Monday, June 9, 2014


Casa Batllo at night. My first Gaudi building close up.
At about 7:30 pm on Friday, May 30, I finally made it to Barcelona to see some of the works of architect Antoni Gaudí for myself, the last major stop on my 20 year long, but admittedly very discontinuous, Art Nouveau tour of the world. About an hour later, I had already stumbled upon Casa Milà and Casa Batllo blocks from our hotel and the trip was already worth it. The next day and a half would be spent exploring Gaudí's masterworks in a pretty intense crash course in Catalan Art Nouveau with some stops for tapas of varying quality and Spanish beer of consistently low quality along the way.

My journey from Washington DC to Barcelona had already taken me through Madrid and Marrakech on five planes, a few trains and a couple or three cars over the previous week. The first day of travel on this vacation featured a full out sprint to the wrong gate at the Frankfurt airport followed by a slower run to the right gate and a very nice granting of a request by the Lufthansa desk personnel to the pilots to open up the plane to let us on. The last day traveling to Barcelona found me in the old, cramped Casablanca airport on a four hour layover biding time until they finally let us out of there. I was a little freaked out by the fat guy and his friends who downed a half bottle of duty free Scotch with lunch in the food court. It takes all sorts...

This trip to Barcelona for me was all about architecture. Back in the day (all of about a decade ago), I used to take at least one of these kinds of vacations per year, exhaustively combing through architecture reference books and old magazines from my bookshelves to assemble the most comprehensive building list possible in each place I planned to visit. Holidays at that time were full on architecture geek tours. I even used to produce bound volumes of research on buildings so I could study up before going and have a record of what I'd seen afterwards. These spiral bound books and thousands of slides are still in my condo, proof of my passion for those trips.

But over the years, my enthusiasm for architecture has waned as I have developed other obsessions and interests. I was pretty sure I wouldn't be falling on my knees like I did in Paris in front of August Perret's apartments on Rue Franklin or bouncing with joy like I did when I first saw Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Glasgow School of Art, but I was extremely excited nonetheless to see Gaudí's works. The late 19th and early 20th centuries represented a period of enormous change as architects abandoned traditional architecture based in classicism and adopted new materials and manufacturing processes and developed new ideas about how to form spaces to produce Modern architecture. It is the period of architectural history that I am most interested in and Art Nouveau played a key role in the evolution. Despite my loss of fervor for my profession, I remain passionate about that period of architectural history.

Before I really start writing about all the places I visited, let me say two things. First, the architecture tourist in Barcelona has it good. Gaudí produced three true modern masterworks (Casa Milà, Casa Batllo and the Expiatory Church of the Sagrada Familia) and they are all open to the public. His most important landscape work, Parc Güell, is also open to the public. That's pretty extraordinary.

Secondly, these places are packed with tourists. And I don't just mean architects. The city of Barcelona has done an amazing job of promoting these treasures and getting people to their city to visit them. I've been on countless modern architecture house tours all over the United States and Europe and I've never seen the number of people in a place like there were in Casa Batllo the Saturday I visited. And these places are expensive. It costs 21.50 Euro to get into Casa Batllo. That's almost $30! How cool is it that people are spending some serious money to visit modern architecture sites? Very cool is the answer.

The very long line to get in to Casa Mila.
My strategy for visiting Gaudí sites in Barcelona was to hit what I thought would be the most popular places early in the two days I was in town, meaning Parc Güell and the Sagrada Familia, and fill in the rest of one of the days with his private residences Casa Batllo and Casa Milà, which I figured would be less popular. I was right and wrong in this strategy. I bought timed admission tickets for Parc Güell and the Sagrada Familia in advance for the first time slot of the day. By the time I left the Sagrada Familia, the place was packed; I'm definitely glad I got in first. Not so much at Parc Güell. While the Parc was filling about an hour after I entered, I think I could have visited later and had a similar experience as I did at 8 am. Plus I guess I could have grabbed an extra hour of sleep.

In addition to Parc Güell being not so crowded early in the day, my thinking that the other two sites on my list would be less crowded was dead wrong. Both of these places were pretty full too. Casa Batllo was probably the more crowded of the two but the place was small enough that good pictures could be taken if you just waited a bit for people to get out of the way, and most visitors were courteous enough to wait while I snapped a pic or two. Casa Milà was less crowded except at the roof level, which is really the signature portion of that building. It was absolutely impossible to capture the roof terrace level without a pile of tourists in the way. If I had to do it all over again in two days, I'd definitely buy early morning tickets for Sagrada Familia but spend the second day first thing at Casa Milà. Live and learn.

All told, I managed to get to five Gaudí sites: the four mentioned above plus Palau Güell, a private residence for the family of Gaudí's most loyal client, Eusebi Güell, an industrialist who managed to profit greatly from a number of businesses established during the industrial revolution. Among his many business interests, he established the first Portland cement company in Barcelona. Hey, that's a big deal for me. The Palau Güell, designed and constructed from 1885 to 1890, was an early work of Gaudí's but the last of a half dozen or so building commissions he would receive from Güell. Gaudí graduated from architecture school in 1878 and his partnership with Güell started that same year. He sort of struck it rich with Güell right away.

The Palau Güell is located less than one block off Barcelona's famous La Rambla. Compared to Casa Milà and Casa Batllo, which are modernist compositions of rooms that rarely have a straight line in them, Palau Güell is decidedly un-Gaudí-like. The rooms in the Palau are all rectilinear and the prevailing mood is medieval and Gothic. Wooden coffered ceilings in several of the major spaces look like they are pulled out of old castles and the Gothic tracery in the windows in the front of the Palau facing Carrer Nou de la Rambla speak to one of Gaudí's original architectural inspirations. The use of materials is also clearly not consistent with later works. There is wood in the Palau just like there is in his later works but it's overly dark and the leather that shows up throughout the building will be gone from Gaudí's works 20 years later.
The dome of the Palau Guell.
More than anything else though. the Palau Güell is a useful study in what is to come later. The shutter mechanism custom designed by Gaudí for the Hall of Intimates foreshadows the mullion-less window and atrium ventilation systems at Casa Batllo. The use of leaded glass and wrought iron appears in spots. And the catenary curve, such a signature of Gaudí's work in a number of later buildings, makes an appearance in the main floor antechamber and visitors' hall but more prominently in the catenary hyperboloid dome over the chapel. The dome is broken on four sides, allowing light into the center of the house from above.

But the real treat is on the roof, where it's almost like Güell told Gaudí to just do whatever he wanted. As he did later in the Casa Milà and Casa Batllo, Gaudí made works of art out of every chimney on the building (and there are a lot of chimneys in this building), using the trencadís technique native to Catalonia, a process of decoration using a mosaic of broken tile shards. When we entered the Palau, we were informed that the terrace and roof were not accessible due to the rain falling when we purchased tickets. But the rain had abated when we reached the roof and thankfully, we were able to walk around up there. It would not have been the same without the roof access. If you go, make sure you make it to the roof. Wait for the rain to pass if that's the issue.

The roof of the Palau Guell.
The Palau Güell was the second Güell commission I visited on my trip. I spent the first couple of hours that same morning at the Parc Güell, a public park north of the city that started life as a luxury housing development, the brainchild of Eusebi Güell. The idea was to develop the site into sixty houses each on its own lot. The site was situated next to some  existing upper class housing developments and the view from the site and it's remoteness from Barcelona's factories at the end of the 19th century must have made the site seem like a no brainer for housing development. Ultimately, only two houses were ever built on the site and the park was eventually turned over to the city for use as a public space.

While Gaudí was awarded the commission some years before, the park was first developed in 1900 and the first Gaudí buildings, the two entrance pavilions, one intended for use as the property porter's house, were completed just before the end of 1902. The remaining Gaudí contributions to the park were completed before the end of the first decade of the 20th century, likely closer to 1907, and they stand today very much the same as they did then.

Parc Guell's porter's house.
The two entrance pavilions flank the main gate to the park. The gate and the south wall of the park are Gaudí designed and the wall features the words "Parc" and "Güell" numerous times on alternating medallions of trencadís tile work. Beyond the gate lies a series of steps leading up to a plaza supported by a field of columns also designed by Gaudí. The plaza was conceived as the main public space in the housing development and the main water tanks for the entire estate were located below the plaza so the space was both functional from a social and utilitarian perspective.

Halfway up the first flight of stairs is the famous dragon sculpture, again covered with trencadís just like the walls of the plaza above, with water spouting from his mouth. This sculpture, which is sold in miniature form in all sorts of souvenir stores all around Barcelona, has become an icon of Gaudí design and is worth a pic or two or at least a selfie. My early 8 am start time allowed me to get a good look at this sculpture without anybody else around; an hour later the steps were mobbed with a tour group and every last one of them it seemed had to get themselves a picture with the dragon.

All the Gaudí works at the park are in the Monumental Zone of the park, which requires a timed admission ticket. The park is a good walk from the Metro and it's all uphill. Be prepared for some walking and take the exterior escalators to save some steps. Barcelona is the only city I've been to that has exterior public up escalators next to sets of steps. You'll be glad when you get to them. The porter's house at the entrance of the park is open as a museum, with a series of exhibits about the park's construction, including a very informative time lapse projection show describing the history of the development.

After the first couple of hours at Parc Güell it was on to Gaudí's two most important residential commissions, Casa Batllo and Casa Milà (also known as La Pedrera), both designed and constructed in the first decade of the 20th century. Both were multi family dwellings. Casa Batllo featured the residence of the Batllo family on the main floor with a major outdoor space on a private terrace and a series of two per floor apartments above the main floor. The roof of the building was developed as a shared rooftop terrace. Casa Milà on the other hand was entirely an apartment building. Each floor of the building featured four luxury apartments with a shared light well between each pair of apartments. The roof terrace, just like at Casa Batllo, was developed as a shared amenity for the building. Casa Batllo was a renovation of an existing building; Casa Milà was a new building completely designed by Gaudí.

The front facade of Casa Batllo.
Casa Batllo (pronounced "buy-oh") is a classic modern residence museum. It allows you to tour through all the spaces in the Batllo family residence in addition to climbing the stairs of the building to the roof around the central split double lightwell which is the pivotal organizing element in the building's design. Along the way up to the roof, you pass the front doors of each of the former apartments and get to walk through the attic space, which is an important service space in the Casa Batllo constructed with catenary vaulting. The catenary vaulted attic space can also be seen in Casa Milà, where it becomes much more important. Casa Batllo as a museum is all about itself, which considering the subject matter is entirely appropriate.

Casa Batllo is a building constructed seemingly out of a madman's fantasy. There are no straight lines in the rooms of the building at all, either in plan or section. Each space in the building seems to have grown rather than been built but along the way it all seems to make some sort of perverse sense. The spacious lightwell, which is brilliantly designed by Gaudí with its own custom drainage and ventilation system, is the component which makes the whole design work. The lightwell is twice the size of the one in the original building before Gaudí started the renovation which allows natural light into the interior spaces of the building all the way on the ground floor.

The design of the building is definitely adventurous and I can imagine the Batllo family must have been extremely trusting in Gaudí to allow him free reign in the design. We do not get a really good sense of what it must have been like to live in the building because there are some pieces missing. The outdoor terrace structure, allegedly a catenary curve construct which shaded the Batllo family's private outdoor space, is gone. And unfortunately, all the rooms in the building are devoid of furniture. I am sure these two omissions have as much to do with the amount of people in the building as anything else. The visitation numbers would likely have to be cut in half if they had left these pieces in the building.

The grand front facade windows in Casa Batllo.
Despite what is not there, I did get a sense that Gaudí's design did work from a livability point of view. Allowing temperature and ventilation control from the lightwell via hand operated baffles between the well and the apartments must have been welcome at the beginning of the 20th century in what must have been cold and dirty winters when the only means of heat were burning fuel in your own residence. I also thought the system of mullion-less windows Gaudí designed in the undulating window wall at the front of the building were brilliant. I wish they had been open when I visited; I would have loved to see the entire front of the building opened up around the bone-like columns in the building's facade.

The roof terrace, just like at the Palau Güell was also a special experience. Similar to the Palau Güell, Gaudí groups the chimneys in the building together to form rooftop sculptures complete with trencadís tilework. But the most wonderful feature of the roof terrace is the roof over the building's water tanks at the front of the building. It's almost as if there is a dragon sleeping on the front of the roof with shimmering orange, green and white tilework making up the scales and back ridge of the beast. It's at once an allusion to St. George, Barcelona's patron saint, as well as making the whole facade of the building feel alive, from the gaping maws of the skeletal window openings to the scaled body of a mythological creature on the roof.

The roof terrace of Casa Batllo with the lightwell in the foreground and the dragon's back roof behind.
Detail of the dragon's back roof with a four armed cross next to it.
Despite the missing furniture, Casa Batllo was my favorite Gaudí building that I visited in Barcelona. It seemed to me that the architect was allowed complete control of all design decisions at the height of his creative powers and that everything came together perfectly. It really was a masterwork developed with the full support and endorsement of his client. After finishing up at Casa Batllo, it was on to Casa Milà, a mere three blocks up the street.

If there was an immediate disappointment with Casa Milà, it was that the whole outside of the building was under some sort of reconstruction, was completely covered with a fine mesh with the facade of the building printed on it and was therefore not visible to us. The construction activity also affected the quality of light inside the building. It was therefore difficult to understand how full of light the place would be; it all seemed sort of dull inside. Oh well. These things happen I guess.

Casa Mila, covered with a construction tarp featuring a silk screened image of Casa Mila. Sneaky!
The portions of Casa Milà that are open to the public include (in this order) the ground floor of one of the main atria, the roof terrace, the attic of the building (which doubles as a museum) and two of the apartments on one floor, one of which is fairly intact, complete with furniture (much appreciated after the Casa Batllo experience) and the other of which is partially converted to the gift store. Every place has to have at least one store, right?

Overall the design of the Casa Milà proved to be more restrained than that of Casa Batllo, presumably because the client was interested in leasing apartments than getting a masterwork of one of the world's great Art Nouveau architects for their own residence. The rooms in this building do actually have some straight lines in plan and elevation and the detailing is much more conservative. There are sinuous curves in the doors and transoms and some nature like sculpting in the plaster ceilings but the spaces look less cave-like (for lack of a better word) than the rooms at Casa Batllo. I think it was interesting that the apartments, which are enormous - complete with maid's quarters, are presented with decidedly non-Art Nouveau furniture. I imagine that presentation was pretty close to reality.

The interior of the apartments at Casa Mila.
The roof of the Casa Milà is similar to the roofs at the Casa Batllo and Palau Güell, with grouped chimneys with mosaic trencadís. But unlike the other two properties, the ground plane of the Casa Milà undulates, adding a third dimension to the experience that combined with the chimneys opens up vistas and conceals monuments around the property as you move around the roof. The roof on a gorgeous spring day just after lunch was packed with visitors. It was difficult to get a good shot of the terrace without throngs of tourists.

The structure that allows the roof surface to undulate is a series of catenary vaulted arches in the attic space below, similar to the Casa Batllo but way more complicated. Instead of a single row of consistently shaped arches, the arches at Casa Milà grow and shrink to define the walking surface above. The attic space at Casa Milà doubles as a museum and contains a wealth of information about many of Gaudí's buildings. The museum shows videos, early studies and models of his designs, including images of the weighted models Gaudí created to study the use of catenary curves in building structure, and a before and after model of the Casa Batllo. The transformation is astonishing. I think I got just as much out of the attic space at Casa Milà as I did out of the rest of the visit.

The roofscape of Casa Mila. Above...
...and below. Showing the catenary curves made of Catalan tile.
At this point, day one of my Gaudí tour was in the books. One day, four Gaudí properties. This was a bit of a packed agenda but totally achievable in a single day. Start early. The only major work left to see was the Expiatory Church of the Sagrada Familia. Just like day one, day two featured an early start, a 9 am entry time into Gaudí's most significant and visible work. The early start was definitely worth it on day two.

Sagrada Familia, with cranes.
Construction on the Expiatory Church of the Sagrada Familia began in 1882. Its projected completion date, depending on which graphic you believe in the church itself, is somewhere between 2020 and 2030. Antoni Gaudí became involved with the project in 1883, when he was 31 years old; it consumed the rest of his life and ultimately has kept going far beyond his death 88 years ago. The fact that we are still building this church based on his models and studies is a testament to the lasting power of his genius. The church was finally consecrated in 2010 as a minor basilica, the same year the building was enclosed.

At the risk of repeating myself (even though that's exactly what I am doing), let me say again that I am stunned at the amount of visitors this place receives. I opted for the admission with tower visit (I picked the nativity towers since those were completed by Gaudí) but didn't get the audio guide. All that cost me the tidy sum of 19.30 Euros, which is a little more than $26. $26 to visit an unfinished church. I'm amazed non-architects pay that much in such quantities. Again, hats off to the Barcelona tourism folks and good for architecture! I visited two Gothic churches in the city in my couple of days in town. Both were constructed primarily in the 1300s and both are free. Enough ranting.

The Sagrada Familia is at its heart a Gothic church, because pretty much all churches in western civilization are based upon that sort of model. But when it's finally finished, this church is going to be super complicated. At the time of Gaudí's death, only four of the 12 facade towers were complete. These towers, on the nativity facade, can be seen in the photograph above. They are darker brown in color. At the present time, four similar towers have been completed on the passion facade, which is on the other side of the building from the nativity facade. The final four towers on the glory facade have yet to be completed. The glory facade towers are the most complicated and will, when complete, define the entrance to the church. The twelve towers in total represent the twelve apostles.

Those twelve towers, however, are the smallest of the towers on the church. The main tower over the crossing of the church is almost double the height of the facade towers. Around the main tower there are planned four additional intermediate towers which will be about 1.5 times the height of the facade towers. Based on the photo above, there is a lot of work to do. When the building is complete, the towers already completed, which look so huge today, will seem small when compared to the final product.

View of the nave of the Sagrada Familia.
Despite my ranting that I can't believe people pay a lot of money to visit this church, it is pretty amazing. It is really a modern version of a Gothic church. It's at once the same and completely different from those amazing buildings constructed all over Europe in the middle ages. The form is obviously pretty much identical and without looking closely at a photograph of the main nave of the church (like the one above), one might think it is a building straight out of the 1300s.

But start to look closer and you will start to see subtle differences that make all the difference. Gaudí's understanding of forces and structure was far more sophisticated than the master builders of six or seven hundred years ago. Columns in the old Gothic cathedrals, which are straight up and down although they have lateral forces to resist in addition to gravity loads, are canted in Gaudí's church. The Gothic builders accommodated the lateral forces with flying buttresses. The Sagrada Familia doesn't have any because it doesn't need them. 

The shape of the vaults is also purer in the Sagrada Familia. Gaudí's three dimensional force models informed his design of catenary vaults, structurally far more efficient than other forms used in Gothic cathedrals. A catenary is the natural form of a hanging cable; equally distributed loads on structure can be most efficiently resisted with a catenary curve.

Gaudí also takes advantage of concrete construction, a material poured into a negative form, to create a new vocabulary for individual structural components. Columns are no longer similarly shaped stones laid on top of one another. Instead, columns can twist to resemble plants and other natural forms. Vaults no longer need to be ribbed and laid by hand. Instead hyperbolic paraboloids can be used, taking advantage of less material to generate structurally more efficient vaults. The medieval builders didn't stand a chance.

The evolution of the church's design and the model based methodology used by Gaudí are on full display in the museum in the church's basement. You could honestly spend a day or more in this museum and learn more than you probably ever wanted to know about the building. The most informative part of the museum to me was seeing the way Gaudí's influence changed the original concept of the church from Gothic to something else so thoroughly and suddenly. There are three side by side large scale sectional models that illustrate this transformation pretty effectively.

The imagery in the stained glass and sculptures adorning the building is consistent with the church's antecedents  religious themed stories from the Bible abound. Gaudí does, however, wrap more natural motifs into the facade, introducing trees and birds which give a more Art Nouveau feel to the building. These are very well seen from the nativity facade towers, which I would recommend adding to the cost of your admission, even though when I visited the upper sections of the towers were closed.

View of the tree in the center of the nativity facade, from the facade's towers.
The stair of the nativity towers.

I'm glad I visited the Sagrada Familia as the last piece on my Gaudí pilgrimage. But perhaps more than the church itself, I was most excited about seeing the school house on the property. Also designed by Gaudí, the building consists of only three rooms but boasts an amazing hyperbolic paraboloid roof constructed of straight wooden beams with a layer of Catalan tiles for the roof structure. I've tried at least twice to use the roof of this building as a model for a canopy design in a school, once at my first job in upstate New York and once with my current employer years and years ago (I failed both times). It's rare that I get to see an actual building that directly inspired my design thought process on a project.

The school of the Sagrada Familia.
With my visit to the Sagrada Familia school, my Gaudí journey was almost complete. I definitely appreciate the contributions that Gaudí left to this world. It took me way too long to get here but at least I made it. There's one less bucket list architecture trip to undertake now. The final stop on my Gaudí journey was to the crypt of the Sagrada Familia. In the far side of the crypt nearly beneath the nativity facade towers is the grave of Antoni Gaudí. Definitely worth the last stop on the trip.

The final resting place of Antoni Gaudi.

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