Protégé of Gaudi, to whose buildings Jujol’s are a refreshingly frothy riposte
Gaudí, we all know Gaudí: creative phenomenon; force of nature; incontinent slot machine for the Barcelona tourism business, set forever on jackpot; inadvertent maker of a multi-location theme park of himself. Less well known is Josep Maria Jujol, Gaudí’s employee and protégé. Yet, according to the not inconsiderable postwar architect Josep Antoni Coderch, ‘I believe he created works of much greater significance than those of Gaudí.’
If you have visited a Gaudí work and felt a lightness of spirit, perhaps a flicker of a smile, it’s likely you’re looking at something Jujol made under the old man’s supervision. The serpentine benches in the Park Güell are his, with their decoration of broken ceramic, and possibly the seaweed metalwork on the Casa Milà. Some panel painting in the cathedral of Palma de Mallorca is by Jujol, so loose and splashy that the paint seems never to have dried. Jujol’s debt to Gaudí is clear: the convulsive forms, the abandoned curves, the eclectic use of ancient and contemporary techniques and materials, the creation of an alternative nature in parallel to the one we previously knew, all suffused with a combination of Catholic piety and Catalan nationalism which would be indigestible to atheist liberals like the present author, if it wasn’t for the force and brilliance with which the works are carried off. But, where Gaudí is thunderous, heavy and overwhelming, Jujol is more aerial. He is Rococo to the other’s Baroque. Gaudí’s buildings are rocks, his are foam.
‘If you have visited a Gaudí work and felt a lightness of spirit, perhaps a flicker of a smile, it’s likely you’re looking at something Jujol made under the old man’s supervision’
This becomes clear in the works in his own name, after leaving Gaudí’s studio. In his Casa Negre the long sinuous gable takes a line for a walk, as Paul Klee would say in the context of painting, but in the less pliable medium of architecture. Clouds of white spread over the ochre facade like one emulsion tipped into another. Delicate sgraffito in grey-green is then laid on top of the white, showing fronds, garlands and inscriptions in honour of the Virgin Mary. Then, for some reason, a glassy box resembling half an 18th-century carriage is attached to the front, and propped on insect-like legs. Above it is a deep loggia. The facade is a work of layers − sometimes flat, like a canvas on which Jujol doodles, or a stageset, but with moments of depth and mass. The stains of age, of damp and weathering, add further layers to those of the architect. Round the back, the idea is taken further − here multiple patches of brick and stone resemble a biological culture, spreading bacteria, mottled cheese, or an artist’s palette encrusted with past mixings.
Jujol achieved a rare directness between the actions of his own hand and the finished buildings. They capture the quality of a drawing or painting more than the works of almost any other architect − they have a drawing’s spontaneity, and their design tends to move readily between two dimensions and three, between decorated surface and shaped form. Sometimes he himself painted directly onto the walls, with fluent, semi-transparent strokes. Sometimes he stood over craftsmen as they twisted metal to his orders, occasionally beyond breaking point. He saw beauty in almost everything. He would pick up objects in the street, and make things out of cardboard, tins, broken glass and stones. He converted discarded agricultural tools into hinges. There is symbolism, or iconography, or imagery in his works. Some is religious − madonnas and angels.
In his theatre in Tarragona, for the Catholic Workers’ Patronage society, swirling decorations in the soffits of the balconies represent an ocean on which the ship-like other levels float. In a hardware shop in Barcelona, the interior decoration was something to do with ‘twinkling algae and crackling fireworks’. An odd combination, the significance of which is obscure. Generally, you feel that you are in the presence of a world-view, of some assembly of symbols and relationships, that may not be totally coherent or lucid, but which is nonetheless attractive.
The Jujol universe is perhaps best appreciated as a bestiary, in which vegetable and mineral are fused into animal-like elements. Sometimes these are explicit, as in elephant-shaped iron hooks, or light fixtures in the form of beaky, Bosch-like creatures, or a pair of semi-detached houses that look like a mouse in plan (why? Who knows?). More generally there is a sense of animation, of seething life, in almost everything he made. It is in fact misleading to speak of ‘finished buildings’ in Jujol’s work. Many were unfinished for reasons beyond his control, and to his dismay, such as his shrine at Montferri, which was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War. Budgets ran out, or patrons disappeared. But there was also desired incompletion, or at least slow unfolding over time. His Casa Bofarull outside Tarragona was a matter of 15 years of modifications and tinkerings for the indulgent sisters who owned it.
Josep Maria Jujol i Gibert
Escuela Superior de Arquitectura de Barcelona (1896)
Lecturer at the Escuela Superior de Arquitectura de Barcelona from 1910
Casa Batlló (1904-06),
Casa Milà (1906-10),
Park Güell (1900-14) with Gaudí;
Metropol Theatre in Tarragona (1908),
Casa Torre de la Creu (1913-16),
Can Negre (1915-30),
Vistabella Sagrat Cor Church (1918-23)
His way of work welcomed chance, accident and things external to it, like the random shapes of the field stones he incorporated in his structures, r the mottlings on the Casa Negre. His Vistabella church, a gothic stone mountain on the outside, had its interior scorched by fire during the Civil War. I doubt if Jujol would have liked the way in which this event left a smoky layer over some of his wall painting, but it adds to the mystery of the place. It is hard to imagine a building by, say, Mies van der Rohe, accepting fire damage so well. Much of Jujol’s architecture is about layers of time, present in his brush strokes, in the geological history of stones, in weathering and ageing.
The design and making of his buildings was less a fixed event, more a phase in their continuing story (and, often, his projects were renovations and additions rather than new buildings). More particularly, they are fluid or liquid. They give a sense of barely holding together, of having just emerged from some ferment or chaos into which they might again dissolve, that their order, structure and identity is a temporary alliance that could unravel. They seem to be assemblies of actions and stuff, which provisionally create an event if a memorable one − in space and time. This feeling of suspension or fragility is rare in the usually over-emphatic practice of architecture. Gaudí didn’t have it, for sure.
Why then, is Jujol not more widely celebrated? Partly because, in his own lifetime, he was both modest and obstinate, uninterested in adapting to the demands of others. Gaudí said that ‘he does his work precisely where he shouldn’t’. He refused to play politics, and his commissions became increasingly obscure and marginal. The Civil War didn’t help. One commission which might have made him more famous, and for which he was the best-qualified architect in the world, would have been the continuation of Sagrada Família after Gaudí’s death, but the job went to someone more biddable.
He also showed no interest in joining in the stylistic and theoretical currents of his time. His approach was essentially of the era of Art Nouveau or Arts and Crafts, of the end of the 19th century. It was already old fashioned when he carried out his first independent commissions, around 1908. But he kept on in more or less the same vein until he died in 1949. He had very little architectural progeny (though perhaps the Oklahoma organicist Bruce Goff had something of Jujol about him) until Catalan architects of the 1980s and ’90s started picking up some of his motifs. He can look like an evolutionary dead end, a mutation that went nowhere. History books are usually unkind to people who step outside the march of history.
Illustration by Chris Bianchi