You may never have heard of Antoni Gaudi. But if you live in Barcelona you can’t NOT hear about him. The two are inseparable.
But more than 2 million people come to see it every year, making it one of the most visited monuments in Spain. It has become a ‘gawp factory,’ in the words of PJ O’Rourke. You will never see a cathedral like it.
As you walk out of the Metro at LSF you stare up at immense swirling spires of lace made out of stone. It is a soaring, eccentric gingerbread fantasy. It is like a kid’s giant sandcastle; it’s as if he stuck shells and bits of seaweed in it, depicting trees and birds.
The effect is startling, like seeing colored lights on the dome of Saint’s Peter’s.
The interior leaves the jaw hanging; it is intended to resemble a forest, with inclined columns like branching trees. He thought a church should reflect nature and nature isn’t straight. So he has used hyperboloids, paraboloids, and helicoids (curves, cones, and spirals)as well as fractals, which look like broccoli. And it’s BIG – the nave and aisles can accommodate fourteen thousand worshipers.
There are endless saints and symbols, flowers and fruit. Even lizards.
His perfectionist frenzy drove him to extraordinary lengths. He had a donkey hoisted up the facade of the church to see how it might look in a sculpted nativity scene; he made plaster casts of drugged-out turkeys to get the detail right. For the Massacre of the Innocents, he modeled with stillborn babies. He attended a death at a hospital so he could see the moment when the soul departed the body.
His surreal vision established him as the leader of the Spanish modernisme movement. He took “thinking outside the box” to a different level. He thought outside the box that the box came in.
No one knows when his masterwork will be finished. It’s only recently stopped letting the weather in.
Who was the man who created this work of madness and genius; and what can he teach us about creativity?
As a young man he was a dandy; yet he died a vegetarian bachelor who washed in cold water, ate lunches of lettuce leaves dipped in milk, and wore suits tinged with green mould.
But as an architectural student he had displayed neither eccentricity nor even any particular aptitude. He had graduated in 1878. His grades were only average and he occasionally failed courses. When handing him his degree, Elies Rogent, director of Barcelona Architecture School, said: “We have given this academic title either to a fool or a genius. Time will show.”
The jury is still out in some quarters.
He was a very private man. When not at building sites Gaudí spent much of his time kneeling in prayer.
On 7 June 1926, he was walking along the Gran Via and was struck by a number 30 tram. He looked like a beggar so he did not receive immediate aid. By the time the chaplain of the Sagrada Família tracked him down to a pauper’s hospital it was too late. He died on 10 June 1926 and was buried in the crypt of his unfinished cathedral.
Gaudi was a pantser – or was he? He had plans, but few written ones, just the bare minimum required by the authorities. But he left behind a plaster model of the nave big enough to walk through. But he was constantly changing his mind about details. If the quarry found an unusual stone he’d adapt.
SO WHAT CAN WE LEARN?
1. KNOW THE RULES BEFORE YOU BREAK THEM: NOT THE OTHER WAY ROUND
All of Gaudí’s works, however outwardly unruly, proceed from internal discipline. He had studied geometry thoroughly when he was young. To determine the catenary curves of arches, he would tack a sketch of a foundation plan on the ceiling, hang loops of string, and attach weights along the loops in proportion to down forces. Then he’d take a photograph, turn the print upside-down, and get his elevation view. He made sure his stuff wouldn’t fall down before he messed with it.
2. ABSORB AS MUCH INFLUENCE FROM AS MANY DIFFERENT SOURCES AS YOU CAN. THEN GO YOUR OWN WAY
Gaudí was inspired by Islamic art and when young studied a book about the plans, elevations, sections and details of the Alhambra, which he borrowed from the architectural school’s library. Later he moved towards Modernisme, then in its heyday. He brought Gothic forms into the Catalan “national” style. He journeyed through Doric to Baroque. But in the end he created a fusion that was entirely his own. He put himself and his personal passions into his work entirely.
3. HE RISKED RIDICULE
Gaudi has only recently been ‘discovered.’
For years work on the building was abandoned. Franco’s supporters vandalized his workshop and drawings. One critic in the early 1950s described his famous façades as ‘bulbous obscenities.”
George Orwell, in Barcelona during the Civil War, called the Sagrada Família “one of the most hideous buildings in the world.”
But finally (in 1984, George?) that world caught up with his vision.
These days you either love him or you hate him; but those who love him call him God’s architect and want to make him a saint.
4. KNOW WHEN CRITICISM IS JUSTIFIED
No one knows when that point is. His buildings didn’t fall down; for an architect, this is a very important rule. So are people criticizing your structure or your vision? That is perhaps what all artists have to learn from Gaudi – if they are just criticizing an artists’s vision then one day the world may catch up.
But if the building falls down – it doesn’t matter how much creativity you bring to it.
And the fifth lesson? Watch out for the number 30 tram …
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