“Every building you see is the image of a man you do not see.”
~Louis H. Sullivan, Kindergarten Chats and Other Writings
It’s hard to imagine a city and a man more intertwined than Barcelona and Antoni Gaudí. And it’s even more difficult to envision what Spain’s Catalonian capital would look like had this visionary architect lived and worked in another city. His impact on the character of Barcelona is extraordinary, including seven works that have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Gaudí’s buildings are a fantasyland of color, shapes, whimsy and symbolism. They make you smile and stare in wonder at the same time. It’s especially fun to happen upon one of his buildings and instantly recognize it as a Gaudí. Somewhere deep in his imagination must have been a fabulous world that wanted to break out…and break out it certainly did!
On our first visit to Barcelona seven years ago, Herb and I visited two Gaudí masterpieces – his landmark basilica La Sagrada Familia and the magnificent private residence Casa Milà, also known as La Pedrera. This time we headed out of the city center to explore his outdoor wonderland called Park Güell and then wrapped up our Gaudí tour the next morning at the charming city house Casa Batlló.
We hadn’t planned to be at Park Güell in time for sunrise. But the inky Barcelona sky still had its covers pulled tightly over the city as our taxi wove through silent streets to the Gràcia District, about twenty minutes from our hotel.
I’d booked tickets before we left home for the first entry of the day at 8 a.m., hoping it would be the least crowded time to visit. The park admits 400 people every half hour, and if you don’t arrive within 30 minutes of your entry time, you will lose your slot.
It was about ten minutes to eight when our taxi dropped us off at the street leading up a gently sloping hill to the park. As the entrance came into view, we began to notice people inside. Lots of people. And when we reached the entry, the gate was open. It turns out that if you arrive at Park Güell (pronounced “gwell”) between 5:30 and 8 a.m., there is no entry fee. Once inside the gates, you may stay as long as you like, as if you had purchased a ticket.
We passed two houses that looked as if they were made of gingerbread and headed up a double-sided staircase, taking our place among the crowd of sunrise viewers. As shades of pale pink and tangerine orange washed over the morning sky, the park took on the look of a village from an old fairy-tale book. For a moment, it seemed entirely possible that Hansel could be lurking about, marking a pathway with bread crumbs!
Park Güell was the vision of Catalonian entrepreneur and Gaudí’s friend Eusebi Güell, who had purchased the land in 1899. His idea, inspired by the English garden city movement, was to create a high-end residential neighborhood just outside Barcelona’s city center. Gaudí designed a planned community of 60 townhouses, connected by natural viaducts, landscaping and a large central square and moved into a model home on the property. Sadly, only two plots of land were ever sold, and in 1914 the project was shut down, citing lack of funding and lack of interest. In 1922, the city bought the land and transformed it into a public park.
A Walk in Park Güell
With daylight on the horizon, we returned to the entry gates and started our walk. A wild array of colors, muted in the early morning darkness, was now bursting into view. Benches, walls, ceilings and sculptures decorated with trencadís mosaics – a favorite Gaudí technique that cements together pieces of broken tile and glass – seemed to be vying for our attention, each one more stunning than the last.
At the top of the stair stands the Hypostyle Room, a covered marketplace Gaudí had designed for Park Güell’s residents. Eighty-six Doric columns hold up a white domed ceiling decorated with rosettes representing the sun, moon and four seasons. The space has a happy feel, warm and inviting, yet shimmery and majestic at the same time.
Gaudí created three viaducts and a series of pathways to connect the lower sections of the community to the higher elevations. Suspended on a structure of sloping stone columns and topped with lush vegetation, the viaducts’ designs are as imaginative and unexpected as the buildings they connect. He even gives a nod to the residents’ laundry needs with his Portico of the Washerwoman, a passageway designed to connect the houses to each other. Inspired by the Caryatids that adorn Greek temples, the portico features an architectural column that takes the form of a standing female figure: A woman with a laundry basket on her head!
We passed the park’s Austria Garden, home of wild parrots, flowering plants and trees donated to the city by Austria. Nearby is the house where Gaudí lived with his father and his niece, a pink-hued, green-shuttered structure that is now home to the Gaudí Museum. Ironically, Gaudí didn’t design the house; it was built by his assistant Francesc Berenguer. Before leaving the park, we toured a house that Gaudí did design – the Caretaker’s Lodge by the entrance gates.
The Image of a Man
Gaudí stayed on at Park Güell years after his father and niece had died, after the project was abandoned and after his close friends Francesc Berenguer and Eusebi Güell had passed away. In 1925 he moved to his workshop inside La Sagrada Familia. On June 7, 1926, he was struck by a tram while crossing the street and died three days later.
There are volumes written about Gaudí’s work, but very little about the man himself. He left behind one written document about architecture, and a handful of quotes are possibly attributed to him. Even a book I purchased on our last visit – The Complete Work of Antoni Gaudí – devotes only one page to his life, focusing on his year-by-year professional accomplishments.
Gaudí seems to be a man who was content inside his solitude. It is his work that gives us a window into who he was. A religious man who expressed his devotion in La Sagrada Familia. A builder who created wildly wonderful apartment spaces for the city he loved. A friend who pulled out all stops to imagine a fairy-tale world that may have failed in its initial intention, but in the end has left a lasting impression on anyone who happens through its gates.
Perhaps there is no need for words after all.