Worth Doing Güell (SOS)

_PW_1830Situated much further out from the city that the other Gaudí sites that I’ve written about, Parc Güell seemed no less popular, based on my inability to get a shot of the famous mosaic salamander without someone draping themselves over it for their holiday album.

To be fair, I like to try to find a different way of shooting iconic locations so I didn’t lose too much sleep over it but perhaps the vandals who damaged it with an iron bar in 2007 didn’t feel the same.

The park was originally intended as a housing development mooted by the entrepreneur Count Eusebio Güell and inspired by the English Garden City Movement.  Perhaps he should have waited to see how the English took to the concept; only two such cities were built (Letchworth & Welwyn).  At Parc Güell only two houses were built, in addition to the existing country house home of the Count, and neither  was designed by Gaudí.  He did move into one of them and that has now become a museum populated with his works and those of his collaborators.  (Entry is not included with the park ticket unfortunately)

Still there is much in the park to enjoy, on a larger scale than the details he has crafted elsewhere, and additionally the garden setting permits the comparison between his work and the natural features that he sought to incorporate.

The main terrace, called The Greek Theatre by some and The Nature Square by others, was intended for public performances and is surrounded by a serpentine bench that provides plenty of seating and yet a modicum of privacy at the same time by creating small booth-like recesses.  Naturally this evolved into a public park when the project failed, though in doing so it became difficult to control the numbers onsite and thereby ensure the protection of the structures.  It was the intervention of the authorities to make the park open only to those willing to pay for entry that led to the act of vandalism.  Whilst the frustration is understandable, this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and charging the many international visitors for the privilege is a logical way to fund its preservation.

_PW_1550Many of those features have been photographed from every angle, so the challenge of finding something new is considerable.  Visiting early allowed me some different lighting options, but even so the features are immediately recognisable.

So where to find something photogenic but with a hint of originality?  In the place that most of the tourists overlook.  The two lodges that stand on either side of the main entrance function as gift shop and a venue to display photographs and information on the history of the park.  In each case most people are distracted by the contents, or the opportunity to lean out of windows and be photographed by friends or family.  They miss the curving lines of plasterwork and window frame in their rush to see the park, and thus presented me with my opportunity…



House of Bones (SOS)

_PW_1317In the same way as Casa Milà is better known as Le Pedrera (The Quarry), so Casa Batlló, another Gaudí masterpiece, has a number of alternative names in the local population.  Some refer to it as the Dragon House, referring to the scaly ceramic roof tiles and suggesting that the Gaudí cross and turret to the left represent the lance of St George.

Others, looking at the rounded shapes of the main windows are reminded of a fully open mouth and have called the building “The House of Yawns”.  Understandable, but entirely inappropriate for such an innovative and exciting structure.

The supporting pillars that are best examined through those yawning apertures have an organic flow similar to a femur expanding at the knee-joint when seen from below.  Closer examination shows that the influence is actually floral, but “House of Bones” is another name that has stuck.

Even the name Batlló creates variations as ignorant visitors like me struggle to imagine how the tongue should tackle it.  In fact the pronunciation is very easy when you know how, but for the non-Catalans you can listen to it here.

Between the bones and dragon scales there is another feature that adorns the exterior.  A band of coloured ceramics in Gaudí’s signature trencadis that create an effect similar to a Monet painting, and there is more of this technique deployed in a multitude of ways to different effect throughout the building.

So striking is the exterior that it overshadows the adjoining Casa Amattler which is
another masterpiece of Catalan modernism, and I wonder how _PW_9987many of the thousands of tourists who gaze upwards in wonderment outside Battló each day ever take time to consider its neighbour.  Instead they throng with selfie sticks and struggle to render the masterpiece as background to their latest timeline addition before moving onto the next photo opportunity.  If they’re really smart though they’ll take the time to venture inside.

When I was young I read Roger Dean’s Views, the book in which the celebrated artist behind so many prog rock album covers explained some of his techniques and inspiration. (One Yes album famously features a series of clouds which were incorporated to camouflage the impact of one of his cats traversing his canvas).  The final chapter of that book fascinated me the most however.  Here Dean explained his plans to create a house for him and his family that was constructed from the same organic shapes that populated his imagery.  It was like nothing I’d ever seen before.  Until I stepped inside Casa Battló.

The tour guides tell you that it’s a house without straight lines, and though this is patently untrue you can understand why they share that view.  Walls bulge, staircases meander, glass bends light to distort the views beyond.  It’s a remarkable feat of design, but one that shows a great deal of insight too.

The central light well is sheathed in blue ceramics, but blues that change in hue to become brighter and more reflective on the lower levels where light is needed, and more absorbent to cut glare nearer the sky.

The loft space, composed of Gaudí’s much-loved catenary arches, was designed to house the laundry facilities for the tenants of the apartments within, and despite it’s functionality has a tranquil beauty derived from the softness of the curves and the diffused light which creeps in through gaps in the walls without ever being harsh and direct.

Similarly a pair of pillars stand by the doorway to the roof terrace whose function is to break up the light rather than support the roof,  a charming fireplace for intimate conversation features a single seat on one side and a double to the other – providing space for a chaperone.  Nothing in a Gaudí building should ever be taken at face value!_PW_1210

Gaudí’s genius shows its different facets in different projects; the Sagrada is audacious, Le Pedrera is practical, Parc Guell is capricious.  The joy of Battló is that here you get it all in single dose.  Even if you’re only in Barcelona briefly its a must.




Redemption (SOS)

Christians believe that Jesus redeemed the world from sin by sacrificing himself for the sake of all humanity, and yes before I get picked apart by theologians I know that’s a simplistic explanation!  Nevertheless the message of redemption is an important one – the largest Christian statue in the world is called Christ the Redeemer after all.

Anyway, before I get to drawn into a debate with those of faith let me get on with this post, which is about redemption.

In my earlier post, Sagrilege, I expressed my reservations about Gaudí’s great cathedral the Sagrada Familia, based upon the disparity of styles on the two visible facades and the sheer excess of the decoration.  Could the interior provide redemption?

Most people are familiar with the Sagrada’s exterior; it has been a feature of the Barcelona skyline for over a century, but the interior is less well-known.  It was only in the last few years that the scaffolding and builders were withdrawn, allowing the Pope to consecrate the building as a basilica as recently as 2010.  Naturally in the intervening years there have been millions of visitors so the relative mystery will doubtless be short-lived.

Like the facades, the interior is rich in symbolism, individual pillars and doors each carry different insignia, with different areas of the church given over to different categories.  The four main pillars at the heart of the church for example bear glazed plaques representing each of the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, plaques that seem to glow in the rich light that pervades the church.  There are images on floors, symbols on capitols, a magic square in the doorway.

All of this is easy to miss when you are overwhelmed by the space within the building, space created by Gaudí’s unique architectural approach.  I referred to columns, but perhaps a better description would be trees, for the way they branch out into formations like spiky leaves it is easy to see Gaudí drawing on nature for inspiration.

But even the architecture is subservient to another feature.  Perhaps I was lucky with the weather conditions on the day, but the whole edifice was awash with light and colour.  White light from higher windows and a circular skylight above the altar, and great blocks of colour created by stained glass, which instead of adopting the tradition of multi-coloured representations, restricted itself to  single colour fields which were far more dramatic.

Did Gaudí redeem himself?

In spades.

sagrada int-4



The Quarry (SOS)

There are a number of buildings within Barcelona that vie for the title of being the prime example of Antoni Gaudí’s work as a designer and architect.  The Sagrada Familia is of course the biggest most popular with visitors, but it’s vastness makes it impersonal, and harder to grasp the impact of his work.  Park Guell is far more hands on, but here it’s more about decoration than practicality, and Gaudí’s own house is outside the Park Boundary so not part of a visit.

Casa Battlo perhaps?  Extravagant and eccentric, and smaller scale so easier to understand.  It’s so full of visitors however that the rooms are largely empty to facilitate their passage around the building so you get less of a picture of life in such a building.   Nevertheless it is possible to see the design similarities with other European variants of Art Nouveau; the naturalistic curves of door and window frames are reminiscent of Hector Guimard’s Paris Metro signs, the rose of Rennie Mackintosh, or the French interiors seen in The Danish Girl (though these were actually shot at the Victor Horta museum in Brussels).

_PW_9743_4_5So where gets my vote?  That would be Casa Milà, the large apartment block just a stone’s throw from Casa Battlo.  Here you find it all; architectural innovations like a self-supporting façade that is structurally independent of the building behind it, an underground garage that now seems such an obvious solution, and the twisting chimneys of the roof top which better allow smoke to exit.  Then there is the decoration be it the wrought iron exterior railings, the courtyard murals, or the curving plaster walls.  The sinuous and sensual furniture.  The detail of door handles and drawer pulls.

There is the catenary ribcage of the attic room (which also provides a convenient display space for an exhibit on Gaudí’s style) and the rolling and alien landscape of the rooftop.

There is so much of significance on display here that it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, but then the other Gaudí works mentioned here also have that status!  The cornucopia of creativity on display isn’t solely the work of Gaudí; the wrought-iron balconies for example were designed by Jujol, but his vision is at the heart of the construction.

Casa Mila is the building’s correct name, having been commissioned by Barcelona businessman Pere Milà i Camps, but it has long been known as The Quarry, though in Spanish it translates as something which to my ear sounds far less prosaic.  For a structure so rich with curves the feminine nomenclature seems the most appropriate choice; La Pedrera._PW_9773_4_5-Edit

Sagrilege (SOS)

_PW_0760The Sagrada Familia, or to give it its full title, The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, is the “must see” structure in Barcelona, and from many places around the city it’s hard not to see it, or at least the cranes that are as much a feature of this building site as the 8 spires that tower over everything in the vicinity.  

It will be the tallest church in the world when the work is complete.  That is hoped to be in about 10 years time to celebrate the centenary of Gaudi’s death though some estimate it could take another 25 years after that.  Whatever the outcome the Great Pyramid of Cheops at Giza, the oldest and for centuries tallest of the seven ancient wonders of the world took only 20 years in total.

So is it worth all that effort and attention?

The reviews are mixed with descriptions ranging from sensual, spiritual, audacious and whimsical to vulgar, pretentious and hideous (George Orwell being responsible for the last descriptor).

So what did I make of it?  Well I’m going to consider the exterior and interior as two different propositions, so you’ll have to wait for the full story, but let’s start outside.

There are three facades (why not go the whole hog and create four?), but as one is obscured by the construction at the moment I’m only able to comment on two; the Nativity Facade and the Passion Facade.

First to be constructed, and built during Gaudi’s lifetime, the Nativity Facade is packed with sculptural detail and is all about the birth of Christ, though the presence of a Christmas tree in the heart of the decoration seems incongruous.  To my eye it’s a mess.  The concept of “less is more” was clearly anathema to Gaudi.  Apparently he intended for every figure in the facade to be individually painted, and this might be helpful in guiding the eye to important details but for now it’s just a melee of masonry.

The Passion Facade isn’t entirely Gaudi’s work.  Although he had outline his concept and created sketches and models, the actual detail of the sculptures wasn’t addressed before his death.  The angular columns, inspired by the trunks of sequoia trees, were always part of the plan but the sculptures by Josep Maria Subirachs come from another century, being quite literally designed almost 100 years after the building’s construction began.

Subirach’s style is angular and blocky, which to me seems completely inappropriate for a building designed by the man who hated straight lines.   I wondered at first if the figures were unfinished, they were so different to those elsewhere on the building.  Not as busy as the Nativity Facade, but whereas the designer loved his subject so much he couldn’t stop here, on the Passion Facade there seems no love at all.  Perhaps this was deliberate dealing as it does with the end of Christ’s life, but for me the building lacked any clear identity as a result.

The church is of course rich in symbolism, something that would normally fascinate me, but too rich a diet can leave you feeling rather sick, and I preferred to keep my distance.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona



Trencadis (SOS 6)

_PW_1281-Edit-2-2It may be a great background for this beauty shot, but at the time I took it the broken background was my intended subject, but when this young lady photo-bombed me I wasn’t going to object, but it does bring me to the last piece of vocabulary that is relevant to Catalan Modernisme and an essential one at that.

_PW_9820In many of the posts to come but especially those about Gaudi, you will see surfaces covered in white or brightly-coloured mosaic.  It’s a feature of much of his work, but why the need for another word when mosaic already exists?

Trencadis is a more specific type of mosaic.  Whereas the great mosaic artists of Venice used Murano glass in their work, trencadis is made up of broken ceramics, usually tiles or dinnerware.  Many of the examples that you see around Barcelona are actually made from discarded pieces that Gaudi gathered from factories around the area, though that may not have been his original intention._PW_1797

If you’ve ever tried to tile a bathroom you’ll know that you need a perfectly flat and even surface to begin with if you’re going to produce a good finish, conditions that are a rarity in a Gaudi design where curves are all important.   One option might have been to have specifically moulded designs fired, but this would have been complex, time-consuming and very expensive.  Instead, when working on the Güell Pavilions, he took tiles and broke them into smaller pieces which he could then wrap around the convex and concave whilst still retaining something of the original pattern.

Some of the square plaques in Park Güell demonstrate the origins of the technique but it’s clear that there is beauty to be found, even in the broken.


Catenary (SOS 5)

More new vocabulary, at least for me.

Antonio Gaudi is the architect almost synonymous with Barcelona, with a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites around the city featuring his designs.  Visit any of them and you’re likely to be introduced to the catenary arch, either physically or as part of the informative displays that tell Gaudi’s story wherever you go.

Catenary refers to the shape that a chain or cable forms when suspended at each end and allowed to hang freely.  As a naturally occurring curve it had appeal to designers of the Modernist movement and Gaudi in particular.  Row upon row of these arches support the roofing at Casa Milá (Le Pedrera) and Casa Batlló, but elsewhere he strung multiple chains in complex patterns, photographed them, inverted the photograph and then sketched ideas over the resulting shape before turning to his preferred design option, the plaster model.

The shape of a shallow catenary is familiar to all of us, being found in the sagging cables of power lines or the links of a spider’s web, but inverted and narrowed they become Gaudi’s stock in trade.

Model for Church of Colònia Güell (building was never completed)