Beautiful or Grotesque – Stumbling Upon Gaudi in Barcelona

Park Guell Barcelona

I’m not an art critic, I wouldn’t even say that I particularly care for art. I’m not completely boorish though, there are some artists I like and I do indeed have many works, originals and reproductions hanging with reverence in my home. But architecture, that’s what I find fascinating. The strange lines of a dramatically designed building is far superior in my estimation than anything by a Great Master. But this love of form and function was severely challenged when I visited Barcelona.

Spain, Costa Brava and Barcelona are known for a lot of things and one of the highlights are the many buildings and parks designed by Antoni Gaudi. I sort of knew about him, but not really. As it turns out, his history is permanently intertwined with the city he so loved, Barcelona.

Gaudi’s work, so say the experts, is marked by four passions: architecture, nature, religion and love for Catalonia. Gaudi didn’t just design buildings, he took great care in creating every aspect of his creations, integrating the crafts of stained glass, ironwork and others into everything he designed. He was one of the early pioneers of what we call the arts and crafts movement in the U.S. and introduced techniques never before seen in architecture.

While I didn’t know any of this before first visiting Barcelona, I did know that his work evoked strong emotions, and not all of them positive. As an example, a friend of mine when asked about Gaudi will begin an hour long tirade about how awful he was. So with this in mind, I set out to see for myself what the controversy was all about.

Casa Mila

The first Gaudi building I visited in Barcelona was the Casa Mila or La Pedrera, The Quarry. Designed for the wealthy couple Roser Segimon and Pere Milà and finished in 1912, the original design actually called for a number of religious elements. Gaudi was a fervent Catholic and this strong religious belief is a reoccurring theme throughout many of his works. The building was controversial though, as it is even today, and city codes and public outcry called for certain aesthetic changes that nearly forced Gaudi off of the project. Today though it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is known around the world for its strange wavy lines and ironwork that survives to this day.

After staring at the admittedly strange building for a while I actually started to like it. I appreciated its rhythms and flows and began to admire the architect’s ability to evoke a pastoral, woodland scene in the middle of a dense city. I thought to myself that if this is what Gaudi is all about, then what’s not to love.

Park Guell

The second stop on the Gaudi in a Day Tour (not a real thing) was the Park Guell. Like the apartment Case Mila, the Park was built at roughly the same time and is also recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The unusual park was actually originally intended to be a new housing development, built in the cutting edge style of the garden city movement that had fits and starts in Europe and the United States at the turn of the 20th century. Sadly, the development never took off even though Gaudi himself had a house on the site. The area was left in near ruin for years but now has been completely rehabilitated and is a popular spot for locals and tourists alike to relax.

Park Guell

First of all, the park is huge, it encompasses 42 acres in the middle of busy Barcelona. It’s also insanely popular. We were there on a public holiday and the locals far outnumbered tourists. It’s nice to see something being used maybe not exactly as it was intended, but in a way nevertheless complementary to the designer’s mission. But this was the moment that my new found respect for the Spanish master began to waver. Parts of the park were enticing but others were just ugly, out of place and dare I say gaudy. Gaudi had the perfect opportunity to bring to life that same fluid nature I saw at Casa Mila, but failed. I did love his Alice in Wonderland style houses though.

Barcelona Basilica

Finally, it was time to visit the grand dame of Gaudi’s works, his true everlasting legacy – the Sagrada Familia.

Sagrada Familia, or the Basilica of the Holy Family, is controversial even in Barcelona. The project started in 1882 and Gaudi took over its design in 1883, adding Art Nouveau sensibilities to a decidedly Gothic look. The result is a bit strange. What’s more strange though is that when Gaudi died it was only 25% completed and still today is only half way done. Authorities believe it won’t be until 2026 when the mighty church will finally be complete.

I noticed just how mighty the church is as I walked towards the behemoth, for it truly is immense, and I got my first full look at the unfinished masterpiece. It was grotesque. From across the street it appears as if it’s a half melted candelabra, except more dark and sinister. Hardly the symbol of light and religious power one would hope for in a church. Given how very religious Gaudi was, I was a little surprised by the outward appearance.

We approached and I still hated it, until I saw the artwork over the entrance to the cathedral. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Statues depicting key moments leading up to the crucifixion of Christ were rendered, but not in a typical romantic style one sees adorning churches across Europe. These figures have sharp, angular faces and the look is decidedly art nouveau. Looking at the statues and friezes I was not only reminded of the religious significance of the building, but its design influence as well.

I walked away confused. I didn’t love the cathedral, but its intricate details saved it for me. I loved the thought and care that went into its creation, even though the broad strokes of the structure are hideous and it won’t even be done for another decade or longer. (most likely longer)

Gaudi isn’t the worst and he isn’t the best, but he is distinct. It’s this ability to look at life completely differently that I love most about Barcelona and her people and why, regardless of my thoughts about Gaudi, I’ll always respect what he did for his beloved city.

What do you think of Gaudi? Is his work beautiful or grotesque?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

13 thoughts on “Beautiful or Grotesque – Stumbling Upon Gaudi in Barcelona”

  1. Did you visit Sagrafa Familia? I mean inside? Its wonderful.
    Of course, the ‘Passion’ facade evoques different sensations…

  2. I think his work is beautiful. It’s so unlike anything else, and the incorporation of nature in every little architectural detail is simply stunning, and very imaginative. I find his work quite fascinating!

  3. I haven’t had the chance to visit Barcelona yet, but I have studied Gaudi and his work within Spanish classes. His architecture is definitely unique and fascinating; I could spend a lot of time contemplating his designs. But in the end I love how different it is from everything else! Who wants to live in a world of cookie cutter architecture?

  4. I love Gaudi – but I also love Dali and Miro, incredibly creative and almost crazy at times, stretching art way beyond truth. I could look at these for hours.

  5. Even though the entrance fee is ridiculous, you have to visit inside the church. The interior totally gives different vibes with the exterior. I especially love the natural lighting inside, the way the sun shines through the church’s windows. And of course the unusual structures is simply amazing. I can almost forget the EUR13 I paid for entrance.

  6. I have been to Barcelona twice and have visited all of these on each trip. Did you go to Casa Batlo? It is my favorite Gaudi building.

    There is so much great architecture in Barcelona that I could spend months walking around the city.

  7. I just started planning a trip to Spain and southern Europe yesterday. This is like putting a steak in front of a starving man. Great post!

  8. I love Gaudi (there, I said it). I enjoyed your analysis of this work, but I love Park Guell. I recently returned to Sagrada Familia after 7 years, and was literally stunned by the progress on its interior. I walked around for about 90 minutes with my mouth hanging open at the beauty of its distinct design. I’ve never seen stained glass bathe an interior in vibrant colors as I did there.

  9. I like the organic style of Gaudi’s work, but I found the tapered grid street block pattern of Barcelona mind numbing to walk. Pity he didn’t put his mind to designing the outlay of the city. To be honest though, my favourite architectural building in Barcelona is Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s pavilion.

  10. I adore Gaudi’s work! Love the eccentricity and the cleverness, the imagination and the quirkiness and the way it gets people talking! Thank you for reminding me of our visit with these beautiful photographs. :)

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