But the glory and delight of Barcelona, which no other town in the world can offer, is the architecture of Gaudi
Originally published in AR June 1930, this piece was republished online in August 2012
In England we scarcely know the meaning of Art Nouveau. Mr. John Betjeman, the chief living authority on the subject, traces it chiefly in the decorative motive of the roots of the water-lily which became prominent in this country at about the time of William Morris’s death. I have seen pewter work, too, of about 1900 in which tulips and dock leaves have been very happily rendered; there are stencil designs in some early numbers of the Studio in which one can discern the repressed but resilient aspiration of the movement, but with us, as with the Parisians, Decadence proved the more vital force. The peacock’s feather and the green carnation outshine the tulip and the water-lily root.
Then after a warm but inconclusive flirtation with Holland- when painters made heavily patterned pictures of windmills and umber sails, and put tiles round their hearths and pot-bellied jugs of burnished copper in their windows- English decorative fancy went whirling off among timber and thatch and black old oak. But this was not the case with the Catalans, who responded to the movement with all the zeal of their exuberant but wholly undiscriminating nature. They never concerned themselves with the Decadence or with archaism. Art Nouveau came to them at a time of commercial expansion and political unrest, and they took it to themselves and made it their own, even christening it and importing it into Florida under their own name as the Neo-Catalan style. In its new guise it has even, in recent years, come back to England.
Near to where I am writing this, on the south coast, there is a small colony of villas and bungalows extending from Bognor Regis for about a mile along the edge of the beach. They are mostly empty during the winter months, so that I can lean on their gates and study them without causing annoyance or suspicion, and in their very new and, I trust, impermanent structure I have been able to discern many features that are fundamentally Neo-Catalan. There is the same eagerness to attract attention, though this, I think, may be more a commercial than an artistic impulse. They are built, not as homes, but as holiday pavilions to be let on short leases at extravagant rents during the bathing season; their aim is to catch the eye with a prominent exterior and leave the interior to chance, in the confidence that the tenants will spend most of the day sprawling on the sand.
They exhibit the same irresponsible confusion of architectural styles, here Gothic, here Tudor, here Classical. They exhibit the same abhorrence of an unvariegated line; whenever it is structurally possible substituting machicolation or sweeping curvature. They exhibit the same predilection for very bright colours and iridescent surfaces, more particularly those achieved by glazed tiles or a mosaic of broken china and pebbles embedded in cement. This last is one of the chief decorative devices of Neo-Catalan architecture; there are examples of it sparkling and blazing all over Barcelona, but Gaudi alone was able to use it with precision and enterprise and make of it the craft which, in New York, is reverently known as “Tiffany bathroom.”
Gaudi bears to these anonymous contractors and job-builders something of the same relation as do the masters of Italian baroque to the rococo decorators of the Pompadour’s boudoir, or Ronald Firbank to the author of Frolic Wind. What in them is frivolous, superficial and chic is in him structural and essential; in his work is apotheosized all the writhing, bubbling, convoluting, convulsing soul of the Art Nouveau.
I could discover very little about his life save that it began in Barcelona, was for the most part spent there, and ended there less than five years ago, when the aged and partially infirm master was run down and killed by an electric tramcar in the main boulevard of the town. In his later years he did very little creative work, devoting his failing energies to supervising the construction of the great Church of the HoIy Family, which I shall shortly describe. The period of his grossest and wildest output is the last two decades of the last century; it was then that his art, cautiously maturing, broke through all preconceived bounds of order and propriety, and coursed wantonly over the town, spattering its riches on all sides like mud.
But, indeed, in one’s first brush with Gaudi’s genius, it is not so much propriety that is outraged as one’s sense of probability. My interest in him began on the morning of my second and, unfortunately, my last day in Barcelona. I was walking alone and without any clear intention in my mind, down one of the boulevards, when I saw what, at first, I took to be part of the advertising campaign of the exhibition. On closer inspection I realized that it was a permanent building which, to my surprise, turned out to be the offices of the Turkish Consulate. Trees were planted in front of it along the pavement, hiding the lower storeys.
It was the roof which chiefly attracted my attention; this was coloured peacock blue and built in undulations like a rough sea petrified; the chimneys, too, were of highly coloured, glazed earthenware, and they were twisted and bent in all directions like very gnarled fruit trees. The front of the building, down to the level of the second row of windows, was made of the mosaic of broken china I have already described, but thoughtfully planned so that the colours merged in delicate gradations from violet and blue to peacock green and gold. The eaves overhung in irregular, amorphous waves, in places attenuated into stalactites of coloured porcelain, the effect being that of a clumsily iced cake. I cannot describe it more accurately than that because, dazzled and blinded by what I subsequently saw, my impression of this first experience, though deep, is somewhat indistinct. I went all round it with a camera trying to find an aspect I could photograph, but the trees and the sun combined to frustrate me.
I knew now what I wanted to see in Barcelona; hiring one of the David taxis, I made the driver understand that I wanted to go to any other building like this one. He took me to a large apartment house not far away, called, I think, the Casa Milá y Camps. I verified the fact later at a photograph shop that this was by the same architect as the Turkish Consulate, and that his name was Gaudi. I was able to take snapshots of this building which I have before me as I write, but the impression they give is far less eccentric than the reality. It has the same undulating roof of coloured tiles, but Gaudi has here introduced the innovation that the curves of the skyline do not correspond in any way at all with the curves of the top of the walls.
The chimney stacks are all different in design, some being decorated in spirals, others in diamonds, others in vertical ribs, but of somewhat the same shape, like great beehives, from the top of which protrude little asymmetrical chimney pots. The walls of the building, which stands at a corner, are faced with rough sandstone pierced by six courses of windows. These are made to look like caves, having no sharply defined outlines or any straight line anywhere about them - sides, top and bottom being all wildly and irrelevantly curved, as if drawn by a faltering hand. The ground plan, too, is designed with the same undulating boundaries. Perhaps the most unexpected thing about this building is the iron work; the front door is composed of glass panes set in an iron frame of uncompromising irregularity, like the cuts in a jig-saw puzzle or the divisions in that thing known to gardeners as a “crazy pavement,” while outside many of the windows have wrought-iron balustrades that are fearless tangles of twisted metal, like the wreckage of an aeroplane that has fallen burning from a great height and has suddenly been cooled by hosing of cold water.
There are undoubtedly other houses by Gaudi in Barcelona, and somewhere in the district, I was told, one could see a bishop’s palace of his design; but in the short time at my disposal I was obliged to concentrate myself upon his two major works, the Parc Güell and the Templo de la Sagrada Familia. Both of these lie some little way out of the town. Parc Güell is a public garden and recreation ground; it is also the name of the surrounding suburb, so that it was a little time before I could make my taxi driver understand which I wanted; this difficulty was increased by my own ignorance. I had simply been told that there was Gaudi work at the Parc Güell; no more.
We drove up several streets of villas, all extravagantly Neo-Catalan, but lacking in just that quality which I had already learned to recognize as the master’s. The moment we came into sight of the entrance gates of the gardens there was no more doubt; this was the real thing. I paid off the taxi and entered up a double flight of china-mosaic steps, between curving, machicolated walls, decorated in a gay check pattern of coloured tiles, at the base of which was a little fountain and a kind of totem pole of mosaic.
I think that the whole gardens were laid out by Gaudi; certainly all the architectural features are unmistakably his. There is a great terrace on which the children play games, with a fine crinkled edge of the typical broken china mosaic; there is a battlemented wall built of rough stones and clinkers, and embellished with plaques of the word Güell in contorted, interlacing letters; there is a kind of pergola supported on a colonnade of clinker pillars set askew and at all angles to one another; then is a turret, surmounted by a wrought-iron stand supporting a cross; there is a little lodge that is a gem of Gaudism, looking like a fairy cabin from the worst kind of Rackhamesque picture book. I was able to obtain a very happy snapshot of the last two features, which I reproduce above. It gives the impression that the turret and lodge form parts of the same building: actually they are fifty or so yards apart.
Almost everything in the photograph is noteworthy, but I would draw the attention of all serious students to: (1) the curvature of the ground plan of the lodge; (2) the surface of the walls composed of rough stones; (3) the rough stone shaft at the corner; (4) the mosaic shaft in the centre of the window and the curved shape of the window; (5) the “sugar-icing” eaves and patterned mosaic roof; (6) the high, arching machicolation of the roof; (7) the horned gables; (8) the chimney pot; (9) the sugar-icing eaves and machicolation on the turret; (10) the “fairy pavilion” outside staircase; (11) the proportions of the base of the cross to the spire. The whole of Gaudi’s secular architecture seems to me summarized in these two buildings, and as I looked at them I could not help being struck by the kinship they bore to the settings of many of the later U.F.A. films. The dream scene in Secrets of the Soul, the Oriental passages in Waxworks particularly seem to me to show just the same inarticulate fantasy.
Only a small part has as yet been built of the great Church of the Holy Family, which was to have been Gaudi’s supreme achievement, and unless some eccentric millionaire is moved to interpose in the near future, in spite of the great sums that have already been squandered upon it, the project will have to be abandoned. The vast undertaking was begun with very small funds and relied entirely upon voluntary contributions for its progress. The fact that it has got as advanced as it has, is a testimony to the great enthusiasm it has aroused among the people of the country, but enthusiasm and contributions have dwindled during the last twenty years, until only ten men are regularly employed, most of their time being taken up in repairing the damage caused to the fabric by its exposure. There are already menacing cracks in the masonry; immense sums would be required to finish the building on the scale in which it was planned, and the portions already constructed fatally compromise any attempt at modification. It seems to me certain that it will always remain a ruin, and a highly dangerous one, unless the towers are removed before they fall down.
All that is finished at present is the crypt, a part of the cloisters, the south door, two of the towers, and part of the east wall. There is a model in the crypt of the finished building which was shown in Paris at one of the International Exhibitions, but did not attract any great international support. The church is to be circular with a straight, gabled south front forming a tangent touching the circumference, not as might be supposed at its centre, but at a point some way to the east of the main door; beyond the high altar is to be a baptistery with a very high pointed dome, fretted and presumably glazed.
The illustration on page 310 gives a fair idea of the Interior - if that is not a slightly ridiculous phrase to apply to a single arc of wall - of the structure as it stands today. The dais and steps enclosed by the east wall is the site of the high altar; the scaffolding between the two middle towers is, of course, temporary; in the finished model a fifth, very much smaller pinnacle rises between them from over the porch and reaches to about half the height of the present scaffolding; the two inner towers are intended to be considerably taller than the outer ones; all four are surmounted by mosaic pinnacles of typical Gaudi design, one of which I reproduce on this page. Broken ginger beer bottles are here employed in conjunction with the china. Note the Hosanna in Excelsis. Like many architects, Gaudi used bands of lettering as a decorative motive, and devised a type suitable to the style of the building. Note also in the view on page 310 the cottages in the right foreground with undulating roofs and the perverse lamp standard to the left of them.
The south door below the towers on the other side is the most elaborate piece of sculpture in the church. Here Gaudi has again introduced his “sugar-icing” motive, translating it from tile and mosaic into carved stone, giving an effect as though the whole work had been arrested in an early stage of liquefaction. As they ascend, in fact, the forms all become less carefully defined; the birds and animals, figures and foliage of the lower stages being cut with the utmost elaboration of detail, while the birds towards the summit emerge vaguely as though their finer edges had already begun to melt; above these again come the heavens indicated by stars strewn among the signs of the Zodiac.
Gaudi has employed two very distinct decorative methods in his sculpture, the one to evanescent and amorphous, the other so minute and intricate that in each case one finds a difficulty in realizing that one is confronted by cut stone, supposing instinctively that the first is some imperfectly moulded clay and the second ivory or mahogany. The descent in to the crypt renders one most conscious of this conflict. Here the architecture is, structurally, an austere and rather unlovely Gothic and the decoration strictly formal in design, though indefatigably naturalistic in execution. The door of the cloisters, called the Puerta de Rosario, is another and more exaggerated example of this manner; it is like an old-fashioned paper-lace Easter card, translated with infinite labour and virtuosity into a third dimension.
There is a sacristan employed to show visitors over the building, and it is only by their contributions that the work continues at all. He told me that it makes a very strong appeal to the peasants of the neighbourhood, who come in large numbers to wonder at the cleverness of the carving. Tourists for the most part are unsympathetic, he said, expressing their impatience with the eccentricities of “modern art.” I do not say that if I were rich I could not find a better way of devoting my fortune, but I do think that it would be a pity to allow this astonishing curiosity to decay. I feel it would be graceful action on the part of someone who was a little wrong in the head to pay for its completion.
I could easily have employed a happy fortnight at Barcelona tracking down further examples of Gaudism. He designed many things besides houses, I believe, making it his special province to conceive designs for tables and chairs and other objects of common utility which rendered them wholly unfit for their ostensible purposes. He is a great example, it seems to me, of what Art for Art’s sake can become when it is wholly untempered by considerations of tradition or good taste. Picabia in Paris is another example, but I think it would be more exciting to collect Gaudis.
There is a large book on Gaudi published in Barcelona which I could not at the time afford to buy, nor, if I had bought it, should I have been able to read it, since it is written in Spanish. But I should dearly like to have gone round with this book identifying the illustrations and making photographs and sketches of my own; perhaps even to have read a paper or produced a monograph upon the subject.
But the Stella was due to sail that evening and my passage was booked to England.