Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) was a teacher, a sculptor, an interior decorator and, most notably, an architect. His works are quirky, unique and colourful, with each design quite different and detailed. He integrated crafts, such as ceramics, stained glass, wrought ironwork forging and carpentry.
He transcended styles, from Neo-Gothic art and Oriental techniques to Modernism, with inspiration coming from geometry and nature. He didn't draw detailed plans of his works but instead created 3D scale models and moulded details as he conceived them.
An inconsistent student with flashes of brilliance, Gaudi completed his architectural studies at the Barcelona Higher School of Architecture in 1878 with the director Elies Rogent proclaiming "I do not know if we have awarded this degree to a madman or to a genius, only time will tell".
Time did tell. His work was a mixed bag and not liked by all. On the one hand, some designs were commissioned but not accepted, and on the other hand, several of his works have been declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.
Gaudi is synonymous with Barcelona and his works are everywhere. Here are just 6 of his well-known masterpieces that have come together (or are still coming together) with the help of a team of skilled workers in various trades -
This green oasis has several attractions, including a tropical greenhouse, a winter garden, a zoo, various museums and the parliament building of Catalunya, with the stand out being the magnificent Fountain Cascada by the lake.
The park was designed under the command of Josep Fontsere with the young and then unknown Gaudi supporting him with the design of the waterfall. It's monumental and was built as a rival to Rome's Trevi Fountain.
Opening in 1881, the water project result was an artificial cave that showed Gaudi's liking for nature. Later on sculptures and balustrades were added with two enormous pincers of gigantic crabs serving as stairs to access a small podium in the centre of the monument. Water cascading is divided into two circular levels and impressive winged dragons guard the water basin in front of the fountain.
It's free to enter the park and it's a great place for a picnic or rowing on the lake. You can find it at Passeig de Picasso, 21.
Completed in 1888 for stockbroker Manuel Vicens and his family as a summer residence, this is the first casa (house) that Gaudi designed, integrating construction and ornamentation in a way that one can't be understood without the other.
It's colourful to say the least, with ceramic mosaic tiles, ceiling murals, towers on the rooftop and decorative wrought iron work, whilst balconies lend themselves to views below of the garden, a water fountain and wooden latticework.
Other features include a covered porch, a wine cellar and basement for storage, a spiral staircase decorated with small oil paintings and an attic for staff accommodation, in addition to the two levels of living areas.
Belonging to the Oriental style and considered a masterpiece of Modernism due to the ornamental artwork, this private home is now a museum home with permanent and temporary exhibitions, a book store/gift shop and a cafe. A program of educational and social activities sees the likes of ceramic and architectural workshops.
Declared UNESCO World Heritage in 2005, it has an entry fee that includes an audio guide. It's a good one to visit as it is less touristy than other Gaudi-designed houses, being located in a narrow street off main streets in the Gracia neighbourhood of Barcelona at Carrer de les Carolines, 20-26.
In the heart of Barcelona is Casa Batllo, designed by Gaudi for the textile industrialist Josep Batllo. Gaudi had full creative freedom, converting the building into a fairytale work of art.
It is of the Modernism style with an interesting front facade. The top is colourful, evoking a dream world of nature and fantasy, whilst the bottom floors of the facade incorporate stone columns that look like bones, lending themselves to the buildings alternate local name - the House of Bones. Balcony railings take the shape of masks, having been made with a single piece of cast iron and attached by two anchor points so that part of them are protruding.
House of Bones - you can see from the first floor where this local name for the building comes
The inside of the house is a marvel of design, with Gaudi collaborating with artisans proficient in wrought iron, wood, ceramics, stained glass and stone ornaments (among other things). Colour, shape, space and light were all taken into consideration, with the effects seen in the windows of each landing distorting the tiles of the Patio of Lights into ripples of water and the entrance hall with its skylights resembling turtle shells together with vaulted walls and a carved bannister representing the backbone of a huge animal that likens the space to an underwater environment transporting you into the world of novelist Jules Verne.
Patio of Lights - distributes the air and light through the main skylight with the tiles of different blue tones ensuring a uniform distribution of light
There is so much more, with other features including a huge gallery, oval-shaped windows, a mushroom-shaped fireplace, a beautiful wooden lift car (still in operation), an indoor garden, a loft with 60 arches that make the space look like an animal's ribcage, and a roof terrace with crooked chimney stacks designed to prevent backdraughts.
Whilst it is full of symbols and fantastic imagery, it is also very functional. With Gaudi never explaining his work and with no specific plans documented, it is left to the visitor to decipher the meaning of what the designs are all about, using their own imagination. Some believe the top has been sculpted in the shape of a dragon's back and others believe it is marine aligned and inspired by the Mediterranean Sea.
Finished in 1906, this house was also proclaimed UNESCO World Heritage in 2005 and stands at Passeig de Gracia, 43 in the Eixample district. A ticket into Casa Batllo gives you a full tour of this gem of architecture, as well as the installations (created by renowned artists) based on the legacy of the creative genius behind it.
Just up the road from Batllo's house, Casa Mila is the last private residence that Gaudi designed and a very different work of art. Also in the style of Modernism, this house lacks the colour of Batllo but not the unusual and quirky aspects. It broke the rules of convention.
The curved building of white limestone wraps around a corner with the intriguing feature on the facade being the twisted wrought ironwork grilles on the balconies. The unusual decorations represent seaweed, why is anyone's guess as the building was supposed to have been inspired by a mountain and not the sea.
The unique balcony grilles representing seaweed has one guessing of the meaning
The main floor was the residence of flamboyant developer Pere Mila and his wife, whilst other apartments within the building were rented out, mostly to distinguished guests. Mosella tailor's shop, the first retail establishment, opened on the ground floor, whilst the basement (now an auditorium) housed coaches and cars.
Popularly known as La Pedrera, it also has a third name, the Stone Quarry. The latter is due to the rooftop terrace with its functional elements that are also quirky beige sculptures. These fans, chimneys, skylights and staircase exits are all constructed out of brick, with many covered with lime, broken marble or glass. Most visitors head to this spot and, in my eyes, it is one of the most fascinating parts of the building.
Just a small part of the unique rooftop with the ventilation tower on the right looking like a woman
Other features include fanciful iron gates, two large courtyards complete with paintings, an attic, tapestries, handcrafted doors of oak, inscriptions and poems on some of the ceilings of the apartments.
It was completed in 1912, with some colour restored in the 1980s to replace the dreary brown inside the building. In 1984, UNESCO listed it as a World Heritage Site due to its outstanding universal value.
Nowadays, Casa Mila is more of a cultural centre with temporary art exhibitions, although there are still some apartments rented out. It is located at Passeig de Gracia, 92. Various entry tickets are available, from La Pedrera Essential to La Pedrera Night Experience.
A pavilion that now houses part of the Barcelona History Museum
Located on Carmel Hill, Park Guell is a public park today but was first conceived as a private project to build a residential area for the wealthy. It was owned by Eusebi Guell, a rich entrepreneur and count who had a great passion for Gaudi's work.
Gracing more than 17 hectares of land, the park is composed of gardens and architectural elements in the Modernism style. It has become one of Barcelona's most famous and iconic landmarks, due to the magnificent work of the Monument Zone in which Gaudi inserted Catalan culture with numerous motifs, including a large mosaic with the Catalan flag and dragons that are seen as symbols because of their connection to the patron Saint George.
Emblematic features abound, with the monumental dragon stairway a highlight amongst other amazing creations. The twin set of steps soar upwards to the Hypostyle room and are divided into three sections with water running from a fountain through the centrepiece. On the first landing there are shapes resembling goblins, whilst halfway up the steps is the emblem of Catalonia, followed by the dragon/salamander covered with mosaics, and a shaped bench on the last flight of steps. The sides of the steps are flanked by two walls that form terraces with grottos underneath, one of which was used as a waiting shelter (supported by a conical central column).
The open Hypostyle room was designed to house the weekly market. It has 86 striated columns and a ceiling formed of small domes decorated with original tile-shard mosaics made by Josep Jujol, one of Gaudi's assistants.
The domes of the ceiling of the open-air Hypostyle room supported by columns
Either side of this room are more stairs that lead up to Nature Square, a focal point with its city viewpoint and undulating bench in the form of a sea serpent, covered in mosaic tiles and acting as a balustrade. On the opposite mountain side of the Square are some unique terrace walls with built-in bird nests, made to resemble the palm trees above.
Inside the main entrance gate on the south side are two pavilions that were used as a porter's lodge. Today, one of the pavilions is part of the Barcelona History Museum and the other a gift shop. Both have gorgeous roofs built with traditional Catalan clay tiles decorated in mosaic shards. You can get some great photos of these from Nature Square, looking downwards.
The pavilion with its blue & white spire is now a gift shop
Gaudi also planned three viaducts (bridges) that connect the various parts of the park, snaking their way up the mountain. They're suspended on a structure of sloping columns and vaults made with unhewn stones, whilst the upper parts see balustrades crowned by plots with vegetation.
The Austria Gardens are worthy of mention too. They got their name due to a donation of trees from Austria in 1977. Good views can be had here and, from their centre, two houses can be seen. One belonged to a lawyer, whilst the estate show home was eventually acquired by Gaudi (it is now the Gaudi House Museum).
Completed in 1914 and declared a World Heritage Site 70 years later, Park Guell is free to enter with the exception of the Monument Zone. This zone is definitely worth seeing and the ticket price is reasonable. Be sure to plan your visit as capacity is limited and, in the high season, tickets can sell out in advance.
A tip on entering - the main entrance (on Carrer Olot) is at the bottom of the hill and if you don't want to climb all the steps up to the top to see Nature Square (a must-see), then you can enter from the top (Carretera del Carmel entrance) and walk along a flat surface to the Square and then work your way downstairs. It's a much easier way to do it for those less mobile.
La Sagrada Familia
Last but certainly not least, this still-incomplete Catholic church in the Eixample district of Barcelona is an architectural icon. Construction began in 1883 and it was due to be completed in 2026 (the centenary of Gaudi's death) with a total of 18 towers but Covid hit, stopping work on it, and it is now not likely to be completed until 2036.
Covid aside, there have been other reasons for it taking so long to build, with the original reason due to it being privately funded via donations and contributions from anonymous individuals. There was no public funding.
I find it extraordinary that the church is open for visitors, given the construction going on with towering cranes and equipment visible at every turn. However, being the most visited monument in Spain allows construction to continue, as nowadays most of the money comes from visitor entrance fees.
A side view of the church with the all-familiar crane present
The original design for the church project was that of architect Francisco de Paula del Villar, featuring Neo-Gothic elements in the windows, buttresses and the pointed bell tower. Due to technical differences around the cost of materials, Francisco was replaced by Gaudi who took the project in a different direction (that of Art Nouveau and Modernism with an organic style) whilst still working on other buildings.
Gaudi conceived the interior of the church as if it was a forest, with a set of inclined tree-like columns divided into various branches to support a structure of intertwining vaults. The shapes and colours of nature are enhanced in the stained glass windows.
The Crypt of the Chapel of Saint Joseph was the first part of the church to open in 1885. Located on one side of the church, it held masses for worshippers of Christ. It also holds the body of Gaudi.
In 1891, work began on the magnificent Nativity facade which incorporates decorations that include doors displaying words written in the Catalan language, such as those of the Lord's Prayer on the main doors.
From 1914 until his death, Gaudi devoted his time entirely to this church. The towers, with many having colourful pinnacles, represent biblical figures. From Jesus Christ to the Virgin Mary, the Saint Barnabas bell tower was the only one that Gaudi saw completed (in 1925).
In 1926, after Gaudi's death, his disciple Domenec Sugranyes took over the project. Ten years later, the Spanish Civil War saw the church vandalised. Three years on from this in 1939, Francesc de Paula Quintana took over site management and was able to move forward thanks to some materials being saved from Gaudi's workshop. Various others have taken over since.
Other notable features of the church include the Passion facade with a triangular arch of bone-like columns that are said to represent the ribs of Christ, sculptures of the Holy Family, the domed Apse, the Cloister of the Rosary, various mosaics, wrought-iron stars and a very unusual garden.
Part of the Passion facade at the back of the church
In 2005, both the Crypt and the Nativity facade were singled out from the rest of the church and declared UNESCO World Heritage. A great nod to the man of faith that served God through architecture.
You can find this space full of spirituality at Carrer de la Marina, with ticket purchase here. Plan your visit as the queues to enter are very long. It might pay to book a time early in the morning or later in the evening.
Gaudi left behind many one-of-a-kind works, including lampposts in Plaza Reial, Casa Calvet and the Bellesguard Tower, all in Barcelona. His designs and works extend to other cities in Spain too, with palaces and pavilions amongst housing blocks and a summer villa. They all show his creativity and innovative vision.
When he was a young man, he dressed well and had the means to enjoy the theatre, concerts and gourmet food. However, after deaths of family members in his elder years, he neglected his personal appearance, ate frugally and distanced himself from social life. At the age of 73 he was hit by a tram and lost consciousness. Due to being poor and dishevelled, and not carrying any identity papers, he was assumed to be a beggar. Thus, he didn't get immediate aid. Eventually, some passers-by transported him in a taxi to hospital, where he was recognised by the priest of La Sagrada Familia. Unfortunately, Gaudi's condition deteriorated and he died three days later. Such a sad end to a wonderful creator openly embracing new styles with a vivid imagination that has inspired many architects.
Today, he is regarded as a pioneer of the modern style, leaving a mark on 20th century architecture. May his legacy to continue to live on in generations to come.