This brief Real Men of Genius interview with Antoni Gaudi, celebrates the Catalan’s astonishing achievements and the amazing contribution his works have made to the city of Barcelona.
Senor Gaudi, there are so many of your great works that we could discuss, but perhaps we had better start at the beginning. Could you tell us when and where you were born, please, and a little of your family background?
I was born in Reus, Catalonia, on 25 June 1852, the youngest of a family of five. Only three of us survived until we were adults, and even then my brother, Francesc, died at 25. My mother died around the same time.
You studied a number of subjects, but principally architecture, as I understand it?
Yes, I also studied French, history, economics, philosophy and aesthetics. I graduated from the Barcelona Architecture School where they didn’t really know what to make of me. The comment was made when I left that I was either a fool or a genius!
In 1878 you became involved in your first important project, didn’t you?
Yes, that was the Casa Vicens. I was 26 then. It was a summer residence on the outskirts of Barcelona.
Wasn’t it around that time that you met Eusebi Güell who became your friend?
Yes, and patron. He commissioned me with the furniture for his father-in-law’s family vault. That was the Marquis of Comilla.
Your major work, to which you devoted 43 years (almost the whole of your working life) was, of course, the Sagrada Familia. You were commissioned as the principal architect in 1883. Tell us a little more about that.
Although it was commenced all those years ago, you will know that it is still not complete to this day. It has three facades dedicated to the birth, passion and glory of Jesus.
Ultimately, it will have eighteen towers: twelve for the apostles, four for the evangelists and one dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The central tower which will be 170 metres high will honour Jesus.
It has been described as the eighth wonder of the world in the making and we are told that even in its unfinished state it attracts over a million visitors a year. It is hoped that the project will be completed by 2030 which is over 100 years after your passing.
Yes, depending on funding, but bear in mind that construction came to a halt for 20 years during the Spanish Civil war. In any event, time is only of importance to the living!
It is said that your love of nature is visible in the Nativity façade.
Indeed. There are up to a hundred plant and animal species sculpted into the stone, and the two main columns are supported by turtles.
In a short interview of this nature, we can only touch on some of the principal features, but tell us about the nave.
This enormous central body of the temple – again, still in progress – comprises leaning, tree-like columns with branches spreading out across the ceiling, so it has the overall effect of a stone forest.
The crypt is ringed by a series of chapels?
Yes. One of which now houses my own tomb.
Let us talk about some of your other works. How did Park Guell come about?
My friend Eusebi acquired more than 17 hectares of land of an old farmhouse on the city outskirts in 1899 with the idea of constructing a housing development of detached properties for wealthy families.
It was felt at the time that our creative ideas were
excessive and inappropriate for the economic circumstances.
But although the original project failed, I had by that time finalised the common zones, and it was transformed into a municipal public park in 1922 and remained that way ever since.
Paradoxically, perhaps, it has meant that generations have since been able to enjoy one of your greatest works?
I suppose that must be so.
Would it be appropriate to describe the park as a synthesis of tradition and progress, do you think?
We endeavoured to provide a detailed plan of symbolisms that would put Park Güell into the historical context that Barcelona was experiencing. We wanted to reconcile the current situation with ancestral traditions of Christian Catalonia.
The majority of symbols on the stairway represent the cultural character of the project, and the highest sections are reserved for religious symbols that culminate, of course, with the three crosses of calvary.
How long was the park in construction?
Fifteen years. The large city that lay at its feet represents earthly life, whilst the park itself represents paradise.
Your use of trencadis, or broken, tiling – conspicuous throughout your work – was quite revolutionary, wasn’t it?
Unique, I think. It was a decorative art form that required smashing up ceramics and piecing them back together in mosaic patterns. You will see plenty of it at Park Güell.
You will see other lovely examples of this technique, in my view, on the rooftop of La Pedrera. Some of the chimneys there were tiled housing hundreds of broken cava bottles.
We could talk for a long time about your very many remarkable creations in the park, but I am afraid we must bring this interview to a conclusion shortly.
Thank you. We haven’t had time to talk about the giant mosaic reptile which we put there to act as the park’s guardian. It emulated the figure of the Greek mythological dragon.
A quick word, perhaps, about La Pedrera.
That was work I undertook for Pere Milà and his
wife. I built two blocks of apartment
houses with separate entrances around two large interconnecting interior patios.
The structure of the building rests on pillars instead of using weight-bearing walls. That allows for independent floors with large apertures in the façade. It was regarded as a bit way out at the time.
I am afraid we have managed only to touch upon some of your major achievements during this conversation. Your best friend, Eusebi, died in 1918 and, I think some years later, you moved into your study in Sagrada Familia?
Yes, but that wasn’t until 1925.
And it is recorded that you died at the age of 73 on 10 June 1926?
Yes, I was taking my usual daily walk to church a few days earlier when I was knocked down by a tram and became unconscious. A policeman took me to hospital but my condition deteriorated and they couldn’t save me.
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