My first glimpse of La Sagrada Familia, a fanciful looking cathedral and the most imposing landmark in the city of Barcelona, is of curious tourists gazing toward the sheer verticality of the somewhat melted cake like structure.
‘If you only have a day to see Barcelona, this is where you should begin’ my guide said, as we hastily walked past several visitors with selfie sticks and camera phones. A few minutes later, after a long queue, we were permitted inside and stood before the cathedral’s apse, a concrete forest canopy. One can only admire as to how meticulously choreographed the pillars are positioned, as they rise towards the ceiling; and how they spread like branches, giving an illusion of emerging trees while only made out of granite and basalt. With a play on light, speckling through from the stained-glass windows, it can almost feel dreamlike or perhaps a restrained evocation of heaven on earth.
The Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family or simply La Sagrada Familia to Catalans, very much replicates the local’s aspirations as well as the city’s lofty spirit. It attracts more than 2.8 million visitors a year, making it the most visited monument in Spain. The fact that the cathedral is still under construction after more than a century, inspires awe in many of its beholders and believers.
I traveled to Barcelona on an architectural odyssey. As the city is amply adorned with buildings of grand façade, I reasoned that Barcelona’s beauty should not only culminate on postcards and canvases but should be admired up-close. Furthermore, being the largest metropolis on the Mediterranean Sea and the sixth-most populous urban area of the European Union after Paris and London, Barcelona is also a host to a burgeoning community of designers and artists alike. After all, it is the home city and the former playground of Cataluña’s most famous native architect, Antoni Gaudi. The closer I look at the artist’s many Gothic mansions as well as his marvelously poised buildings and structures, the closer I got to stepping into the artist’s master plan.
In a career that began early as a student of architecture and by working as a draughtsman to support his studies, Gaudi’s exceptional talent was apparent from the beginning. His early designs acquired a lot of attention. Projects like the cemetery gate in 1875, the Spanish pavilion for the Philadelphia World Fair (1876), a fountain for the Placa Catalunya in Barcelona (1877) and many more leading up to his magnum opus, the Sagrada Familia – the project that consumed the artist yet earned him the title, “God’s architect”.
My guide, who goes by the name Teodoro, suggested that we should also take a look at some of Gaudi’s other works. It was between 1984 and 2005 when seven of his creations were officially declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. We zigzagged our way into the busy city streets, while marveling at other buildings equally pleasing to the eye. Clearly, Catalans are not afraid of new ideas, embracing antiquity and modernity, as well as loving any idea that provokes innovation and controversy.
Our second stop brought us to Park Güell. If there is one thing that can be said about this park, it is strangely enchanting. It is easy to lose focus as one walks along the laced pathways. I caught myself gawking at the repetitive pattern of the 88 stone columns bending like trees yet twisted at the bottom like roots and ogled curiously at the emblematic lizard mosaic guarding the entrance steps. Somehow, they all seemed to suggest that nature is an element that can be distorted or expressed with geometry and free reign of the imagination. From here at the Carrer d’Olot, we continued our way to Carrer de les Carolines to see Casa Vicens. According to Teodoro who’s full of juicy tidbits, this private house was one of Gaudi’s first work commissions. In a quick glance, the brick together with ceramic pieces varying in color and shape ultimately reminded me of those old casas in southern Spain influenced by strong Moorish architecture.
Next on our list was to drive outside Barcelona and reach Colonia Güell before noon. It took us half an hour to get out of the city center, arriving at a small workers’ community in Santa Coloma de Cervelló built in 1882. I was told that Gaudi’s role was to erect a colony church for the community though it was not completed. But the reason why we came is to see his crypt that served as the basis of his masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia. As the artist’s once said, had this church been finished, it would have been a ‘monumental model of the Sagrada Familia’.
Heading back to town after a quick lunch of beer and tapas, we proceeded to Güell Palace just off La Rambla. Compared to his other works of art, the palace itself looks more subdued, yet the artist’s trademark is evident from the Gothic, Moorish and art nouveau style. ‘What makes this building controversial is that it’s where political prisoners were tortured after the civil war’ Teodoro explained in a strong Catalan accent and with a smirk added ‘Surprisingly, just across the street is Pablo Picasso’s studio, who ironically once expressed his dislike to Gaudi’s work’.
But I was convinced that Gaudi’s imagination mirrored his creation and no detail was too small to escape his attention. Nearing the end of my architectural odyssey, Teodoro led me to Passieg de Gracia. And like sisters of different mothers, Casa Milà and Casa Batlló is a draw for everyone passing this pulsating neighborhood. If Casa Milà or commonly known as La Pedrera is extroverted in character displaying a bold undulating stone façade and twisted iron balconies, Casa Batlló is bizarre looking. This residential building is called by various names like the casa dels ossos (house of bones) or case del drac (house of the dragon) due to its balconies which resemble skeletons and a roof that shines like animal scales.
I have always loved Barcelona and to know the city through its architectural wonder can be a blessing and at the same time, reverentially consuming. Before Teodoro and I parted ways, we decided to have a drink at one of Barcelona’s best hotels and visit the Mandarin Oriental’s terrace which offers stunning views of the city. Seeing the striking features of the 127 square meter deck with outdoor Jacuzzi and solarium, it seemed that Gaudi had successfully passed on his magic wand to the virtuous Patricia Urquiola; who added some modern touches to the terrace but also magically transformed the hotel’s 17 brand new luxurious suites into a masterpiece.
The sun had set early that day. The cold chill of the winter had undressed the trees, exposing the fragility of its branches and twigs. The fallen leaves festooned the sidewalks making it more inviting to go for another walk. The moon cast a soft glow while the street lights endowed the city with a magical air. Overlooking Passieg de Gracia and the buildings that dotted the skyline, we paused to admire the architectural vista. Feeling the pulse of the city, it was only then that I finally understood Antoni Gaudi and what he meant by saying ‘Gothic art is imperfect, only half resolved; it is a style created by the compasses, a formulaic industrial repetition. Its stability depends on constant propping up by the buttresses: it is a defective body held up on crutches….The proof that Gothic works are of deficient plasticity is that they produce their greatest emotional effect when they are mutilated, covered in ivy and lit by the moon’.