Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Beautiful and the Gaudí

A link to illustrations. It's the same album from the previous post, but with the following entry, more of the photos might make a little more sense. Also included at the end.

The next morning Rose, Kristen, Shane, and I were out the door and on the subway as the city got rolling. We were headed to the Eixample, a district primarily built up during the end of the 19th century. It’s now a very swanky shopping district and seemed like a good place to start our wandering. As we emerged from the subway, I looked across the street, searching for a street sign to get my bearings and was confronted by a riot of pastel mosaic tiles and rippling, skull-like balconies. The building was nestled between two standard high rises, which made it even more difficult to ignore.

Me: I think that thing’s famous.
Shane: Yeah, we should check it out.
Me: How much do you think a ticket costs?
Shane: Does it matter?
Me: Fair.

And thus began a day spent in adoration of one of the most creative, visionary architects I’ve ever heard of: Antoni Gaudí.

Because the Eixample was built up at the turn of the last century, Art Nouveau was in vogue as a loopy, organic rebellion against the hard angles and steel of the churning Industrial Revolution. Barcelona’s architects took the spirit of the French movement and infused it with a whiff of the Mediterranean and hard-edged Spanish mysticism, and Catalonian Nationalism producing “Modernisme.” The master of Modernisme was Gaudí. Intensely patriotic, and obsessed with natural forms, his buildings evoke wild gardens, and a little Dr. Seuss.

Then entry way to Casa Batllò. Everything, even the pottery, ebbs and flows.

The building confronting Shane and I was Casa Batlló. The apartment building was built in 1870, but Gaudí was asked to renovate it in 1905. Instead of just sprucing up the façade, he decided to move through every room, destroying right angles and infusing the building with light. Shane and I paid the entry fee, armed ourselves with audioguides and dove in – an appropriate metaphor as the interior has a very marine feel with blues, purples, and greens mingling in bubble-like fixtures. A massive ridge of tile fronts the façade with twisting chimneys and a lance-like tower slicing through the gable.

Gaudi was a very patriotic Catalonian and some people see Casa Batllo as a metaphor for Catalonia’s patron saint: St. George. The tower is capped with a cross and “JHS”, the Christian saint’s weapon slaying the pagan dragon. The victims of the beast are symbolized by the skull-like balconies and boney entrance-level. The attic evokes the ribs of the dragon with stark white arches leading to the roof.

The spires are maybe the spikes on the dragon's back, the gable his raised neck, and the cross the tip of St. George's lucky lance.

A less iconic example of Modernisme, to remind you that Gaudi was unique, even within his artistic movement.

After ogling at one of Gaudi’s smaller works, Shane and I were ready to visit everything else the man had constructed. After walking up and down the street to take in some of the less iconic, non-Gaudi Modernisme buildings, we headed for Casa Milà on Passeig de Gràcia. The massive, melting apartment building was built between 1906 and 1912. People live and work in the structure, but the top floor had a museum to Gaudi, explaining some of his biography and techniques. There were bones, leaves, and shells, some of his favorite motifs, and reproductions of the furniture he designed.

He was on the vanguard of ergonomics, making chairs that trace the arch of the back, and handles that perfectly fit the required grip of the hand. It’s a bit of an understatement to say he was ahead of his time. The roof of the apartment is festooned with a rolling, concrete hillside with twisting spires and interlocked arches. The rain should have driven us inside pretty quickly, but we continued to explore, taking in the view of the city, including a view of Sagrada Família (more on that building a little later).

After checking out the roof, we walked through a reconstructed apartment with furniture and fixtures that would have been common in 1910. It was actually a little shocking to be inside such a modern structure and suddenly be confronted with the lacy curtains and antiquated picture frames that would have been installed by the first tenants of the building. Next, we headed down the street for Gaudi’s masterpiece: the Sagrada Familia (The Holy Family).

The drizzle continued, so we grabbed lunch at a cafeteria-like restaurant recommended by a guy at a coffee stand. We sat by the window so we could try to take in the soaring spires of the structure while enjoying an unlimited supply of coffee (a rare thing on The Continent).

The full title of the building is “Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família” or Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family. Gaudi broke ground in 1882 and worked on it for the next 40 years. In 1926 Gaudi died after being hit by a tram at the age of 73, but construction has continued (with a brief respite in 1936 due to the Spanish Civil War). Estimates for the date of completion range from 2026 to 2080, though advances in design tools and materials have made the earlier dates more feasible. Construction is completely funded through private donations and ticket sales from visiting tourists like us. I’m glad I shelled out a couple of Euros to help make Gaudi’s greatest project a reality.

Now there are eight spires twisting towards the sky. Eventually there will be 18 representing the 12 apostles, the four evangelists, Mary, and Christ. The spire devoted to Christ will stand over the center of the building with a massive crystal cross acting as a kind of lighthouse for the ships steaming into Barcelona harbor. The Eastern façade was completed during Gaudi’s lifetime. It depicts the nativity and the tree of life. The opposite façade tells the story of the Passion. This section was designed by a Josep Maria Subirachs, who ignored Gaudi’s plans and infused the scenes with his own angular style.

Modern designers and artists have been given a little more license to develop their own visions of the project since many of Gaudi’s plans and models were destroyed in a fire set by Catalonian Anarchists in 1936.

In 2000, much of the interior vault was completed. The columns are like massive twisting tree trunks that branch near the ceiling. Skylights are surrounded by sunbursts or leaf designs, creating the impression of walking through a forest clearing lit by radiant stained glass. Construction is heavily underway as cranes swing overhead, and workers climb through the scaffolding.

Really the most incredible aspect of the Sagrada Familia, or really anything Gaudi built, is that it is truly one man’s vision. He conceived of a spiritually infused naturalistic world in concrete and steel, and people bought into his vision. To see the Sagrada Familia built is to see one man’s dream become a reality. Other artists – painters, photographers, sculptors, writers etc. – often work alone, or with small groups of people who share their vision, presenting their individualized vision as a completed whole for others to adorate or dismiss. An architect must convince hundreds of people – financiers, city officials, and construction foremen – to participate in his concept of the world. Gaudi’s was distinctive and people went with it. How often does that really happen?

As the temple closed behind us, Shane and I resolved to return in the mid-21st century to see the structure completed. If it’s not done by then, then we’ll take up masonry, and help speed the process along.

From there, Rose, Kristen, and James went shopping in the trendy department stores of Barcelona, and Shane and I went to immerse ourselves in a museum dedicated to another Spanish artist with a singular, distinctive vision: Pablo Picasso.

A (Self) Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. (after this I was told there was to be no photography in the museum. I thought it was just no flash. Whoops.)

The Picasso Museum was established in 1963 in the city Picasso flourished in (before going to Paris, that is). The collection begins with the young Picasso’s first artistic forays. From a very young age he showed an incredible eye for realistic portraits. When he was 16 he created his first prize-winning piece “The First Communion” followed by “Science and Charity.” The museum then moves through each phase of the artist’s career. You can watch him experiment with Impressionism, Pointillism, and Expressionism, then, after the Red Period, there’s a massive gap in the record. Enter Cubism.

Shane and I had to hustle through the exhibits, but had plenty of time to watch the mature master study “Las Meninas” by Velazquez, deconstructing then rebuilding the piece in Cubist strokes. In a few days we would see the original “Las Meninas” in Madrid, approaching the piece through Picasso’s eyes before using our own.

Again, the door was closed and locked behind us as we departed exactly at closing time. We know how to get the most out of our time, and really tick off museum guards (sorry, Grandpa).

The Barcelona Cathedral which was, you guessed it, closed for renovations.

From Picasso we headed to the theater. James had the brilliant idea to pick up tickets for a string quartet performance at the Palau de la Música Catalana. The Palau was finished in 1909 by Lluís Domènech i Montaner, another Modernisme master (Gaudi didn’t have the whole city to himself). The concert hall is a riot of green, blue, and purple glass. The proscenium is decorated with charging, mounted Valkyries and a bust of Beethoven. The opposite side of the proscenium has a bust of a famous Catalonian composer who drew on traditional folk tunes. Over his head, arches a stately tree. The folk symbols and classical symbols meet to support the artists below.

The facade of the "Palace of Catalonian Music," a mix of brick, steel, classical columns and dancing color. Modern music made tangible.

As students, we had the cheap seats for a performance that appropriately featured a German quartet tracing music’s growth from the Baroque to the Romantic (the Romantic is when folk stuff started to mingle with the more theoretical Classical). It was easy to zone during the early parts of the program, but the concert hall offered plenty of decoration to occupy my eyes. Once Beethoven rolled around, my ears became just as engaged.

No photos allowed here, but I wanted you to see the pegasus I got to stare at for the entire concert. Follow the link for more interior views.

The problem with the concert was its timing. It started at 8 and dropped us on the street at 10:00. We were about to have food problems again, since we were trailing the edge of the brief dinnertime window. As we hustled across town, headed for a restaurant our guidebook recommended, we ran into another pair of tourists looking for food. We confessed we didn’t know where we were going, or if it would still be open. Where’s a knowledgeable Barcelonan when you need one?

With a wrong turn, we found ourselves outside the closed farmer’s market. As we power-walked by, we noticed a very trendy restaurant with open tables. A glance at the menu told us we had a lot of cool options, so we strode in, unsure if they would turn the lights off before we finished dining. Shane and I split the Lobster Paella, Rose ordered a traditional Catalonian sausage, Kristen had a baked Catalonian cheese dish, and James enjoyed his curry. The ingredients all came from the neighboring farmers market, including the Spanish wine. We had plenty of time to eat and chat. The nights never flicked off, and the bar was still going as we took to the streets again.

A crustacean making a second appearence in two entries. Do I see a theme brewing?

We were a fair piece from the hotel, and the subway had stopped running an hour earlier. Thus we found ourselves contemplating a cryptic bus schedule on an empty street in Barcelona. I got frustrated with the sign and suggested we walk. I didn’t think it would take that long to cross town. I had forgotten I was in European mode, and was prepared to walk anywhere. The three visitors weren’t necessarily conditioned for trans-urban trips, and after walking for about twenty minutes, I could feel mutiny brewing. Next time, I’ll take the hint earlier and look into hailing a cab (this would be hammered home in Copenhagen, but stay tuned for that episode).

When we got to the hotel, James checked in for the evening. The Floridians had to check out at 5:30 AM the next morning. It was already going on 1 AM. The rest of us decided to just stay up through the night, but we needed a place to do so. Unfortunately, the streets around the hotel were dark and very closed. We asked the hotel desk for a bar recommendation. He pointed at a small restaurant across the road, saying it was one of his favorites.

We crossed and found a fluorescently lit restaurant with a row of surprised locals bellied up to the bar. We were shown a place to sit around a corner, out of sight of the regulars. Our waiter was an enthusiastic Korean man who was clearly eager to practice his English. We obliged, but only stayed for one drink, before taking to the street again in search of a place that had a little more…atmosphere. A club a few blocks away seemed promising until we discovered it was 10 Euro a head and wouldn’t offer much opportunity for chit-chat. Back to the street. Finally, glancing into every storefront, we started to lose hope and considered buying a can of beer from one of the hundreds of guys wandering the streets with six packs, ready to sell their wares for a Euro. This army of vendors had been confronting us for the previous night as well, a kind of zombie army of booze, and maybe something a little harder.

Just then we chanced by a Turkish fast-food joint run by Indian dudes. They still had the lights on and a table of Spanish hipsters gathered around a table in the back. This seemed like a place to stay for a bit. As we chatted, the staff enthusiastically offered us more rounds while also lowering their protective garage door partially over the entrance, indicating they were closing up shop. As we packed up, they protested, but we decided the door was a good indicator that it was time to get back to the hotel to pack up, get showers and begin a new day….

Stay tuned for a good-bye to Barcelona and hello to Madrid with a short tangle with the Spanish transport authority!


The photo album again.

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