Alien aesthetics

By many professional measures Gaudi was an unsuccessful architect. His best-loved works are the few public projects he undertook. His designs for houses had few takers. Why did his modernism not have a market? In the decades when he was designing modernist projects which failed, elsewhere in Europe Art Nouveau and Jugendstil were spawning commercial success. We went to one of Gaudi’s few successful building projects to find out what it was like inside. This is Casa Mila, located just off Barcelona’s famous shopping avenue of Passeig de Gracia.

Casa Mila: atrium

The atrium was full of light. The floor was covered in trencadis mosaic, the iron gates were in typical Art Nouveau style, and the bottom of a staircase was covered with a mural in delicate pastel colours (which is not original). One architectural innovation which can be seen here are the pillars. They largely carry the load of the six storeys high building. In 1906, when the construction began, it was supposed to be a radical innovation, allowing interior walls to be free of load.

Casa Mila: interior passage

As a result of being built around an atrium, the interiors of flats are full of light. The doors and windows are made with the flowing curved lines which reflect the aesthetics built into the walls. It is said that Gaudi paid as much attention to the handles on doors as in the architectural design.

Casa Mila: bedroom

The furniture was also specially designed. The flat which is on show has reproductions of the furniture that was made for the original flats. These are typical Art Nouveau pieces. I wouldn’t mind some in my flat. As you can see from the photo above, there is no lack of light in the rooms. The main problem that customers faced was the lack of straight lines in the walls. As a result every piece of furniture had to be specially made for the building. When you see the kitchen or the bathrooms you are immediately struck by this realization.

Casa Mila: bedroom ceiling

I looked up at the ceiling and was amazed at the detail there. I’m not sure that I can sleep in such ornate rooms, but the aesthetics of that time could have been different. Apparently owners began to change the furniture and colours inside the flats as soon as they could. By the time the house was declared an UNESCO heritage structure, internal and external changes were so many that it was hard to restore the original colours. As a result, I’m not sure whether this ceiling, for one, now looks as Gaudi wanted it to look.

Casa Mila: facade

The facade of the building is very distinctive. The rough and unfinished look gives it the local nickname, La Pedrera, meaning the quarry. The intricate iron-work grilles on the balconies are remarkable. But the most remarkable part of the building is probably the roof, with its fantastically shaped chimneys and flues. The alien in the featured photo is one of these.

Trencadis in the Park

Breaking up ceramic tiles into pieces and using them in a mosaic is called trencadis. You can see this in many parts of Barcelona, but my favourite collection of trencadis is Gaudi’s work inside the Park Guell. All the photos here come from this place. Gaudi assembled the pieces from discarded tiles and broken pottery. You can see that Gaudi’s style of architecture with its dearth of straight lines was unable to use the usual rectangular tiles, and so was forced in this interesting direction.

Park Guell: Trencadis covered spire

We’d reached Barcelona late in the morning, and decided to go off to Park Guell after lunch. Not a great decision on a burning hot day, since there is a bit of a climb from the nearest metro station. For the last four years one needs tickets to get into this municipal park! Unless you have thought ahead to buying them, you could be in for a surprise. On this hot afternoon tickets were sold out five hours in advance. The ticket allows you in to all the parts of the park which have Gaudi’s work, including his wonderful tiles.

Parc Guell: Tencadis on the main terrace

Apart from the buildings at the entrance, and his famous lizard-dragon (vandalized in 2007 and restored quickly after), the main trencadis work is on the main terrace. You can see this in the photo above. One of the interesting things about this style is that the component tiles are used only as tesserae in a mosaic, Parc Guell: detail of trencadisand the original design on the tiles has nothing to do with the pattern that emerges. A closer look at the details (see photo alongside) will tell you how that happens. Work of this kind requires an artist. That’s one of the reasons that the modernist art movements of the early twentieth century never took over the world. The machines of the time could not build this. It also turned out that the buildings which Gaudi designed were not a big draw for the paying public: now you can see about three of them in Barcelona, and one was the house where he himself lived.

Modern comfort

After spending a morning with Gaudi’s idiosyncratic architecture in the church of Sagrada Familia and then in the apartment building called the Casa Mila or La Pedreda, The Family and I went off to a nearby restaurant for one of Barcelona’s famous three course lunches. Gaudi’s architecture is mesmerizing, and both of us were a little stunned by the decorativeness of his style. During lunch The Family asked who the other famous architects in Barcelona are. Now Barcelona has works by so many brilliant architects, that I fumbled for an answer. When I blurted out "Mies van der Rohe", it was my subconscious speaking.

My first acquaintance with the work of one of the makers of modernist architecture was through photos of the Barcelona chair, which (I later found) were designed to go with his German Pavilion in the Barcelona World Fair of 1929. One of the iconic structures designed by him was this pavilion. I was under the impression that it was dismantled within a year of being set up, but was surprised to find, just a few months ago, that it had been reconstructed.

So we found the simplest connection through the subway to take us there, finished our coffee, and set off into the hot afternoon. The clean lines of the pavilion are a refreshing sight after a morning of Gaudy excess. There is a small fee for entry, which we gladly paid, as we walked past the glass curtain "into" the structure. The interesting thing about this pavilion is that there is really no inside and no outside. The walls do not partition the structure; rather they offer a continuous path through the structure. Immediately behind the glass curtain is this wall of red-gold onyx (photo above).

When you go round this wall another curtain of glass appears (photo above), and you must decide whether to pass in front of it, or behind. The slab of the roof floats lightly above this, providing welcome shade. There were a very small number of people taking photos, very considerately moving out of the field of view of each others’ cameras. On the far side of the view above was the rectangular pool which is called the large basin.

Behind me was the small basin (photo above) with a statue called Alba by George Kolbe. The U-shaped wall behind it is made with green marble, and creates the main enclosed space in the pavilion. Interestingly, there is no roof above it, so that in another dimension it is open.

I found one place from which you could see all the different kinds of material used in this structure (photo above). This was the wall where a few of the Barcelona chairs had been placed (featured photo). The Family sat down on one of the chairs and declared that it was indeed comfortable. Was it the most comfortable chair ever designed, as advertisements used to claim once? She was not sure, but she said she could sleep in it. I’d always thought of the Barcelona chair as black, but it turns out that the first edition, which was placed here in 1929, was white.

We sat there together and contemplated the vision which has now conquered the world. If the Barcelona Pavilion seems to be so ordinary, it is because every modern atrium looks faintly like this: the mixture of exotic polished stone and steel and glass curtains, soaring above you. Even the little pool with Kolbe’s architecture has been copied and transmuted. This is why Casa Mila stands out as extraordinary: it is not the way the world is. I’m happy that the world followed Mies van der Rohe’s vision and not Gaudi’s.