Antoni Gaudí - Biography and Legacy
Catalan Architect and Designer
Reus, Catalonia, Spain
Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain
Biography of Antoni Gaudí
Childhood In Reus
Antoni Plàcid Guillem Gaudí i Cornet was born in Reus, Catalonia, south of Barcelona on the Mediterranean coast, in June 1852. His birthplace is the question of a small controversy, as precise documentation is nonexistent and sometimes it is claimed that he was born in the neighboring municipality of Riudoms, his paternal family's native village (though he was baptized the day after his birth in the church of Sant Pere Apòstol in Reus). He was the youngest of five children born to Francesc Gaudí i Serra, a coppersmith, and his wife, Antònia Cornet i Bertran. Gaudí's family had roots in the Auvergne region of southern France.
From the beginning, Gaudí exhibited a great appreciation for nature and especially the environment of his native region of Catalonia. He eventually became a very enthusiastic outdoorsman, joining the club called the Centre Excursionista de Catalunya in 1879 (which took many trips into the countryside of the region and southern France). Despite his zeal for the outdoors, Gaudí was sickly as a youth with various ailments, including rheumatism, which seem to have contributed to his reserved character.
Move to Barcelona and Architectural Education
Gaudí spent most of his time up to the age 16 in Reus, where he attended nursery school with Francesc Berenguer, who would become one of his assistants, and worked in a textile mill. In 1868 he moved to Barcelona to study teaching in a convent. While there he became interested in utopian socialist ideas and together with two of his fellow students he conjured up a plan to transform the Poblet Monastery into a utopian phalanstery, a communal, experimental institution proposed by Charles Fourier and other philosophers of the age.
Gaudí completed four years of compulsory military service starting in 1875, but poor health meant that he spent much of his time on sick leave, which enabled him to enroll at first the Llotja School and then the Barcelona Higher School of Architecture, from which he graduated with a degree in architecture in 1878. Health problems seem to have been pervasive in Gaudí's family at the time, as in 1876 his mother died, as did his older brother Francesc, who, ironically, had just become a physician.
Nonetheless, the young Gaudí quickly developed the rudiments and connections that would propel him to professional success. He became a draftsman for some of Barcelona's most renowned architects; including Joan Martorell, Josep Fontserè, and Leandre Serrallach - employment which helped pay for his studies. During this time Gaudí produced one of the few surviving handwritten documents attributable to him: the so-called "Reus Manuscript," essentially a student diary in which Gaudí recorded his impressions of architecture and interior decor, and setting forth his early ideas on these topics.
Gaudí began to garner his own clients even before his graduation in 1878. That year, he produced a showcase for the glove manufacturer Camella at the Exposition Universelle (World's Fair) in Paris, which caught the attention of the textile manufacturer Eusebi Güell, who immediately asked Gaudí to design the furniture of the pantheon chapel of the Palacio de Sobrellano in Comillas (the structure was being designed by Gaudí's former employer and mentor, Joan Martorell). Eventually Eusebi Güell would commission Gaudí for no fewer than five major projects over the next thirty-five years.
In 1877, Gaudí received his first significant commission, the Casa Vicens, a residence for Manuel Vicens i Montaner, a local brick and tile manufacturer, which effectively established Gaudí's reputation in Barcelona. In 1883, the same year the Casa Vicens was completed, Gaudí began his work on the Sagrada Família in Barcelona.
Through a commission in 1878 for the Workers' Cooperative of Mataró building, Gaudí became attracted to Josefa Moreu, a teacher there, but she apparently did not return his affections. She was the only woman for whom Gaudí ever expressed romantic interest, and thereafter he buried himself in work for the remainder of his life, with his Catholic faith gaining an ever-greater hold over his psyche after the rejection. In 1885, he moved briefly to the rural town of Sant Feliu de Codines in order to escape a cholera epidemic, staying in Francesc Ullar's residence. Grateful for the emergency lodging, Gaudí designed a dinner table in return for the housing.
The 1888 World's Fair brought the spotlight to Barcelona, and the city received major improvements, including the expansion of electric service, which was exhibited prominently at night by arches of lights that spanned the width of the city's major boulevards. Gaudí was awarded the job of designing the pavilion of the Compania Trasatlantica, a shipping company owned by the Marquis of Comillas, which was notable for its use of horseshoe arches and led to a few restoration jobs for Gaudí from the Barcelona city council.
Patronage by the Güell Family
Gaudí received the bulk of his important commissions from Eusebi Güell; the two men had much in common, including their devout Catholic faith. These began in 1884 with the designs for the Güell Pavilions, the outbuildings for Güell's summer house in Pedralbes, Catalonia, and continued with Gaudí's work on the Palau Güell (1886 - 88), the family home in central Barcelona, which is today open to the public for visits. In 1890, Güell moved his factories to the town of Santa Coloma de Cervelló and asked Gaudí to design a community for his workers. Gaudí worked on the project for nearly 30 years before Güell's sons abandoned the project in 1918. Between 1895 and 1897, Gaudí built the Bodegas Güell, a winery and hunting lodge at La Cuadra de Garraf. And in 1900 Gaudí began the large landscape development called the Parc Güell that occupied him until 1914.
Güell was among Gaudí's most prominent friends to describe him amicably, as a pleasant person to talk to, polite, and faithful to his close associates, a contrast with some reports that depict Gaudí as gruff, aloof, and unsociable. Early in his career, Gaudí played the part of a socialite, reputedly dressing in fancy suits and frequently attending events such as the theater, opera, indulging an appetite for gourmet food (apparently, despite his vegetarian diet), and arriving at his job sites in a horse-drawn carriage. This changed dramatically as time passed, as his faith prompted him to lead a far more ascetic lifestyle.
It is worth noting, however, that Gaudí did cultivate a much wider clientele than merely the Güell family; he also designed numerous private houses, apartment blocks, industrial and office buildings, and a large number of church-related commissions, including several restorations. In 1908, Gaudí was even asked by two American entrepreneurs, whose names remain a mystery, to design a skyscraper for New York, called the Hotel Attraction, distinguished by a parabolic central tower intended to be taller than the Empire State Building and topped by a star motif.
Gaudí was rarely directly involved in political activities, despite his frequent use of Catalan motifs in his buildings, which disclose his deep allegiance to his native region. He maintained close links with regional artist societies, including the Catholic Cercle Artístic de Sant Lluc (Artistic Circle of St. Luke), which he joined in 1899. But he steadfastly refused urgings from associates and friends to run for office, as a few of his fellow Modernisme architects had done. Gaudí did, however, attend demonstrations. He was beaten by police during a riot in Barcelona in 1920, and in September 1924, the National Day of Catalonia, Gaudí was beaten and arrested at a protest against the dictator Primo de Rivera's ban on the use of the Catalan language. He was briefly jailed, then released on 50 pesetas bail.
Last Years and Death
After 1914, Gaudí, whose devotion to his Catholic faith had become nearly his only interest outside of his architectural practice, ceased work on all other projects besides the Sagrada Família, which occupied him until his death in 1926. On June 7 of that year, he was walking from work to his daily prayer and confession at the church of Sant Filip Neri when he was struck by tram on the Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes and lost consciousness. His shabby clothes and lack of identifying documents meant that he was assumed to be a beggar, and medical treatment was delayed almost a day as a result. He was finally identified by the chaplain of the Sagrada Família but his condition had taken a turn for the worse, and he passed on a few days later. Gaudí was given a funeral attended by a very large crowd, and buried in the Sagrada Família's crypt, though the church remained far from completed at his death.
The Legacy of Antoni Gaudí
Gaudí's impact is difficult to quantify. His fame grew - even internationally - during his lifetime, but the appreciation of his work began to fade after his death. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), during which the city of Barcelona suffered significantly, as it was the last holdout against Franco's Nationalist forces, the workshop at the Sagrada Família was burned, and many of Gaudí's extant drawings and famed models (his preferred working method of design) were lost. Work stopped for a time on the Sagrada Família, and well into the 1990s the question has been raised as to whether work on the structure should stop altogether.
The rise of the International Style, particularly in the 1940s and '50s, did much to turn public opinion against Art Nouveau, and Gaudí's highly unusual works were often derided as fantastical and in some cases backwards. As late as 1993, the architectural historian Neil Levine characterized the gatehouses to the Parc Güell as something that gnomes would jump out from to frighten passing visitors.
The appreciation of Gaudí's work has only magnified, however, since 1960, with the writings of scholars such as George Collins, Judith Rohrer, Ignaci de Sola-Morales, and Gaudí's students, including Cèsar Martinell, and others that have helped bring Gaudí and Catalan Modernisme even greater international renown. Gaudí is respected today as an innovator in many ways. Though long described as an Art Nouveau architect, most recent appraisals have emphasized his singular genius amongst his Catalan and European contemporaries.
Though well aware of the rich and varied architectural past in Catalonia due to its Mediterranean location, Gaudí did not remain a revivalist. He was more daring with his experiments in parabolic structures that he studied using models in his workshop. These forms, combined with a richness of the decorative surfaces and materials common to many Catalan structures, mean that his buildings will continue to attract notice well into the future.
Today Gaudí's global fame as a designer is assured, and seven of his buildings in Barcelona are listed by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. Numerous tributes to Gaudí include his beatification by the Catholic Church in 2000; Christopher Rouse's guitar concerto Gaudí (1999), a musical of the same title from 2002, the Gaudí awards by the Catalan Film Academy, and an Iberia Airbus A340 jet named after him. Perhaps most significant is the anticipated completion of the church of the Sagrada Família (now projected for 2026) on the centenary of Gaudí's death; such an event should bring the career of this legendary architect to an appropriate and dramatic conclusion.