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HomeSpring 2024Reporting from SpainHow Gaudi helped shape Barcelona's aura

How Gaudi helped shape Barcelona’s aura


The architect’s passion for nature and color set the tone for the modern design city

Barcelona’s La Sagrada Familia perfectly encapsulates the work of architect Antoni Gaudi; it’s grand, colorful, and experimental. Gaudi’s unique designs for the church have made it the most visited location in Barcelona, even though it’s been under construction since 1882 and is not yet complete. Although Gaudí dedicated the final 12 years of his life solely to this project, he knew that it would not be completed in his lifetime. Once finished, La Sagrada Familia will be the tallest church in the world, thanks to its colossal towers and spires. But by design, it won’t rise higher than nearby Montjuïc hill.

The dense “forest” of columns at La Sagrada Familia. Photo by Nick Wrate

“Gaudi’s decision not to exceed the height of the Montjuïc hill is due to his belief that nature, created by God, should not be surpassed by human constructions,” said Barcelona-based architect Patricia Tamayo. “This highlights his devout Christian faith.”

Visitors to the church can explore two of the 13 completed towers, which provide views of intricate details difficult to fully appreciate from the ground.

After a short elevator ride and trip up a spiral staircase, one can see the church’s many colorful fruit sculptures up close. These fruits, organized by season, are some of the many details that demonstrate Gaudí’s appreciation for nature.

Grape and wheat sculptures at La Sagrada Familia. Photo by Nick Wrate

Animals are represented through sculptures that can be found in La Sagrada Familia’s three façades, ranging from snakes to donkeys. At the Nativity façade, one column features a tortoise at its base, and the other features a sea turtle, representing both terrestrial and aquatic life. The interior of the church features tall columns that are meant to resemble trees with different sets of leaves on top, giving the feeling of being in a dense forest. Unlike other churches, the stained-glass windows of La Sagrada Familia do not directly depict religious scenes or iconography. However, like with most of what Gaudí created, there is symbolism here. The striking warmer colors of one side of the church’s windows, contrasted with the other side’s cooler colors, are said to represent Jesus’s life of helping others, and the suffering he endured. Depending on the time of day, one side’s colors will be stronger. From certain areas of the room, visitors can see the colors fade from red to orange, yellow, and green on one side’s partial ceiling, and from blue to green to yellow on the other side.

“La Sagrada Familia feels almost magical,” said Rutgers University student Andy Tonato, who was visiting. “With all the crazy design choices, bold colors, and interesting decorations, it’s nothing like any other building that I’ve been to.”

Park Güell is another Barcelona location that demonstrates Gaudí’s love of nature and color. At the entrance, visitors are greeted by two building that flaunt Gaudi’s eccentric style. The buildings, once the porter’s residence and lodge but now a gift shop and small museum, resemble gingerbread houses. Their brown stone exteriors are contrasted with dozens of colorful circles and patterns lining the many windows, with elaborate tile mosaics for the roofs. On the double staircase past the entrance, almost everything is a mosaic, from the white tile and stone stairs to the colorful tiles on the walls on either side. There is a series of intricate structures between the staircases, with breaks in the stairs to allow visitors to get a better view. The first structure is an oddly shaped fountain, the next is a dragon’s head sculpture with a mosaic shield of Catalonia behind it, and finally, there is the colorful salamander sculpture “el drac” that serves as an icon for the park. The stairs lead up to the hypostyle room which features 86 columns and colorful designs on the ceiling. These columns hold up the terrace above, which is one of the most famous places in Barcelona. This terrace, known as Nature Square, provides a beautiful view of the city, but there is also plenty of beauty in the square itself. On the borders of the terrace lie some of Gaudí’s most intricate mosaics, featuring a wide range of colors and designs. For those who wish to sit and enjoy the view, the low yet long and winding wall features an uninterrupted bench.

“Gaudi’s innovative use of ‘trencadís’ (mosaic made from broken ceramic tiles) and his approach to creating curved surfaces were groundbreaking,” Tamayo said. Visitors can also walk through the woodland regions and see the wide range of vegetation and wildlife, including many bird species. At the tallest point of Park Güell, visitors will find three crosses, another example of Gaudí expressing his faith through his projects.

Gaudí also designed houses, such as the famous Casa Battló. Although anyone can purchase a ticket and visit nowadays, it used to be the home of the Battló family, who gave Gaudí freedom to do practically whatever he wanted when redesigning this then-ordinary building. The architect took advantage of this freedom, and turned Casa Battló into one of the most unique locations in the city; the house now attracts one million visitors each year. Gaudí’s unorthodox approach to architecture can instantly be seen through the building’s façade. Much of the building’s exterior resembles bone in terms of color, shape, and texture, earning it the local nickname of Casa dels ossos – House of Bones. Surrounding the bone-like columns and balconies are varying shades of orange, green, and blue tile mosaics. At the top of the façade, there is a wide, bumpy arch full of colorful tiling which resembles scales.

Casa Battló facade. Photo by Nick Wrate

One interpretation of Casa Battló’s exterior is that it is meant to look like a dragon. This is seen as a reference to Saint George, patron saint of Catalonia, and the story of how the saint slayed a dragon to protect a city. Another interpretation is that the exterior portrays an aquatic environment, with the orange, green, and blue hues representing plant life and water, with the “scales” at the top being the fish.

“Gaudí was very inspired by nature, but he represents it in an abstract way,” said Casa Battló staffer Guillermo Yelo. “It is not always clear what everything is supposed to ‘mean,’ which is part of what makes him so interesting.”

The inside of Casa Battló is just as intriguing as the outside. There are designs in the ceilings of many rooms, and many of these ceilings are made of the same material as the walls so that they smoothly transition instead of making a corner. This smoothness is present throughout the loft section, which is shaped almost like a ribcage, adding to the idea of the house representing a dragon. Another unique feature of Casa Battló is its atrium. This space, with a skylight on top, provides light and airflow to many rooms, with its walls covered in many shades of blue tile.

Casa Battló atrium at night. Photo by Nick Wrate

Casa Milà, also known as La Pedrera, is another notable home that Gaudí designed. Even though it is now one of the architect’s most visited works, it was not always so beloved. Casa Milà was one of Gaudí’s most controversial projects. There was a great deal of legal trouble involved in its construction in the first place — but even when it was completed in 1912, it was criticized in Barcelona for its unusual design.

A distant view of Casa Milà, showing its terrace and chimneys. Photo by Nick Wrate

The local nickname La Pedrera is Catalan for “the stone quarry,” a reference to the building’s façade made of three different types of limestone. Casa Milà features 32 balconies with ornate and abstract railings. Since it was more difficult to obtain large sheets of glass at the time, the doors that Gaudí installed incorporate irregularly shaped pieces, a mixture of what he was able to get his hands on, and iron to support them.

Past the entrance area, visitors can explore the two large courtyards or an unoccupied apartment. This apartment features many original designs by Gaudí, such as doors and floors, and is decorated with furniture and items of the time so that people can see how it might have looked in the early 20th century. An aspect of the building that visitors might notice is how few straight walls there are.

It is said that when the owner Roser Segimón complained to Gaudí about not having a suitable wall to place her piano against, he replied that she should play the violin instead.

As with many other works by Gaudí, there is a major element inspired by nature – the attic. It is believed that this space was meant to resemble a whale’s skeleton, with its 270 arches. Above this is Casa Milà’s rooftop terrace, which provides 360-degree views of Barcelona. Here, one will find abstract chimneys and a series of parabolic staircases, resembling hills.

Although Gaudí might be best known for large projects with almost overwhelming amounts of ornamentation, at Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya visitors can appreciate the smaller details.

Gaudí paid attention to every aspect of a space, even the ones that the average person won’t think much about,” said Alba, a staff member. Here, visitors can see many pieces of furniture, and other items that Gaudí designed for his various buildings, from floral armchairs of Casa Calvet to a dinner table from Casa Battló. There are also colorful tile mosaics, much like the ones that appear across many works by Gaudí, and drawings he made to show how his buildings should look when completed.

The furniture collection mostly consists of wood, allowing visitors to see the beauty in his work, beyond the striking colors he is known for. Since these works are a big draw for the museum, it is clear that even almost 100 years after his death, Antoni Gaudí remains one of the most culturally important figures in Barcelona.

About the Author

Nick Wrate

Professor: Mary D'Ambrosio
Class: Writing the Mediterranean: Spain

Exploring Barcelona gave me a newfound appreciation for architecture, especially that of Antoni Gaudí. From the large buildings to the furniture he designed, he put so much thought and care into each of his projects. Every person I spoke to about the architect was excited to share information and opinions, making it clear that Gaudí is still one of the city's most beloved figures.