Monday, September 16, 2013

Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926)

Antoni Gaudi was born June 25, 1852, into a working-class family in the city of Reus, Iberia, about 60 miles (100 km) west of Barcelona. As a child, he attended the local Piarist Roman Catholic school for poor children. He also suffered from illnesses including rheumatism. These illnesses, and some intentional reflection on his diet, led him to become a vegetarian. Vegetarianism and his Catholic piety led him to practice fasting.

In 1868 Antoni moved to Barcelona to study to become a teacher. In the big city, he and two friends became enthusiastic about utopian socialism and dreamed of starting an intentional community together.

Between 1875 and 1878 Antoni did his required work as a soldier. His bad health, however, excluded him from any combat during the civil war in Spain being fought at that time.

This exclusion allowed him to do the preparatory work needed to become an architect. He studied philosophy, aesthetics, and history. The nineteenth-century English architectural critics John Ruskin, William Morris, and Walter Pater all influenced him. He appreciated the book on the Islamic decoration of the Alhambra written by Owen Jones. He also learned how to work as a sculptor, carpenter, ironworker, glazier, and plasterer.

He received a bachelor's degree in architecture in 1878. He was a mediocre student and the leader of his school thought he was either stupid or brilliant.

Municipal leaders in Barcelona gave the new architect his first job. They asked him to design a set of lampposts.

Antoni then designed and produced a display case for a maker of gloves. Spanish bureaucrats included it in the Spanish exhibition at the 1878 World's Fair in Paris. It impressed Eusebi Güell, a wealthy Catalonian, who first paid Antoni to design some furniture and eventually commissioned him to design and construct some of his most creative buildings.

In 1883 Antoni was hired to design and supervise the construction of a house, the Casa Vicens, for a family living in Barcelona. The house, with over 12,000 square feet (1160 square meters) on four floors, was finished in 1889. Its exterior of gray stone, red bricks, yellow tiles, and turrets recalls Iberia's Islamic architecture and decoration. He also designed all the furniture and furnishings in the house as he would later in other residences he worked on.

In 1883 Antoni was hired to supervise the construction of the Church of the Holy Family (La Sagrada Família). He would dedicate the rest of his life to the task—exclusively so beginning in 1915.

In 1884 he met and fell in love with a woman while designing a factory for a workers' cooperative. She ignored him. He remained single his whole life, convivial with friends but unpleasant with strangers.

The Catholic bishop in Astorga met Antoni after the young architect had designed an altar for a church near Barcelona. When the old Episcopal (Bishop's) Palace in Astorga burned down in 1889, the bishop happily hired Antoni to design the new one. Antoni had the new house built using local gray granite and gave it a medieval design. He did this so that it would blend into its natural and architectural context. He also wanted to celebrate the Gothic Revival inspired by French architect and theorist Eugéne Viollet le Duc. He quit the project in 1893, following the death of the bishop, over disagreements with local bureaucrats.

During Lent 1894, he fasted so much he almost died.

Between 1904 and 1906 Antoni completely redesigned and refurbished an existing building now called the Casa Batlló. On the roof he used tiles of different colors on the ridge to represent the spine of a dragon. The arches underneath the roof, creating rooms originally used for storage and laundry, evoke a dragon's ribcage. An atrium in the center of the building is lined with blue tiles and allows natural light to flood the interior from top to bottom. Casa Batlló and subsequent works by Antoni remain Spain's most exuberant examples of the Art Nouveau style which was internationally popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

From 1906 to 1912 Antoni worked on the Casa Milà. He gave it an undulating (wavy) exterior and an interior without right angles.

In 1906 he also adopted a life of voluntary poverty and dressed so plainly he could be mistaken for a beggar.

Beginning in 1910, difficult personal challenges started to overwhelm Antoni. In 1910 he needed a year to recover from a painful bout of tuberculosis. Death took from him his niece in 1912 and a long-time friend and close colleague in 1914. In 1915 he decided he would dedicate himself solely to working on La Sagrada Familia. Construction of it continues to this day.

With La Sagrada Familia Antoni fused his earlier imitation of Gothic forms in Astorga with a new appreciation for natural structures such as trees to create a new form of architecture which he felt perfected the Gothic form. Originally Gothic churches needed external buttresses which represented only a temporary solution to the challenges of form. The columns designed by Antoni for his church, closely resembling trees with their trunks and branches, did away with the need for exterior buttressing. And where Gothic ribbed vaults had keystones, Antoni's vaulting could have windows allowing in much greater natural light.

Still, he found time to get into trouble for his support of Catalan nationalism. In 1920 police beat him for participating in a riot during a public poetry contest. In 1924 they beat, arrested, and briefly jailed him for protesting against the banning of the Catalan language.

On June 7, 1926, a streetcar struck Antoni and knocked him unconscious. Easily mistaken for a beggar, others ignored him. By the time someone recognized him the next day, he was beyond help. He died on June 10.

Following his death, the works of Antoni declined in favor for about 30 years. In 2000, however, he was declared “blessed,” or a soul to whom one could pray for intercession, by the pope. By 2005, nine of his works had been granted World Heritage status by the United Nations Education, Scientific,and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.