Barcelona, Carved in Stone

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Barcino of Gothalonia

We have just introduced more than 700 new images to our Dymaxion Galleries Carved in Stone series. This time, the photos have all been taken in the Mediterranean port city of  Barcelona, Spain.  Barcelona, is of course, an ancient city ruled and inhabited over time by ancient Iberians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans (as Barcelo) Visigoths (as their capital, Gothalonia) the Aragons, the Castilians, and sometimes briefly on its own as a place at war with the neighboring powers in Madrid or to the north in France.

Stone Bones

The bones of ancient cities are made of stone: Barcelona, arguably Iberia's most prosperous and lively city, resists the Castilian kingdom to its south and west and the French to the north to the secular marrow of those bones. It insists on speaking it's own Romance tongue, with its own distinctive vowel sounds, vocabulary and grammar. No surprise then that its architecture, its open space and even in its historical barrios there is quite little to mark its 600 years of near constant domination by Madrid.

For its newest bones in the post-Franco years the city has reached out to local and internationally known architects and artists, as if to purposely reinforce its message of being a progressive, distinct kind of city below the Pyrenees.  The modern story, that dates from the extensive preparations for its 1986 Olympic hosting, is as impressive as any in Europe and perhaps in the world. It's a model for urban design and urban renewal that links the city to metropolises as new as Sydney where beach and urban life merge, Salzburg with its aerial tram and even more to monumental historic but bustling urban environments like Paris, where ceaseless car traffic, busy open and indoor restaurant and cafe space, pedestrian and bicycle flows, varied and plentiful shopping and speedy underground transport come together in a rich fabric of attractions for tourists, suburbanites and local inhabitants.

Modern success, yes --but yet what is most uniquely Barcelona harks back to another period a century earlier when the European pre-Raphaelite, Orientalist and Art Nouveau movements were transformed into something Catalonian by the burghers, artists and craftsmen of this city.  It was a highly charged and prosperous moment for the harbor city and Barcelona's great industrial families were vying to outdo each other in the magnificence of their homes, institutional patronage and civic projects as well as their commercial ventures. An entire new part of the city,  inland from the ancient barrios, called the Eixample,  had been carved out for this expansion. 

There, in an opening to what was going on in other burgeoning parts of Europe, two distinct Modernism styles vied for dominance, the one tied to the Jungenstijl/Art Nouveau movement and the other to a kind of gussied up neo-gothic that emerged in Barcelona with all the austerity of the rococo period. In the latter, Gothic flourishes were united with all manner of stone carved figures in these buildings that in the heart of Eixample around the Rambla de Catalunya often stand cheek to jowl with classic art nouveau inspired buildings. 

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Palau del Baro de Quadras

The Eixample was supposed to be a place of grand boulevards, open spaces and generous living quarters combined with the new civic refinements of a prosperous 19th century European city. In reality, builders and land speculators often got the best of the argument.  Plans for lush public open spaces and parks were shelved.  However, one unique and fortunate planning innovation was strictly enforced: a ruling that shaves buildings and sidewalks diagonally at every corner so that they stand back and face directly out to the missing angle.  Because of these somewhat rounded edges, seen from above, this entire part of the city looks like strings of amoeba in a Petri dish. The design choice, extracts a longer walk for pedestrians who must cross well in from the missing corners but converts each intersection into a small plaza-like area.

Antoni Gaudí

The man who is deservedly most associated with Barcelona's first architectural renaissance is Antoni Gaudí. In a place where Modernism was being given full rein, Gaudí managed to at once combine many of the city';s most traditional basic building elements, stone, wrought iron, stained glass and tile with a Nouveau inspired movement that Gaudí quite early on began to convert into something wholly unique, unrecognisable and, most importantly, his own.

It's a rare moment, indeed, when an architect, who perforce works within the constraints of public oversight, budget and the dominance of patronage, can move his craft and art so far from anything being done by any of his contemporaries.  That Gaudí was able to get his work built at all, is something of a conundrum, but that it occurred not in any of the metropolises most associated with modernist art movements but instead in a city ruled by hard headed businessmen, is something that continues to bring amazement to the now millions of pilgrims who visit his sites every year.

But Gaudí, of humble origins, himself, almost immediately from the time he left school and still in his twenties, seems to have been able to get commissions that allowed him a degree of freedom usually not granted even to architects of great reputation.  Even stranger, his patronage often came from the most traditionally conservative corners of society, churchmen and commercial oligarchs. Decisive to all this, was his primary and most faithful supporter, the socially active industrialist, Eusebi Güell, whose backing and patronage led to some of Gaudi's most creative work.

It can be said Gaudí never designed a conventional edifice, even when he was still following somewhat the precepts that bind all fledgling architects.  His graduating project, much more constrained than anything he later built, was given the lowest possible passing grade as he left school. Still, just a couple of years later, you'd say, impossibly, he is being put in charge of a project to build Europe's last major cathedral!

While still in his early thirties, he was given the assignment to build a villa in the new part of Barcelona  for a successful tile and brick manufacture; the house, La Casa Vicens (1883-88) took five years to build, went way over budget, and nearly bankrupted Vicens in the process. In this strikingly beautiful house, Gaudi uses tiles, usually reserved for roofs and interiors, to provide a generous mix of color and pattern to the facade

Despite the delays and added costs, ever more expansive commissions came his way. And most importantly, Gaudí had no abiding interest in fantasy or the exotic for their own sake. There is an evolution in his vision taking place that transcends the almost aggressive eclecticism that first seems an integral part of his tool box.  For an austere church school project, at the Collegio Terrisano, he extended and arranged the typical gothic elyptic arch until it came to resemble a line of comfortably stretched legs the students and nuns would pass through on their way to and from class.  It could be argued that the makeover of a large habitation he did on Passeig de Gracia, La Casa Batlló, (1904-6) as extended as the metaphor might be, is one of the most beautiful examples of Art Nouveau architecture to be found any where, and all without really adhering to the usual Nouveau conceits. Organically, the carved window frames hint at the delicacy of finger bones. while more undulating interior areas evoke a kind of fleshy intimacy. And a little later, just a block away and on the other side of the street, Gaudi built his Casa Milà (1906-10), almost as a repudiation.  The Barcelonans called it La Perdrera, or stone pile, but rather than gravity bound, the large building appears more organically poised to grow above the corner it occupies

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            La Casa Batlló, (1904-6)

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La Casa Milà (1906-10)

Gaudi worked from sketches and models and seemed to eschew standard drafting guides for construction.  And then, armed with those drawings and sketches, he remained on the work site, more like a stage director of actors (in his case, the craftsmen and builders), allowing himself to make daily decisions on all manner and degree of detail and direction.

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Tile on Benches in Parc Güell's Central Square

That Gaudí loved the qualities of stone, brightly colored tile, stained glass, and worked iron --his father's craft-- is undeniable but what also becomes clear as he manages to move to execute commissions that seem to unleash him from all customary restraints, like Casa Milà, Parc Güell and the Sagrada Familia cathedral, is his growing compulsion to exploit the plasticity, nonlinear qualities of these elements --in the case of inherently flat tiles, he has them cracked to form a contoured, scale-like effect-- to achieve the qualities of organic growth. Visionary nanoscientists, today, project a wholly new form of construction, in which objects are "grown" on an atomic level, rather than forged or molded in traditional manners. Gaudí seems to have come to the same kind of thinking, not, of course, that he could literally grow molecules from atoms but that the shapes and forms that stem from nature's means of creation and growth, the extended, curved ellipsis, the trunk or bone, the helix and double helix, should become the basic building blocks of a nonrectilinear architectural practice.

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Wall in Parc Güell

Art Nouveau allowed for undulation, for flowers and vines, for an escape from the right angle but Gaudí used this as a springboard to an architecture that ultimately has little or nothing to do with the grace or frivolities of Nouveau. He is studying the way pre-deciduous and deciduous trees support their growth, how seeds develop and open, natural metamorphosis, and in fauna, the way nature builds a cockle shell, how bones, shaped for their particular function, act as a fundamental structural element, etc.  Nowhere, in his organic studies, does he find a right angle. Nature's order, you can imagine him thinking, abhors that same straight line that had increasingly shackled builders in an industrial, repetitive age. For his cathedral sized Sagrada Familia church, his great and still unfinished project, Gaudí took it upon himself to live his work practically without a fixed script, budget or, even a single patronage holding the trump card of the purse strings. From the outset, the church was to be paid for by voluntary subscription. And often that meant little or no building activity from months or years at a stretch. Gaudí sketched his vision, built his maquettes but in his work study there was no typical architect's drafting table and tools.  Instead he built experimental models with string and tiny bags of sand to test how stress might be distributed across a structure that had a minimized dependence on the standard piers, arches and keystones, the genius releasing but ultimately limiting ingredients used by the great Gothic master stone builders to achieve the great predecessors..

Gaudí, the bachelor, had a very restricted personal life. As a young man he was even something of a dandy. But his projects emerged all consuming so that for the last decade of his life, which he dedicated exclusively to the Sagrada Familia,  he often slept on the work site and ultimately so neglected his personal appearance that when he was tragically killed as a pedestrian struck by a tram, this most famous of Barcelonans by reputation, was assumed to have been a homeless derelict. A taxi driver, called over by witnesses, expecting no payment, refused to carry him to the hospital.  In truth, having an aversion to society and the camera, few people actually knew what the renowned man looked like. Only a search for him that ended in a hospital ward several days later, allowed the city to learn of the fate of their missing master builder. He died, refusing to be transferred out of the public ward. His municipal funeral, was perhaps the largest ever given in the city for any man or dignitary.  He was laid to rest in his still very unfinished church.

But in some ways these cruel last hours were only a prelude to the unkindness the 20th Century would lay upon his memory. Just a decade after his death, the politics of Catalonia, Spain and Europe fell  like an executioner's ax on his great project. Barcelona was quickly becoming the center of the movement for secular freedom in Spain as the forces of reaction gathered in Madrid to squash the fledgling republic.

For the oppressed in Spain in 1936, just as  in France in 1789 when statues of saints surrounding cathedral portals, were beheaded , the union of the Church and the counter-revolutionaries headed by Franco was a fact of harsh reality.  The revolutionaries who gathered in Barcelona turned their wrath towards that Church and the unfinished but already dominating spires of the Sagrada Familia, became a prime symbol of retrograde repression. The work site was stormed and looted, many of the models, sketches and other materials and instructions that Gaudí had left behind for his disciples were smashed and burned. 

The pendulum, of course, has swung, far from the traumatic philosophical, aesthetic, social battles and disastrous physical torments that Europe experienced, particularly in the first half of the Twentieth Century. First Hitler and Mussolini, who had sent troops and aid to put down the Spanish Republic and Barcelona's own hopes, were swept away even as Franco, now an anachronism, lingered.  In architecture, the sleek, linear and all functional model of the "European School" gradually was eclipsed by a post modern sensibility, open to shapes that reject a rectilinear reality. Gaudí's more advanced work, controversial even in his own city, is now seen in a new light, perhaps even as a beacon to what might come.

Unfortunately this new found popularity comes with a dear price. There are great crowds and lines to stand in at the Sagrada Familia site. Inside, it's possible to see workers using molds and toxic smelling, stone looking materials to speed the construction of the nave, if you look hard enough. The later spires built after Gaudí's death have a more Disneyesque quality than the ones he oversaw, and the choice of sculpture made for the adornment of the post Gaudi west facade, has a grotesque cubist quality that seems antithetical to Gaudí's vision.

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Sagrada Familia, sculpture by Josep Subirachs

Fortunately, for visitors to Barcelona, there is a more pleasing and contemplative way to get to know Gaudí. To view, experience and absorb in leisure this unique artist's work, it is advised to make a trip to the heights of the city where Parc Güell dominates one of its most beautiful prospects. Here, Gaudí created a natural relationship with native plant life, piled and carved stone, and particularly with the special colors, shapes and forms that make up the designs of local tile makers working in what seems to a tradition of freedom from more European stylistic modes. The park is the Gaudí gem that has not been overtaken the way the cathedral has and the way Barcelona, itself, as a destination city has, by the over-embrace of tourists.  The Parc combines, nature, growth, climate, art and tradition in a way that a building never could.

The Gothic City

For ancient places, forgotten or renowned, buried stone and shard are often the only relics from which tales can still be told.  From the banks of the Nile to the gentle slopes of Crete to the quais on the Tiber, the glyph sites on Avon, the lush plains of Amazonia, high peaks of the Andes, jungles of Anghor Wat, these places are known to the present by their carved stone remnants. More sophisticated or often, mirror civilizations with more organic artifacts remain forgotten and forever passed over. In ancient times, edifices, monuments, even walls were torn down or overbuilt to erase or encapsulate the memories of monarchs, cities, creeds and entire civilizations. In a reversal of eternity, heretical kings and pharaohs, or the merely vanquished of battles and kingdoms, are defaced to history's black hole.

Under a modern, thriving city like Barcelona, there are traces that no doubt go back well beyond the days when Greek, Carthaginian, Roman or Moorish colonizer walked; their ramparts, palaces and forums.In some places the Roman walls of Barcino are open for display.

But for the living, its is the descendants of the Visigoth armies who provided the architectural vision and influence that make the old heart of the city the most southern of truly Gothic places. That Barcelona stands apart from the other united kingdoms of Iberia is apparent in its stubborn allegiance to its unique, Catalonian identity. Catalonia, the word, we learn is merely the way Gothalonia has come to be pronounced through the ages.

And for a brief period, under its patron, Jaume of Aragon, this was a port city rivaling Genoa and Venice in the Tyrrhenian for power and trade dominance. Its symbol then was of St. George slaying the dragon. The city has traditionally found its prosperity not in military dominance on sea or land but in its industry, craft and trade. Some of its greatest recent bursts of expansion can be directly linked to international fairs or sports gatherings. Barcelona is not a city of great palaces, or even magnificent church buildings but instead, fittingly, of a multitude of places dedicated to every day pleasure and toil.  For this moment in time, it seems to have taken a whimsical statue of a lizard at the foot of the entrance stairway to Parc Guell as its new icon.

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This page contains a single entry by dymaxion published on February 20, 2008 5:11 PM.

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