Antoni Gaudi the Great
The architectural legacy of Gaudi in Barcelona
By Duncan Rhodes
No trip to the Catalan capital is complete without paying homage to the architecture of the city’s star man. We take a look at the fascinating life of Gaudi and review the complete portfolio of his Barcelona works, including which of his buildings you simply must visit, and how to get tickets.
Rarely has a man become so synonymous with a city as Antoni Gaudi has with Barcelona. His incredibly expressive and individual style, part Modernisme (the regional Catalan take on art nouveau) part neo-Gothic and drawing on aspects of cubism and surrealism, has come to define the city’s aesthetic. It is intensely human, full of the imagery of nature and religion, and defiantly original – an apt reflection of the Catalan soul.
Read on for a full biography and a list of Gaudi’s major works in Barcelona, or scroll down to the bottom of the page for selected guided tours.
Biography of Gaudi’s Early Life
The most famous architect of the 20th century was born in Reus (or just outside, depending on what account you believe) in the Tarragona province of Catalonia, 80km south of Barcelona. After enduring a childhood troubled by rheumatism, the son of two coppersmiths travelled to the Catalan capital to enrol as an student at the Escola Tecnica Superior d’Arquitectura where he duly studied from 1873 to 1877. Even then his professors did not quite know what to make of his work, and when he was awarded the title of architect in 1878, Elies Rogent, the director of the school, declared: “Who knows if we have given this diploma to a nut or to a genius? Time will tell.”
That same year Gaudi won his first commission, via a competition, to design lampposts for Barcelona’s Placa Reial. He also undertook a number of commissions for furniture and altarpieces and a showcase for gloves for the Comella firm for the Paris Exhibition of 1878, and it was these works that got him a big break. Fellow Catalan Eusebi Guell was so enchanted by the work which he saw at the Paris fair that he tracked down the artist in Barcelona and became Gaudi’s close friend and an important patron of his works – notably commissioning the architect to design the Palau Guell and Park Guell, amongst other projects.
Major Works in Barcelona
Although Gaudi’s work was far from unanimously praised at the time (fellow Barcelona-based genii Pablo Picasso and George Orwell were both rather unkind in their opinions!), the young Antoni had no difficulty finding projects to work on and as such Barcelona is rife with his handiwork. Here is a list of his most interesting works to explore:
La Sagrada Familia
Gaudi’s association with the architect Martorell landed him what was to become his most important commission – designing La Sagrada Familia Cathedral. He began work on it soon after graduating in 1883, and dedicated the last 16 years of his life entirely to the project. The famously unfinished church is now the city’s most visited attraction.
Commissioned in 1978 and built between 1883 and 1888, Casa Vicens was Gaudi’s first major work to be finished. A private house designed for the industrialist Vicens, this Moorish-influenced marvel can be found in the Gracia district.
Eusebi Guell, Gaudi’s principal patron, wanted to build a remarkable park for the Barcelona aristocracy – and no prizes for guessing who he turned to. Characterised by its pavilions and undulating mosaics (made from broken tiles), the Park has become one of Barcelona’s must-see destinations. It was built between 1900 and 1914.
This sumptuous palace was created as the Guell’s family residence, on the Nou de la Rambla. Austere white stonework is offset by surreal chimneys of fantastic colours, and a central spire topped off by a bat-winged monster. Look out for the Catalan coat of arms on the entrance. (Built 1886-89).
Casa Mila – aka ‘La Pedrera’
Passeig de Gracia, atop of Las Ramblas, is the showcase street of Modernism in Barcelona and of course the great man himself left his mark, designing both the Casa Batllo and the Casa Mila. The latter, also known by its nickname La Pedrera (The Quarry), was the last great work Gaudi finished before dedicating himself entirely to La Sagrada Familia Cathedral. Sinuous curves, elaborate metalwork and spiraling mosaic-tiled chimneys represent the architect’s most accomplished expression of the unique style he created. (Built 1906-1910).
Another of the Modernista masterpieces on the Passeig de Gracia (not all of them, were created by Gaudi… read up on Barcelona’s other top architects such as Puig y Cadafalch), the Casa Batllo was built in 1877 and remodelled by Gaudi between 1904 to 1906 for the aristocrat Josep Batllo. Fans of fantasy will love the dragon-crest roof and skeletal facade.
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Did you know?
Despite being universally admired in the 21st Century, Antoni Gaudi didn’t always enjoy such widespread praise. Amongst his famous detractors were George Orwell who described La Sagrada Familia as “one of the most hideous buildings in the world”, whilst Pablo Picasso also derided the architect, and Salvador Dali’s comment that he possessed “superbly creative bad taste” will hardly have warmed his soul. Even his patron Eusebi Guell is said to have quipped: “I don’t like your work, I respect it”. Nonetheless thousands turned out to mourn for the controversial artist during his public funeral in 1926.
Biography of Later Life: La Sagrada Familia & Death
Gaudi’s later years were hard on the architect. His father died in 1905, followed by his niece in 1912, two close friends in 1914 and 1916, and finally his patron Eusebi Guell in 1918. Always an ardent Catholic, Antoni became more fervently religious and gave up all secular commissions (after completing the Casa Mila in 1910) to concentrate on his monumental life work, La Sagrada Familia – a project that occupied him for the final 16 years of his time on earth and which he never finished (and still isn’t finished now – there is hope that the church will be complete by 2026).
Taken over by a Captain Ahab-style monomania, Gaudi even moved his studio into the crypt of La Sagrada Familia in 1925 so that he could devote every waking moment to executing his plans. The one-time dandy allowed his appearance and clothes to deteriorate and he became yet more isolated from society. When the architect was hit by a tram in 1926 he was so ragged and conspicuously poor, that nobody recognized him and no cab driver would take him to a hospital (the uncharitable offenders were later fined by the police). Gaudi was eventually taken to a hospital for the poor, where he wasn’t recognized until his friends found him there the following day. They wanted to move him but Gaudi refused, insisting that, “I belong here amongst the poor.” He died three days after being hit by the tram.
Despite shunning publicity Gaudi’s popularity and fame had exploded by that time, as many people began to acknowledge the unique genius of his work. Half of Barcelona dressed in black to honour his death, and his body was, fittingly enough, interred in the crypt of La Sagrada Familia.
If you’re still thirsty for more knowledge on Antoni then check out the excellent Gaudi Club website. And if you’re keen to experience the genius of Gaudi first hand, illuminated by a knowledgeable guide, then just hold your breath a little while we rummage around for some amazing Gaudi tours for you to experience… et voila:
Barcelona Guide Bureau
One of the city’s most established tour companies, naturally BGB know their eggs when it comes to Gaudi. They offer two coach tours focused on his life and works. The first is a more in-depth tour that takes you inside both the amazing Casa Batllo and La Sagrada Familia (plus the exterior of Casa Mila) and takes 3.5 hours. The second, lasting 2.5 hours, is focused on La Sagrada Familia, although you will also take a stroll down the iconic Passeig de Gracia and admire the facades of the two famous Casa as well. Shopaholics can take advantage of a new tour, that includes both Gaudi’s cathedral and also a trip to La Roca Village shopping complex.
The best way to round up ALL of the Catalan architect’s best works is by bike… unfortunately Park Guell is something of an uphill climb and so not catered for on usual bike tours, but that’s where the people at Barcelona eBikes come in. Their power-assisted cycles make zipping up the Passeig de Gracia, swinging by La Sagrada Familia and nipping up to “Gaudi’s garden” a breeze. Plus riding an ebike is also a unique and cool thing to do in itself! Check their website for more details.
If you want to know everything about Barcelona’s main man, including details about his difficult childhood, his dandy years, his relationship with his two most important clients – Guell and God – and much more, then it’s well worth spending the day in the company of an expert tour guide. Take a private tour of the architect’s major works in Barcelona and uncover the inspiration behind the imagery, and a well of fascinating political and personal details about Gaudi and his role in the Catalan Modernista renaissance. With Gaudi Tours you’ll see both man and city in a new light! Email for prices and availability.
Other Gaudi-Related Activities
If you’ve never heard of Escape Rooms they are a fun new trend that see you locked in a room with several enigmatic puzzles barring your way out. They are a great test of your mental prowess and, this being Barcelona, several have sprung up in the city that have a Gaudi inspired theme. Two that spring to mind are Mission Gaudi by Lock-Clock, where you have to rescue the architect’s final plans for La Sagrada Familia before the building burns to the ground, and Room of Riddles’ Art Collector where knowledge of the Catalan’s evolving artistic style can help you beat the room!
Other Art Nouveau
Gaudi was both part of, and separate to, the prevalent Modernista movement of the time. In fact he was born just one year after Domenech i Montaner, who was the leading protagonist of the movement and one of young Antoni’s teachers. Gaudi of course went his own way, but undoubtedly he was massively influenced by what was going on all around him as the city developed at a rapid pace, fuelled by the wealth of the industrial revolution.
What’s our point? It’s that, when in BCN, don’t be so obsessed with one man’s work that you miss a whole host of amazing architecture by his peers that is sure to enthral those who pay enough attention. For example, be certain to at least wonder past the wonderful Palace of Catalan Music designed by Domenech i Montaner, if not see a concert, and do as well pop your head in the legendary “Four Cats” cafe, one of the centres of intellectual thinking – and drinking – at the time.
About the Author
Duncan established Barcelona Life in 2009, whilst freelancing for the likes of Conde Nast, The Guardian, Easyjet Magazine, CNN Traveller and many more. From interviews with Ferran Adria to revealing the secrets of the city’s poetry brothels, he knows the city inside out… and shares all his best tips right here.