“Anything created by human beings is already in the great book of nature.”
Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi is synonymous with an entire design aesthetic and style that is unique enough to be imprinted in popular culture beyond its architectural effect, perhaps due to our own culture’s rejection of the complex and an embrace of the simplistic. The city of Barcelona and its surrounding towns have Casas, chapels, crypts, parks, and a world-renown basilica, designed by him that are visited by millions every year. His stature as an architect who worshipped his craft enough to carve out an entire universe of imagination that is uniquely his and yet of his time and his culture has cemented his legacy in an immortal sense much like his previously mentioned unfinished Basílica de la Sagrada Família, which is still in construction as of the writing of this article.
Although the design philosophy of Gaudi is as complex as his buildings, his work is widely appreciated only for its sculptural quality and exuberance. Both of these are essential to understanding Gaudi – highly reductive – but it can give us some insight into the development and implementation of Gaudi’s design philosophy. There are two ways to go about deciphering the Gaudi myth of sculpture and exuberance: one, understanding his time and his life – the ideological elements of his time that influenced his design development and two, understanding the man, his personal ideologies that shaped his work.
Gaudi studied at the Provincial School of Architecture around the 1870s and worked under his mentor, Joan Martorell during the same time period, a time known for the Art Nouveau movement, and Gaudi picked up the design theories of John Ruskin, William Morris, and Viollet-le-Duc. His early work is marked by the Mudejar influence, orientalist ornamentation; Chinese and Islamic decorative motifs mixed with the aesthetic and needs of the time, such as his lamp post design for the Placa Reial and Casa Vicens, his first big commission. His later work matured into what is called Catalan Modernisme, an architectural, literary, and design style entirely unique to the region of Catalonia, marking a new cultural identity for its people.
Gaudi’s personal philosophy can be understood in three aspects: one is his religion, second is nature, and third, the architecture. As a practicing Catholic, Gaudi was a deeply religious man and his entire life seems to be dedicated to materializing his love for his God. According to him, his God created Nature and everything in it as perfect – this became his design principle. Thus, everything he designed from furniture to chapels, aims to reach the ideal of natural creation. Further, this quest leads him to discover crafts like Trencadis and detailing inspired from nature in customized tiling, put into the building practice in ingenious ways. From wrought iron to stone, all pieces of the architectural puzzles crafted to a perfect embodiment of nature and hence, in his praise of God.
Scholars on Gaudi have periodized his work into four eras: the Orientalist (Casa Vicens, Palau Guell), the Neo-Gothic (Episcopal Palace, Torre Bellesguard), the Naturalist (Casa Calvet, Parc Guell), and the final or the matured (Casa Batllo, la Sagrada Familia, La Pedrera). This progression is sometimes made because of an evolving design aesthetic more than philosophy because Gaudi goes from orthogonal to organic in his designs. Instead of looking into this classification, it might be more interesting to explore his design philosophy within six aspects: his influences, the crafts involved, the building technology, the spatial dynamics, the references to nature, and the religiosity.
The first aspect as discussed before, his influences, his early work has strong influences of the orientalist or Mudejar, wherein the use of tiling, interiors with squinching, terraces, patterned ceilings with plasterwork, and a colorful palette. This is most noticeable in the Casa Vicens, his first major commission which was a summer home for a tile maker. Viollet-le-Duc’s writing and the Neo-gothic movement of the time inspired many of his early work as well. Earlier Gaudi was involved in many of the early Modernisme projects of his time, especially the parc de la Ciutadella, a style he later matured.
Gaudi personally worked with many of his craftspeople, who influenced his own work, and vice versa. During his work on the Parc de la Ciutadella, he met Joan Flotats i Llucià, Llorenç Matamala i Piñol, and Joan Matamala, sculptors who were long time collaborators with him. The latter of the three are primarily responsible for the facades on the Sagrada Familia. Similarly, with wrought ironwork, ceramics, glazing, stonework, carpentry, and even plumbing, Gaudi maintained an unwavering pursuit of perfection in building better from his first project to his last. His dedication to the crafts was so absolute that when working with ceramics he discovered the technique of trencadis to realize his vision.
Building technology of the time was experimenting with the new gifts of the industrial revolution, glass, and steel to improve structures. Gaudi looked to expand structural integrity and capability not by changing the materials he used – although he did use glass and steel in ingenious ways -but by changing the very nature and design of structures. He rejected orthography for model making; instead of drawing plans, he made models. Modeling with catenary pendulums and plaster casts made him realize previously unexplored forms of catenary vaults, arches, and domes built in masonry but with extraordinary results, such as the attic at the Pedrera, the Colonia, and most famously, the Sagrada Familia.
With new building technology at his disposal, Gaudi could trick the eye and the mind by bending the very laws of building with no flat roofs, no limits to heights, and even imagination. In Gaudi’s first house for the Vicens, rooms can be overlapped by the intersection of common doors on the corner of rooms. This idea of breaking spatial conventions to introduce dynamism reaches a crescendo with the new construction at the Casa Battlo’s attic, the roof at the La Pedrera which is a landscape of its own and the central gallery of Palau Guell.
Fifth, the natural references are almost the key to deciphering an entirely magical interiority, exuberant exteriority, and morphology. There are no corners to nature and no corners to Gaudi’s architecture. The origin of this as previously discussed is religiosity but its most bold realization takes place in what was to be an almost utopian housing project, Park Guell. The natural embrace of each structure and certain regard to material, form, and structure to not only imitate but be one with nature is the key to Gaudi’s philosophy.
Lastly, the religiosity of Gaudi’s work cannot be discussed without mentioning his magnum opus of a church. His designs reach out in creating a landmark for a city that can congregate in praise of his God. The entire morphology is dictated by biblical references and a desire to create a heavenly abode on earth. This pursuit of God in architecture was so challenging that it is still being constructed, and perhaps it is the best metaphor for Gaudi’s design philosophy, the never-ending pursuit of excellence.