Born in 1852, the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi made his mark with his unique brand of Art Nouveau structures around the urban center of Barcelona, Spain. Gaudi died in 1926, victim of a street accident, and was laid to rest in a crypt beneath his career masterpiece, the unfinished church of La Sagrada Familia (The Holy Family). The church has been 120 years in the making and it is expected to be finished in 2026.
How has this single structure come to characterize the history of modern Spanish architecture? How has Gaudi’s architecture sparked so much interest nearly a century after his death? Why is this church situated in the center of bustling and cosmopolitan Barcelona so captivating?
While novelist George Orwell deemed it "one of the most hideous buildings in the world," the Spanish people embrace the structure with its overall organic forms and strikingly modernist overtones. Despite the fact that the building is not even close to completion and that other contemporary architects have had their hand in the project, Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia has been named a world heritage site by UNESCO and millions of tourists flock to see it every year, myself included.
La Sagrada Familia is a quite tall structure. It, like many other churches, references the longstanding ecclesiastic tradition of emphasizing vertical height in the design of a major church building. As the building’s height soars to the heavens, the three spires (for Jesus Christ, Mary and Joseph) are focal points. The central spire dedicated to Jesus Christ will rise more than 500 feet high upon completion, making Gaudi’s building the tallest church in the world.
Work on La Sagrada Familia was halted during the Spanish Civil War. Anarchists and angry mobs destroyed many of Spain’s churches during that time including the models, blueprints, and designs for La Sagrada Familia. Today, Gaudi’s famous church is funded through public donations. Recently, Pope Benedict XVI consecrated the building and officially elevated it to basilica status.
Barcelona is home to some other Gaudi sites that demonstrate the architect’s devotion to natural forms and to the modernist aesthetic. For instance, the famous apartment building called the Casa Mila is situated in the heart of Barcelona on the fashionable avenue of Passeig de Gracia. A wealthy and flamboyant developer commissioned Gaudi to build the apartment complex with organic forms and spiritual elements. Wrought iron that convincingly looks like seaweed and concrete that seconds for animal skin are typical parts of Gaudi’s design.
At Casa Mila, Gaudi wanted the residents to socialize with ease so he only provided elevators on every other floor of the building forcing them to take the stairs and run into one another on occasion. The Casa Mila’s lobby is decorated with floral motifs and its famous roof garden is one of the best of its kind in modern European architecture.
Another important Gaudi design is the building called Casa Batllo. The house is now a museum site and the architecture was modeled after the legend of St. George and the Dragon. The building is best known for its highly recognizable roofline which suggests the unmistakable back of a dragon. Gaudi’s masterpieces for Barcelona’s residents and the faithful command an important place in world architecture. If you find yourself in Barcelona, don’t miss the stunning contributions of Gaudi.