“He is either a genius or a madman,” declared the professor who handed Antoni Gaudí his degree in architecture in 1878, and history has long since conceded with the former. No visitor to Barcelona can overlook his exceptional influence on the urban landscape, which extends to parks, private homes and perhaps most notably, a cathedral. His signature mosaics, undulating shapes, use of colour and mimicry of the natural world created constructions like no-one else before or since.
Born to an affluent family in 1852, Gaudí grew up in Reus and studied at the Barcelona School of Higher Architecture, where he began to develop his unique artistic vision. Much of his work draws on the principle of the ‘golden ratio’, or divine proportion, a mathematical ratio believed to create the most aesthetically pleasing art. Deeply religious, one of his most famous quotes refers to his belief that nature, as God’s creation, represents the pinnacle of design: “Nothing is art if it does not come from nature.”
Instead of drawings, he made 3D models, enabling him to test the structural integrity of a building holistically as well as theoretically. In the case of his most celebrated building, the still-unfinished Sagrada Familia cathedral, this tactic has provided his successors with invaluable references for the continuation of his work. Construction initially began in 1882 under Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano, with Gaudí taking over the following year. He transformed the original plans for a Neo-Gothic cathedral into an extraordinary, fantastical structure, rich in detailed symbolism, that may yet earn him the sobriquet of Saint.
UNESCO lists seven of Gaudí’s modernist works as World Heritage sites, all of which are in or close to Barcelona. The patronage of philanthropist Eusebi Güell led to the commissions of Parc Güell and Palacio Güell. Containing some of the most universally recognisable landmarks, the Parc is free for visitors to explore and admire. Gaudí was also responsible for the crypt in the Colónia Güell, a church heralded for its experimental use of brick and stone. At the Sagrada, his nativity and crypt are listed as part of the World Heritage Site, with Casa Pedrera, Casa Batilo and Casa Vicens completing the roll call of his outstanding works.
Barcelona is a treasure chest of Gaudí masterpieces. Such was his dedication to his art that he spent the last year of his life living in the Sagrada, knowing he would never complete his Herculean task, but working day and night to try. Since his death in 1926, work on the cathedral has never stopped, despite delays and difficulties caused by the turbulence of the 20th century, not least the Spanish Civil War. The Sagrada Familia was consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 and is now due for completion in 2030.
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