Part 1: On the hypocrisy behind the Gaudí aura. The architecture of Antoni Gaudí is, along with the seafront, one of the few unarguable features of Barcelona. Few Barcelonans would say they’d prefer the city to be located inland, like on a high steppe or in a mountain valley, even though arguments could be made for either (reducing stifling summer humidity being one). In Madrid they sing “Aquí no hay playa”, in a 1989 song by The Refrescos, while in Paris they dream of a sandy beach beneath hard cobblestones, as the slogan from the May 1968 protests mused. Yet no one in Barcelona yearns to be anywhere else but here, pushed up against the Mediterranean.
Equally implausible would be to argue for a city without Gaudí; things wouldn’t be the same without him. It is hard to calculate how much of our tourist allure has relied on him, how much civic pride plays off his exceptionality; it is probably a lot. In Barcelona Gaudí is dogma for visitors and locals, and no one would ever suggest that his buildings mattered so little that they could be done away with. Gaudí’s built projects contrasts sharply with most other architectures, ignored from start to finish and perfectly susceptible to being torn down for something else. The consensus seems to be that Gaudí is the city’s architectural sine qua non, the jewel in its heritage crown.
It was not always this way. When Le Corbusier contributed to the Macià urban plan, in the 1930s, no Gaudí building was thought worthy to be kept. George Orwell, in Homage to Catalonia, called for the Sagrada Família to be demolished, influenced more by anti-clerical ire than any clearly considered criteria of taste. Even in the hands of professionals, Gaudí was misunderstood: Nikolaus Pevsner, the early 20th century architecture historian, could hardly figure where to put him, hedging between late historicist art nouveau—the responsible interpretation—and “the dedicated lunacy of Spain”. Dalí had similarly lunatic flights in mind when he convinced the Paris magazine Minotaure to do a report on the architect in 1933, with photographs by Man Ray.
It was not until the 1960s that any sort of international consensus emerged as to the merits of Gaudí’s architectural legacy. When I first arrived, before the Olympics, all his façades were filthy dirty and disinterest was rife. The Sagrada Familia was an open-air sandlot with a couple of stones lying around, the Nativity façade off to one side. I remember seeing a mason chipping away in slow motion, occasionally glancing at a two-dimensional squiggle on a ragged slip of paper. Sixty years after his death, Gaudí was still stuck in a time warp.
Now, in contrast, no one says anything bad about him, which has to be equally suspect. The only person who ever said to me, flat out, that she didn’t like Gaudí, was a friend of my mother’s, in town for a visit. Octogenarian Valerie was one of mom’s school friends. And Valerie had no problems telling me that Gaudí, with his hyperactive façades and decorative curly-cues and obsessive referencing of what-nots from the Gothic and Romanesque, was not her cup of tea. “I prefer modern architecture,” she firmly stated, and I understood perfectly. Valerie was a modernist.
His was a musty halo. Never marrying, he behaved more like a monk than your typical representative of the creative avant-garde.
Despite all the lip service that gets paid, Gaudí has never been fully appreciated by those that say they do like him, let alone love him. I mean this in the sense of showing passionate esteem for the full worth of his oeuvre. In all the years I have taken around foreign architecture students and museum groups, not once has anyone been even remotely interested in seeing all his work. I doubt any more than a tiny fraction of locals has seen them all either. Compare this to what groupies of a band do with their records, or what avid readers of a leading author do with their books: buy every single one of them.
Perhaps the hypocrisy behind the Gaudí aura is understandable, considering how drab he was. His was a musty halo. Never marrying, he behaved more like a monk than your typical representative of the creative avant-garde: he made buildings like spiritual exercises. He is rarely quoted; no funny stories are told about him; all attempts at making a movie or series about him fail, since there is too little to work with. If you ask any Barcelonan for an anecdote on the man, you will probably hear about how he died. Everyone’s favourite Gaudí story starts with him lying flat out, unrecognised, in a morgue, after being hit by a tramway, which pretty well sums everything up.
To be continued…