Exploring the eclectic imagination of Gaudí: Park Güell, Sagrada Familia & Casa Mila
UNESCO has recognized the works of the great architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926), in particular, seven properties in or near Barcelona, which are a testimony to Gaudí’s exceptional creative contribution to the development of architecture and building technology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These monuments represent an eclectic, as well as a very personal, style which was given free rein in the design of gardens, sculpture and all decorative arts, as well as architecture. The seven buildings are Parque Güell; Palacio Güell; Casa Mila; Casa Vicens; Gaudí’s work on the Nativity façade and Crypt of La Sagrada Familia; Casa Batlló; Crypt in Colonia Güell.
We have been lucky enough to visit three of these properties:
- Park Güell
- The Sagrada Familia
- Casa Mila
Eusebi Güell gave Gaudí the assignment of drawing up plans for developing an estate for well-off families on a large property he had acquired in the zone known popularly as the Muntanya Pelada (bare mountain). Its location was unbeatable, in a healthy setting and with splendid views over the sea and the Plain of Barcelona. Güell wanted to recreate the British residential parks, which is why he named it Park Güell, in English.
Gaudí respected the vegetation that was already growing on the property, such as the carob and olive trees, and when new species were introduced, he opted for Mediterranean plants that did not require much water. He also designed various systems for collecting and storing water, based on the irrigation systems he had learned about in the rural setting of his childhood. Both the vegetation and the management of the water resources thus helped to prevent the erosion of the land caused by the heavy Mediterranean downpours, while at the same time helping to provide the water needed by the estate’s inhabitants.
The first person to buy a plot in the Park, in 1902, was a friend of Güell, lawyer Martí Trias i Domènech, who commissioned architect Juli Batllevell with building his villa. At the same time, the works contractor, Josep Pardo i Casanovas, built a show house, designed by Gaudí’s assistant Francesc Berenguer, to encourage sales. Gaudí himself moved there in 1906 to live with his father and niece. Shortly afterwards, in 1907, Eusebi Güell converted the old mansion (Casa Larrard), that was already there when he bought the site for development, into his usual residence. Over those years, a large number of civic events were held in the great square, with the owner’s approval. Unfortunately, the complex conditions of sale at the time and the lack of a good transportation system led to a lack of buyers and the works were abandoned with only two of the 60 envisaged houses being built. The park became a large private garden which Güell allowed to be used for public events. Eusebi Güell died at his house in 1918, and the park was purchased by the City and was opened as a municipal park in 1926. The Güell family house was converted into a State school
Park Güell was recognised as an artistic monument in 1969 and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.
We loved touring this park, from the cloistered areas designed as an area for markets to the large terrace, lined with benches inlaid with mosaics of brightly coloured pottery pieces, offering spectacular views across Barcelona. Last time we visited it was a bit rushed but this time we had the leisure to wander the park and gardens and visit the gate-house, which resembles something out of a Dr Suess book. This is an amazing and wonderfully inspiring place to visit.
We had the opportunity to visit the Sagrada Familia back in 2010 during our grand tour of Europe and were excited to see what had changed in the last seven years. As with all constructions of this size, it takes a long, long time to complete. The ground was broken in 1882 under the guidance of the architect Francisco Paula de Villar, until 1883 when Gaudí took over as head architect and transformed its design into the most extraordinary gothic creation. The construction work has been hampered by funding (it is privately funded) and wars but even after Gaudí’s tragic death in 1926, his conceptual designs have been faithfully followed by his successors. The Sagrada Familia is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, giving it the status of a ‘minor basilica’ (there is nothing minor about it!)
I am not a religious person but visiting the Sagrada Familia is a truly spiritual experience and would move even the most hardened and cynical atheist. The outside of the building is stunning with incredible spires reaching skywards. The façade of the building is typical Gaudí, with ornate shapes and a design that looks like it has been hewn from a single giant rock. We passed through the entrance dedicated to the Nativity, the carvings surrounding this entrance are the most classic features to be found anywhere in the building.
If the outside does not take your breath away, then the inside is guaranteed to do just that. It is an incredible space! The huge stained-glass windows allow light to flood into the basilica. On the east-facing wall, the glass is shades of blue, casting a cool freshness with the morning rays. The west wall is made up of windows with yellows and reds. During our visit, the sun was in the west and the whole of the nave was bathed in a warm, soothing light. The space is vast and feels endless. The unique columns that hold up the distant roof look, by design, like a forest. They have different girths and are made different materials, chosen for their physical properties, with a variance of colour, making them all the more interesting.
We had tickets to go up one of the towers. During our last visit we had to climb the stairs, but this time they had installed lifts, at least on the way up. The views from the towers are amazing and you get to see closeup some of the stunning decorative elements that make the Sagrada Familia so unique. We left the casement of the towers and crossed several walkways high-up above the terraces below. As a person who does not particularly like heights, this was a bit of a nervy experience. I felt better on the way down, with the long, spiral case enclosed in a column of stone, only passing the occasional windows through which you can see that you are still a long way up. The one disconcerting thing was looking down through the spiral all the way to the bottom of the staircase – eek!
The exit to the basilica is through the newly opened Passion entrance. The façade to this entrance is totally different from the Nativity. In stark contrast to the fanciful elements and uplifting message of the Nativity, Gaudí wanted the Passion façade to convey Jesus’ suffering (The Passion) and the bleakness of his death. He wanted it to be cold and without ornamentation. The Passion was completed by the sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs in 1990 from Gaudí’s drawings and notes.
Subirachs’ style is angular and rigid, which the opposite of Gaudí who did not believe in using straight lines. The stark lines evoke a sober feeling for the end of Jesus’ life from the Last Supper to the Crucifixion. Jesus’ story is told in the shape of a “Z” from the bottom to the top. The Last Supper is on the bottom and the Crucifixion is on the top.
With the tour complete we headed down to the crypt of the Sagrada, which has been turned into a museum dedicated to the history of this wonderful building. There were pictures showing the complete history of its construction, descriptions of the techniques employed in the architectural design and structural models.
Casa Milà – ‘La Pedrera’
When we arrived at Gaudí’s, Casa Milà, popularly known as ‘La Pedrera’ (the stone quarry), the lines were long, and it was expensive to get in – so we hummed and ahhed for a while about going in, but we eventually decided to go for it. And boy we were not disappointed.
The building was commissioned in 1906 by businessman Pere Milà and his wife Roser Segimon. At the time, it was controversial because of its undulating stone facade, twisting wrought-iron balconies and windows designed by Josep Maria Jujol. Several structural innovations include a self-supporting stone front, columns and floors free of load-bearing walls, an underground garage and the most amazing rooftop sculptures.
In 1984, it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It is still a working building and is occupied by several businesses, but areas – including the roof – are open to the public.
The tour itself is self-guided, which in my opinion is a perfect way to do a tour because you can do them at your own pace – also at heart, I am an introvert and like to avoid any unnecessary interaction with people. Karen prefers the tours with a real guide because you can ask lots of questions and find out the life history of your fellow tourists.
We started on the ground floor in one of the central atriums which Gaudí designed to allow each room in the building to have light from both sides, so they were bright and airy inside. The design work was stunning and is all curves and there is not a straight edge to be seen! The next stop is the roof, which we reached by climbing stairs … our exercise for the day. Fortunately, it was just a five-storey building!
The roof terrace was an amazing space, an undulating trip through the imagination of Gaudí. He believed that a roof should not be the boring space that typified buildings of the time, but was the pinnacle of the edifice and should be a continuation of the building’s grandeur. The doors to the roof were encased in twisting swirls of concrete, resembling ice-cream sitting on a cone. The chimney stacks were neatly stacked and topped with a stone design resembling a knight’s helmet. There were several arches on the roof which had been used to frame distant landscapes and sights of Barcelona, including Gaudí’s greatest work, the Sagrada Familia.
Located one floor below the roof is the Espai Gaudí, one of the most distinctive spaces designed by Gaudí; the attic of the La Pedrera. It consists of 270 catenary arches made of flat brick and houses the only exhibition dedicated to Gaudí’s life and work. It showcases the architect’s creations through models, plans, objects, designs, photographs and videos. Gaudí was not just a creative force he also was an amazing structural engineer, which was cleverly demonstrated throughout this exhibition. He took every detail into account including the interior design, often creating custom furniture and door furniture. There were amazing examples of the furniture he designed, but he also went it to fantastic detail in creating ergonomic handles for doors and cabinets.
The next space we visited on the tour was a La Pedrera period apartment; a recreation of an early-20th-century bourgeois family apartment, providing an insight into the way they lived, complete with period furniture, household equipment and decorative elements designed by Gaudí.
The tour ended back on the ground floor. This is where the Milá family lived, in a huge apartment occupying the whole of the space. They donated the space to house temporary art exhibitions. The current exhibition was made up of large modern art installations – and as open-minded, as I try to be I couldn’t fathom what was going on! For me, the experience was saved by the final exhibit which was a display of the designs of contemporary architects. A fitting end to the Gaudí – la Perdera experience! We were so glad we decided to take this tour. Truly amazing!