Gaudi, A Biography; Gijs van Hensbergen, 2001

Reviewed by Graham Mulligan


In preparation for a trip to Barcelona I read Van Hensbergen’s excellent biography of Antoni Gaudi, the architect of the Sagrada Familia. Gaudi lived in a period of great transition, not just for Spain, but also for Europe and for art and ideas. He was born in 1852 during the Carlist Wars that divided Spain, characterized by liberalism versus traditionalism. By the close of the century Spanish society “had become increasingly polarized. At one extreme anarchy, trade unionism and bohemianism flourished, while at the other extreme the Catholic hierarchy, the establishment and an increasingly reactionary government struggled to impose its authority”. Europe was industrializing while Spain continued to absorb wealth from its overseas colonies. Late nineteenth century romantics like Wagner, Walter Pater, Pugin, Ruskin, Holman Hunt and Baudelaire were loosening the bonds of neo-classicism in art.


Barcelona was at the centre of Catalan culture that had grown from a small port city of tens of thousands in the early 1800’s to a rapidly expanding city of hundreds of thousands by the end of the century; (85,000 to 533,000 and life expectancy of 26 years). Population growth was not only from rural migration to the city but from other parts of the country where values and experience were different. What could so many immigrants know of Catalan culture?


Van Hensbergen’s detailed explanations of the growth of Gaudi’s architectural style and of his unique personality open up the reader to this complex individual. Gaudi’s Catholicism was certainly central to his being but so was being Catalan. The Catholic Pope Leo XIII released the encyclical entitled Rerum Novarum in 1891 recognizing for the first time the importance of a living wage, worker’s rights and the positive role that unions might play, albeit only within Catholic parameters. It fit well with Gaudi’s notions of workers colonies and harmonious living in an ordered society. The idea of people living together as craftsmen and contributors to a well run community underlies the creation of Colonia Güell and later, Park Güell – “a living essay in Catalan nationhood and Catholic piety”.


Don Eusebi Güell was a powerful industrial winner in a country that came late and little to industrialization. He was Catalan and Catholic, a painter and sponsor of plays, poetry and opera and eventually Gaudi’s patron. Having such a strong patron liberated Gaudi to indulge his own journey toward eccentrism. “Gaudi despised and distrusted the progressive young artists of Barcelona, who would soon include Picasso”. Stanley Payne, in his erudite book Spain, A Unique History (2008), would agree with Gaudi. Payne recounts how “by the latter part of the eighteenth century, the rejection of traditional Castilian elite culture was accompanied by the growing acceptance of critical Enlightenment norms on the one hand, accompanied on a different level by the growing plebianization of culture and attitudes, which among the common people was becoming xenophobic, emphatic and shrill”.


The development of Gaudi’s architectural ideas is brilliantly described by Van Hensbergen. He was becoming more primitive and symbolic in his work while remaining profound and deeply theoretical. Gothic architecture valued proportion and clarity and was uplifting and vertical but had a structural problem solved only by going outside the main building with ‘flying buttresses’ holding up the great walls. Gaudi played with ideas like the catenary arch. He suspended a heavy chain upside down from two fixed points and traced the curve to derive the arch. Another idea was the hyperbolic parabaloid. Think of ‘Pringles’ potato chips in a tube all neatly stacked and regular, or the roof of the Calgary Saddledome. These are hyperbolic parabaloids. The skin of his later buildings utilizes brick detailing and broken glazed tile called trencadis, laid out in patterns to decorate but also to celebrate mystery and faith in symbols and signs.


Time moved away from Gaudi’s self-indulgent style as the new forms of Frank Lloyd Wright in North America and Bauhaus in Europe defined a new architecture. Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, Cocteau, Satie, and Massine made a different kind of music and Dada erupted on the scene. Gaudi grew old and died in 1926, tragically, run over by a tram, unrecognized, looking like a tramp. When news of his death reached the population people wept, recognizing a great man passing. Hundreds of thousands of mourners lined the streets as his cortege passed on its way to the Sagrada Familia where he lies.

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