No visit to Barcelona can escape the pervasive touch of local architect Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) who, along with other Modernista architects, worked to create a uniquely Catalan version of the current Art Nouveau style incorporating Gothic, Romanesque, Renaissance, Islamic traditions as well as the naturalism and flowing lines being popularized in the rest of Europe. He was a strong Catalan nationalist and saw his design work as part of creating an independent image for the region. His buildings are scattered through the city and, in the turn of the century district of l’Eixample which was being constructed during his working period, even the tiles of the sidewalk pavement and the bench seating and light posts are his designs. Strolling down the main drag of that area, the Passeig de Gracia, brings you past two famous Gaudi apartment blocks, Casa Batlló and La Pederera. I passed each a number of times in my winding around the area running errands and catching the Metro (it runs a few blocks from my hostel).
Gaudi’s primary patron in Bacelona was wealthy industrialist Eusbi Guell who sponsored many construction projects during his career up to the Sagrada Familia period. I spent my morning at the Colonia Guell, an “ideal community” workers housing project cooked up by Guell at the turn of the last century. When he moved his cotton fabric factory out of the city he decided to provide them with an architect designed community-to-order and provided it with city park, school and church all designed by notable architects. It is a riot of beautiful brickwork and has a lovely little museum which gives a bit of the history and provides access to the Gaudi designed and partially constructed church in the village.
The pièce de résistance of the community was to be the church which Gaudi designed with the same type of inverted hanging chain method he used on the Sagrada Familia. The actual building encompasses only the basement or crypt of his original design, which turned out to be too expensive for the patron to fund. The result is a reletievely squat nave but a riot of brick arches that is amazing to behold. The building seems to incorporate as many different cheap materials as Gaudi could get his hands on – brick, stone rubble and rough hewn rock pillars as well as his trademark ceramic mosaics and the traditional stained glass (if not in exactly traditional form). The project began in 1908 and was prematurely capped off (sans main floor) by a different builder in 1915. The building is full of the trademark Gaudi catenary arches, carrying weight down organically from the ceiling to floor. My favorite space was actually the entry area which is light filled and spidery with columns coming down at angles in an asymmetric tumble.
After wandering around the church and eating my sandwich lunch sitting outside it, I went back to the train where I easily hopped the next commuter line headed into the city and then ran into a little trouble at the gate into the Metro when my ten ride card wouldn’t work. I approached a guard and showed him. He had me run it through the machine again. Then started talking fast. I made a helpless face and he asked “Espaniol?” “Poqito,” I replied. He then tried to explain again but switching from Catalan to Castilliano (as Spanish is known here in Catalonia) didn’t really help me. I figured I’d gone out of the range of the metro system (although it let me through on the out-journey just fine) and only wanted to know where to get a new ticket. He seemed to have a lot more to explain. He finally got out his iphone and looked up a word. “Forbidden,” said the translator. He then went and got his supervisor. Who explained that I’d gone out of Zone 1 (by ONE STOP) and that there was a 100 Euro fine. EEEEK. I make helpless face again and she finally rolled her eyes at me and used her magic pass to get me out through the gate. “Stupid American tourists,” she was obviously thinking. I breathed a sigh of relief and tried not to have illicit apple flashbacks. Sorry, Barcelona transit system. I certainly didn’t mean to stiff you. You need better zone signage in my opinion.
Transit disaster averted, I headed for the more upscale of Guell and Gaudi’s planned communities. Parc Guell was concieved by the two as an upperclass planned community overlooking the city from the green and undeveloped slopes and featuring the latest in architectural innovation. As it happened, the development never got off the ground – only two houses were built inside it but the infrastructure, a scenic overlook, some dramatic stone viaduct-work and bookending gate house and gate-keepers house are dramatic and beautiful.
And of course, there is Gaudi’s masterwork, La Sagrada Familia, which is still under construction and slated for completion in about 60 years. Gaudi famously said of it, “My client is not in a hurry.”