.
Unfortunately the project never really took off and only 2 lots were ever sold and built on. Eventually the park was bought the Barcelona City Council and converted into a public park, where everyone can enjoy the fresh air and green space.
Some parts of the park can only be visited by buying a ticket, however. These are the areas originally designed to be the community’s public spaces and contain some great examples of Gaudi’s Modernist style – including the iconic lizard-like dragon covered in Gaudi’s signature trencadís, mosaics made with broken tiles of varying shapes and sizes.
The “monumental area” of the park, as it’s called, also includes the areas designed to be the community’s market place and central square. Surrounding the main square there is a bench, covered in mosaics, that snakes around the edge. The unique shape of the serpentine bench enables the people sitting on it to converse privately, even when it is busy.
Perhaps most intriguing to us were the 2 guard houses built to flank the main entry to this gated community. Each of them is unique, but they both looks like something out of a Dr Seuss book, or somewhere the Smurfs might live. Everywhere too there are some very interesting mushroom-like motifs. Mushrooms hmmm?
Finally, having just about exhausted our eyes and our brains, we headed back down the hill and into Barcelona to see one final example of Gaudi’s genius: Casa Mila.
Casa Mila, also known as La Pedrera (i.e. The Quarry, named for its stone exterior), is a Modernist apartment building in the Example neighbourhood. It was the last civil work designed by Gaudi, built between the years 1906 and 1910 (after Casa Mila, Gaudi dedicated himself entirely to La Sagrada Familia).
The building was commissioned in 1906 by businessman Pere Mila. The idea was that Gaudi would design an apartment building where Mila and his family could live, whilst they rented out the other apartments and lived off the rental income. At the time of its construction, Casa Mila was considered the ugliest building in Barcelona b ecause of the undulating stone facade and twisting wrought iron balconies. How times change hey? Today the building is owned by Catalonia’s largest bank and houses offices. It also, no doubt, makes the bank considerable income, given how many millions of tourists a year pay to tour through the building.
Architecturally it is considered structurally innovative, with a self-supporting stone front and columns, and floors free of load bearing walls. Also innovative for the time was the underground garage and the elevators that residents could use to access their apartments. The 200 windows in its two roof-to-ground patio wells help bring light to every corner of the massive building.
Visitors to Casa Mila can tour through one apartment, left as Gaudi designed it to be, and the roof. The apartment was interesting enough, showcasing how the rich would have lived a century ago. The most interesting part of the apartment was the Modernist furniture that Gaudi designed – like the rest of the building it was all curvy lines and unusual shapes.
The best part of building, however, was the roof. Crowned with staircase exits, fans, and chimneys, the roof was a crazy sculptural landscape from which we got to enjoy great views over the city, whilst marvelling at the shapes around us.
After a whole day of visiting Gaudi’s Modernist sites we’re exhausted. The man really was a genius, and the way he used shapes and forms inspired by nature to mix form and function really is intriguing. Not so sure how comfortable it would be to live in one of his whimsical creations though. Still, the colour, creativity, and sheer fantasy of Gaudi’s work is just fascinating and will remain a highlight of Barcelona for us.