How did he do it? How did Antoni Gaudí, one of the twentieth century’s most revered architects design some of the most extraordinary structures known to humankind: the Basilica of La Sagrada Família, the Casa Batllo, Parc Guell and so many more? The architectonics of Gaudí’s work although typical of Catalan Modernisme, organic or natural forms, curved or undulating lines, created using techniques that are ingenious both in function and the aesthetic. Few of these extraordinary construction techniques include traditional Catalan
1. Catenary Arches and Vaults
A catenary is a natural form that a chain of uniform density takes when hung between two points. An inverted catenary curve built as a masonry arch is capable of carrying great weights whilst being made out of light materials such as brick or tile. Gaudí employs this arch form in almost every building of his, from the entrance of Palau Guell to the vaulted attic at the Pedrera. The structural capability and the curvaceous geometry became characteristic to the architecture of Gaudí with his innovative use of masonry in vaults and arches. The catenary curve is also used by Gaudí as a tool to study the structure and form in his famous inverted string and weight models, the most famous of which sits in the catenary vaulted attic of the Casa Míla.
Gaudi popularised the use of broken tile and chinaware in three-dimensional mosaics called trencadis in Catalan. To realise his sinuous architectural forms at the Casa Batllo or Parc Guell, the broken tile pieces are employed to create organic patterns and surfaces to great effect. Trencadis not only adds an abstract aesthetic quality to Gaudi’s work but it shows how Gaudi was a pioneer in environmentally friendly construction using waste material.
Papier-mâché finds its way in Gaudi’s construction vocabulary as a means to realise his extraordinary aesthetic vision. In Casa Vicens, leaves, squinches, and vines are intricately sculpted in paper-mâché to evoke the natural world indoors. The intricacy that Gaudi wished to imbue was too expensive to be done in stone and almost impossible to be carved in wood. Thus, his use of paper-mâché allows us to appreciate the genius of Gaudi as a realistic architect. Similarly, tiles and ceramics that were pioneered by Gaudi were made using paper-mâché as a medium.
4. Hyperbolic Paraboloids, Hyperboloids and Helicoids
Gaudí’s architecture though seemingly fantastical is not without mathematical and logical reasoning. Using self-supporting surfaces such as hyperbolic paraboloids(saddle roofs at the Colonia Guell), hyperboloids (light funnels at the Sagrada Família) and helicoids (helical staircases), Gaudí achieves aesthetic and symbolic impact along with extraordinary structural integrity.
The Nativity Facade at the Sagrada Familia or the rooftop of the La Pedrera is evidence to Gaudí’s affinity to imbue architecture with sculpture. Plaster-casting is a technique used by Greek sculptors for millennia before chipping away on stone or metal but Gaudi used it to refine his architectural expression by live casting and moulding on humans, animals and plants for his buildings. The result of this exercise is the vividness seen in the sculptures in his built work. Gaudi perfected this technique in model making as well by casting vaults, detailing structures and sculpting the interiors to explain his vision. The surviving models of the Sagrada Familia were essential to continue with its construction.