Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Joy of Gaudi

Sagrada Familia was certainly not the only Gaudi building we visited but it was our favourite. Gaudi designed many churches, buildings and even a park in his lifetime. We visited the church, park and two apartment buildings over the course of our Gaudi day.

Park Guell (pronounced Gway) is designed like an English garden but if you can see the English in it you are doing better than I. It looks more like a park for the Flinstones with lots of colourful mosaic thrown in for good measure. It was designed as a gated community for the rich at a time when that kind of thing wasn’t done. It never took off because back in the 20’s, the rich liked to be in the centre of the city action rather than have a larger property on the outskirts of town overlooking the city. How times have changed, eh? Gaudi was a man ahead of his time.

Only three homes were built on the property and one Gaudi lived in for twenty years. It is pink and has a brightly coloured mosaic chimney. Inside, many pieces of furniture designed by Gaudi are on display. Even his furniture has nary a straight line and I have to say, much of it is, well, gaudy. The butterfly couch was one of my faves. The gold living room suite couch looks as though you’d be balancing your buttocks on it, but his furniture was mostly ergonomically designed.

On the terrace in the park, there is a large mosaic covered bench that surrounds the edge. This too is ergonomically designed but we couldn’t try sitting on it because it was so wet. There were strange lumps on the seats that didn’t look particularly inviting to me but as I didn’t try it, I can’t really say it wasn’t comfy. The terrace had holes strategically placed around it so that when it rained, the water would drain down into the columns beneath it to power the park’s fountains. Gaudi was also something of an engineer. Beneath the terrace was a large open area supported by columns that would have housed the market. The ceiling had more mosaic creations on it to add to the festive atmosphere.

The front gates were really spectacular. He had designed buildings on either side to look like gingerbread houses. I think you can see how well he did by the picture. One side was for the park keeper and the other side was for small shops. The whole place was quite striking and exuded an atmosphere of fun.

After the park, we took the metro to La Pedrera, an apartment building designed by Gaudi. It was very curvy and kind of ugly and grey but maybe that was the torrential downpour we arrived in. The whole building was like a figure eight with two large courtyards in the centre. This was to maximize the light in all suites. The one apartment we toured was very spacious and bright. There were windows in every room. Gaudi had even designed the door frames and handles. The interior walls were not supporting walls so owners could move them to create a living space to suit. The roof was the real prize, however, as it undulated across the top. A walkway was created around the outside like a battlement which helped with cleaning. The heavy rain prevented us from going out onto it so we didn’t get a chance to marvel but we could see it through the windows of the top floor.
We walked down the street to the “Block of Discord”, so named because of the very busy facades of neighbouring buildings which compete for most garish. None of the buildings actually complement each other, except to share a flashy, loud exterior. Gaudi’s was my favourite. It looked like some sort of fantastical haunted house with balconies that looked like skulls and siding that seemed to droop as though melting. It had kind of an Adam’s family feel to it. The roof was a beautiful blue/green/pink like the scales of a dragon and the colour scheme was carried on down the side though not as scales. Inside was supposed to be even more fantastical but the cost of viewing these places was also fantastical so we opted to not go in. We looked at the pictures posted out front and bought a book.

The other buildings on the block were just as fun. One looked kind of dutch with the Flemish roof, although I’m pretty sure the comparison ended there. The whole façade was a colourful mosaic of tile. The interior entryway had kitschy metal lamps on the walls and coloured glass designs in the stairwell. It is hard to describe the outlandish design that graced any of these works. Another building was less ornate but still had a very lacy exterior with interesting circular windows up high.

We visited the Catalan Music House the next day and while not a Gaudi creation was a Modernist experience none-the-less. The interior of this place again pulled an “Oh my” out of me. You couldn’t help but gasp as you entered the theatre. It was so ornate, so extravagant that it somehow all worked. I can’t make it happen for you in pictures because they just look wild but once again, sitting in this theatre made you feel happy. It was designed to maximize the outside light with a HUGE stained glass ceiling that drips down over your head. It represents the sun. The rest of the ceiling is covered in ceramic roses in pink and green. The supporting columns have lights that are huge metal circles that look a bit like crowns but are on tilted on an angle to represent seeking the light of the sun. The stage has muses to inspire the performers. These women have upper bodies that emerge from the wall playing various instruments. Their lower bodies are tiled images. When the organ played, I swear it looked like these ladies came alive. We also learned that Modernist is another word for Art Nouveau (French) or Arts and Crafts (British).

The result of these experiences was a satisfying feeling of having been to an amusement park or fun house. Mix into that a bit of wonderment at the cleverness of how it was all put together and you have it. Somehow, Gaudi’s creations and Modernist design just makes you feel happy.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

We visit some Gaudi buildings

Antoni Gaudi is my new hero. He is the second most amazing architect I know. His buildings are fascinating and weird but as you listen to the ideas that were behind them, Gaudi’s genius is revealed. As they handed over his diploma at his graduation from architect school, the chancellor said, “I don’t know whether I am giving a diploma to a genius or a lunatic”. Looking at his buildings you can see a bit of both.

We started our exploration of Gaudi by visiting Sagrada Familia. I wasn’t particularly excited to see it. It is another cathedral and we’ve seen many, many cathedrals. This one is unfinished. The really great cathedrals sometimes took up to a hundred years to build. It is hard to imagine a structure taking that long and when you see Notre Dame or Westminster Abbey, you marvel at their beauty but the dates don’t really strike you. At Sagrada Familia, they began building in 1883 and are still not finished. 1883. 1883! That’s around the time my great-grandparents were BORN! It is predicted that the cathedral won’t be finished for another 25 years. In appreciation of this, Rhys said he wanted to come back to see it when it was finished, when he was an old man. I pointed out he would be my age and he just smiled.

Think of the number of people who have worked on this cathedral during the past hundred years or so. Apparently, for construction workers here, it is the crowning achievement of their careers to work at this site before they retire and many spend their last few years of work here. Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to say you carved “this” stone or your great grandfather helped raise that spire? To give you an idea of progress, they just finished putting on the roof this year.

The outside of the cathedral is strikingly different on different sides. One entrance looks a bit like the cement is dripping down. See the first couple photos above. You know how sandcastles look when you pour the wet sand on the top? That’s it only busier, like someone went crazy with the sand. This is the Nativity façade and depicts the early life of Christ. It is the only side finished in Gaudi’s lifetime. He was killed by a tram in 1926 so most of the church has been designed by others using his inspiration. Even many of his original designs have been lost in a fire during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).

The other entrance is the Passion façade. It is angular and geometrical. I really liked this side of the church. The statues are so different from the classical Greek and Roman ones…or any we have seen, really. Christ hangs on a cross at the top. His head is a book, representing the word of God. As a librarian, ya gotta love it. There is symbolism in every statue, every corner, every added piece of decoration. They have a “magic” square on this side. You know the ones, where every row adds up to the same number? The number is 33, the age of Christ when he died. These facades are amazingly detailed but they are only the SIDE entrances! The front entrance has yet to be built. They will tear down the building across the street when they finally begin, so it is going to be pretty impressive.

One of the statues I particularly liked was called, “the temptation of man” (see above). The temptation was not an apple. It was not a woman. It was a bomb. To me, that was such a modern interpretation of biblical scripture. The devil offered man a bomb. In Gaudi’s time, just before the Spanish Civil War, terrorists were at work. Things haven’t changed a lot now. There was also one of the “temptation of woman”. The devil offered her a bag of money. I liked that both male and female were represented and that the religious scriptures were modernized to make sense in today’s world.


On entering the cathedral, my first impression was of an Egyptian hippostyle hall with huge columns supporting the roof. As we walked in further, it became clearer that this is a forest of columns, the branches split apart as the columns rise upwards to the ceiling. Each column has a “knot” half way up and there is mathematical symmetry everywhere. The ceiling itself is designed like a leafy canopy with small geometric shapes of light filtering through. There are many stairways rising to the tops. Two are exposed corkscrews with such exquisite symmetry they are a piece of art, appealing to some internal sense of perfection living within me. Gaudi was a man who shunned the straight line and that is evident in every curve of the wall inside. He designed special hyperbolic areas of the ceiling to avoid the music from the choir reverberating cacophonously within the cavernous space. The stained glass windows fit perfectly into the modernist space with collages of strikingly beautiful colours. My explanation here cannot do justice to the overwhelming beauty of this space. I was moved to tears just gazing around, not at first, but slowly, as the perfection of his vision settled in.

In the basement is the museum with his workshop where models are crafted before each section is built. Gaudi used the catenary arch, an arch inspired by the drape of a vine in nature. He used many of nature’s designs to assist him. What I found most fascinating was the way he designed the rooves of many buildings. He would hang chain to achieve the perfect arch. Then he would hang many chains together to create the lines of a steeple. He’d hang weights at load-bearing points to mimic the stress on the supports and adjust the chains accordingly. This “building” would be completely upside down but perfect in every way. There was an example with a mirror beneath in one of his buildings so you could see what it would look like upright. It reminded me of Da Vinci’s backwards writing. By using this hanging chain technique, Gaudi avoided complicated mathematical equations.


I thought it was interesting that Gaudi had a school built on the site for the children of the construction workers. It is part of the museum today but it is a cute little building that houses not only the classroom but also his study which is still exactly the same as it was when he died in 1926.

This was the whole family’s favourite Gaudi building. More on Gaudi tomorrow.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Loki Land

We are now in Loki’s favourite city in the world, Barcelona. Why is this her favourite city? Now that we’re here, we can certainly see why. She hasn’t even been here yet but she already knows. Barcelona is a must-see on any itinerary.

It started out as a Roman city, like most of the cities in this neck of the woods, actually. Under the streets of Barcelona, the Roman ruins lay out the original city plan. It was very small; more of a fort really. They had a wall around it. The Barcelona city museum has a whole section of the ruins uncovered deep beneath the present day buildings. You take an elevator down to see the streets and businesses of two thousand years ago. My favourite was the fish sauce factory. It wasn’t called fish sauce then. It was garum. This was big business. They processed the fish and added yummy flavours like dog cockles, sea urchins and snails. I don’t know what a dog cockle is but it doesn’t sound all that tasty to me. What happened to the Herbs de Provence, I ask?

For centuries, Barcelona was one of the major players along the Mediterranean. It was certainly the main hub in Spain. Enough so that when Christopher Columbus returned from his successful voyage to India…all right, North America, he came back to Barcelona with his gold and “Indian” prizes…er, guests. Spain became the European poster child for the next century or two. The people of Barcelona, however, are not Spanish. They are Catalan. Catalans are a pretty tenacious people. Although, the area is now a part of Spain, the Catalans don’t approve.

When Spain was first joining all the little kingdoms together, the Catalans were there. There was some sort of agreement where they could keep their own language and customs but would enjoy free trade and common currency…hmmm. Well, something like that. Around the mid-17th century, the Castillians (Spanish) started to get spread pretty thin with disputed lands in Netherlands, North America, Provence and the south of Italy. Everyone was rebelling and the armies were spread all over. That’s when Spain came up with a brilliant new plan to just have common laws throughout and to tax everyone equally to help pay for their wars. This didn’t go over well with the Catalans and they refused. Because the war with Provence was right on their doorstep, however, the Spanish king decided to use Barcelona as the launch pad for his fight. He conscripted the men, used their resources to feed and pay his army and basically made poor choices all the way around leading to some very hard feelings. They rebelled and it was nasty but didn’t really win them freedom. By the 19th century when Franco was dictating how it was gonna be, the Catalans were STILL rebelling and they were one of the last strongholds of resistance against him. Sadly, this resulted in their language being outlawed and any sign of Catalan being frowned upon by Franco and his gang.

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You’ve got to hand it to them though, even after fifty years of dictatorship they kept their spirit alive and when Franco passed on, as all dictators eventually do, they came back kicking. Today, the language and customs are alive and well, the carefully fanned resentment is flourishing and the graffiti is there to prove it. Every Sunday many Catalan people gather in a square to dance the traditional Sardana dance together. They put all their shopping or whatever they are carrying in the middle of the circle while they join hands and dance the steps that have been danced (off and on) for centuries while a live band plays their music. It was fun to watch people wander up and join the circle. Most of the dancers were old enough to have been alive during the Franco years but there were some younger people as well. What gets me is that they do this EVERY weekend all year long! It seems so casual yet somehow poignant.

The city today is a city within a city within a city. It started out as a Roman fort town and grew to a walled medieval town and now is a sprawling metropolis. While wandering the older streets we came upon a plaque which had been posted to note the high point of the medieval city. It was 16.9 metres high at Mount Tabor. Yes, they called it “Mount”. As Tom said, there are people on horses higher than that mount. He’s good, isn’t he?

Another place worthy of note is La Bouqeria, the market place off La Rambla. It was just pelting down rain the day we strolled the Rambla so maybe that added to the excitement of the covered market. After so many French markets this one was refreshing. Where the French markets were spacious and open, this one was crowded and crammed into a limited venue. The French markets were pastels and muted colours. This one was eye-popping brilliance with vibrant colours at every turn. The fruit stands were the best. The variety of fruits was mouth-watering. They had juices of every colour made with fruits we only rarely see in Canada. Dragon fruit, cactus fruit, passion fruit, papaya, mango and coconut were some of the interesting fruit drinks but they also had blackberry, kiwi, raspberry and so on. There were also interesting meats and cheeses on skewers, fry boxes with some sort of meat chips inside, skewers of cod fritters, and tapas delicacies we never did identify. We went back to have dinner there one evening but alas, most of the vendors were gone then. We did manage to have another fruit drink, though.