New Internationalist

A Tribute To Gaudi

Issue 350

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A tribute to Gaudi
He was an original thinker, an iconoclast who did things his own way – in spite of the steamroller impact of modernism. John Gough pays homage to the visionary genius of Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi.

He was stubborn. He was obstinate. He couldn't care less about the conventions of his time - actually he contemptuously disregarded them. In death no-one recognized him, except as a poor tramp who happened to walk under a tram. At first the local hospital refused to take him in. Yet the whole city turned out to mourn his death.

Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926) - the arch-conservative, the radical, man of contradictions - has always been a controversial figure. Now in his home town of Barcelona they're celebrating his 150th anniversary. Gaudi placards festoon Las Ramblas, the city's famous esplanade, as Barcelona proudly celebrates the architect's career and his inspired masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia cathedral.

If that weren't enough, the city also wants to make him a saint. The formal request came in January, 2000 from Cardinal Archbishop Ricard Maria Carles. Nihil obstat (no obstacle) said the Vatican, setting in motion the process towards sainthood. The untypical speed is because there are few people alive who knew Gaudi and they must be interviewed before they too fade into history.

'Maestro, you are the Dante of architecture,' said Monsignor Ragonesi, the Papal Nuncio in 1915. 'Your magnificent work is a Christian poem carved in stone.' A generation later the English writer George Orwell called Sagrada Familia one of the most hideous buildings in the world and lamented that it hadn't been blown up during the civil war.

The language of Gaudi's work is as unique as his origins - fiercely independent, Catalonian, archaic, exclusive, original, organic. Only in Barcelona could Gaudi have conceived his work, only in the rebel state of Catalonia with its celebrated individuality. Here, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was something strange going on, something so unique and ahead of its time as to be only tolerated. Even now Gaudi has not been fully appreciated, let alone honoured as the greatest architect of modern times.

As a million people from across the world make a yearly pilgrimage to the Sagrada Familia, the most remarkable church ever to grace Christendom, one wonders what Gaudi would say. We have come a long way, yet the spirit of our age is just beginning to understand the distinction between natural and synthetic, organic and mechanic, and the wonderful difference it makes. Gaudi understood this intuitively. With genuine sensitivity and practicality he moved within nature, listening to its language, to how it speaks.

With this insight comes the sense that beyond the endless experiment of progress something has been lost and needs to be retrieved. It seems we, the children of modernity, have lost our mother tongue, have become deaf and dumb and speak a different language. Our tongue is the Logic of Science and nature is merely the tabula rasa upon which the laws of reason are written.

The point shouldn't be lost on Barcelona or any modern city with dismal apartment blocks raised by the Divine Engineers of the Machine Age. Nor was it lost on Gaudi, to whom it was all a monstrous anathema, an abhorrence of nature. His language was entirely different from the New Science as embodied in the uniform industrial mass of Barcelona. His natural and organic designs set him apart from the age of mechanization.

The language of science had announced the death of nature three centuries earlier - as Galileo proclaimed.

'Philosophy,' he said, 'is written in this grand book - I mean the universe - which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it was written.'

To Galileo the language of nature was mathematics. His crime was to proclaim a new Truth to undermine the magical and spiritual universe - the truth of objectivity. The secondary qualities of mind, he said, are illusions belying a deeper truth, the mathematical determinism of matter. Only objective properties really exist - all else is dross.

'Hence,' said Galileo, 'tastes, odours, colours and so on are no more than mere names so far as the object in which we place them is concerned and they reside only in the consciousness.'

Unsurprisingly, the Catholic Church tried to isolate Galileo's musings as a cosmological heresy. In retrospect we might say the Church was trying to keep our eyes from being blinded by science - wittingly or unwittingly. For to be objective is to extract the essence from nature, mechanize it and make it into matter, beyond consciousness and the natural mind. The implications of this New Science were staggering in their simplistic arrogance: God was dead and Nature a mechanical system. All else was illusion.

The modern universe then was by definition a senseless conception, the mere hurrying of matter, endlessly, meaninglessly. The world was a machine and only those versed in the new language of nature could correctly interpret it - the new Divine Engineers of modern creation. Gradually everything became subject to the mechanical theme and its variations, not least modern architecture. Listen to Le Corbusier, its author and father: 'A house is a machine to live in...' And the machine, like science, is uniform; it will stamp its grey identity on any natural landscape regardless of the vernacular.

Look at Gaudi though, for he is the antithesis of the uniform. His work brims with beauty, mystery, colour, rhythm and harmony - those 'secondary qualities' which modern architecture ignored in favour of the kind of drab apartment blocks which now make up Barcelona. In the modern age Gaudi was, as one guidebook puts it, 'right out there on his own'.

He was the exception. His language was not the cool, abstract calculus of the square, the mathematical, the logical. Rather he looked through a round window, a spiritual aperture and learned a different language of nature as distinctive as Catalan, his mother tongue. To see Gaudi is to see nothing primary, nothing uniform, nothing standardized, cheapened and diminished. No straight lines, no abstract calculations, squares, nothing planned in neat determinism. And no drawing board, only roughly sketched designs often made up on site as he went along. To the blind the response was typical of eyes long accustomed to the dark and suddenly opened to the pain of colour and imagination. They drew away. It was too much. Better the dull grey uniformity, the safety of lines and numbers of the new architecture.

Casa Vicens, Colegio Teresiano, Parc Güell and many more - all sparkle like gems around the jewel - The Sagrada Familia. When Gaudi designed he drew from nature as well as Art Nouveau, Gothic and Spanish-Arab architecture. And of course the vernacular, local ceramics and ironwork. Nature, like Gaudi, abhors a straight line. Nor has she any blank canvas. Everything must be coloured in.

Gaudi is the antithesis of the uniform. His work brims with beauty, mystery, colour, rhythm and harmony – those ‘secondary qualities’ which modern architecture ignored

'Do you know where I found my model?' said Gaudi, pointing to a project in his cathedral workshop. 'An upright tree, it bears its branches, and these in turn, the leaves. And every individual part has been growing harmoniously, magnificently, ever since God the artist first created it.'

And the Sagrada Familia itself grew like a tree. Underneath was Gaudi, rooted as ever to the spot, spending his last years living out his mission in his workshop, defying all architectural precepts. Work became his master, he the slave, the white bearded sage, ragged and poor. When he died in 1926 under that tram, work on the church had hardly begun. And only recently has the world's longest building project got an approximate finish date. The roof is supposed to be complete by 2010. As for the rest, who knows? At the end of the century perhaps. Perfection, like sainthood, is an eternal occupation.

As cranes shadow the spires and workers move about to the sound of drill hammers, Jose Maria Subirachs is not so sure about Gaudi's looming sainthood. Subirachs, one of the sculptors working on the Sagrada Familia, fears that making the architect an official icon of the Catholic Church will diminish his status as an artist.

'Gaudi was a creator, an extraordinary man, perhaps the greatest artist of our century. But a saint? No, I don't understand it.' He feels the Catholic Church should not be able to monopolize Gaudi and lay claim to his life, work and memory.

'The important thing is that Gaudi was a universal artist. Everyone of different religions, different beliefs, comes here to see his work. It seems to me better to leave him as he is.'

Others beg to differ. The beatification of Gaudi is the Catholic icing on the Catalan cake, the supreme tribute to a devout Catholic who in his time was mocked and ridiculed, but is now venerated.

John Gough is a freelance journalist who lives in Norwich, England.

As millions of tourists visit the special Gaudi exhibitions and symposiums and gape at his many works around Barcelona, we should remember he was not a man of our times. He was his own man, the only 'Natural' in the Age of the Machine, who followed his own genius and inclinations against the tide. Perhaps one day we can lay claim to him when the territory lost to the New Science is reclaimed and the Sagrada Familia is finished. In the meantime we pay homage to the genius who abhorred that symbol of our times, the infinite unilinear progression which haunts our minds - the straight line.

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