The Odd Couple in Barcelona: Anton Gaudi & Robert Hughes

by Tom McGuire

“What is that?”  I wondered the first time I saw it. I should have asked the name. I later found it out: the Church of the Holy Family or La Sagrada Familia. It was 1985, my first time in Barcelona and while I couldn’t see the church for its construction cranes, I would come to know it and its architect, Anton Gaudi well – thanks to the Australian writer, Robert Hughes.

A confraternity dedicated to Saint Joseph started La Sagrada Familia. The first stone was placed on March 1882 and is still unfinished. The very Catholic Gaudi­ said, “The work on the Sagrada Familia progresses very slowly because the Master of this work is in no hurry.”

Guadi died in 1925. The only major part of the church near completion then was the Nativity Facade and is the only part of the huge structure that bears his very unique stamp.

That silhouette has become as emblematic of the city as the Eiffel Tower in Paris or The Washington Monument in Washington. The work, then as now, has depended on private donations. It receives no monies from the city or the Catholic Church. But it has contributed a great deal to the city coffers through tourism.

I moved to Spain in 1987 but not to Barcelona. I loved to travel the country. And Barcelona was certainly on my itinerary. So I turned to the Australian writer Robert Hughes.

In ’87, I’d read with delight his The Fatal Shore on the transfer of unwanted and undesirables from England to Australia in the 18th century. I eagerly got his magisterial history, Barcelona–published in 1992 where he devotes a chapter to the Catholic and Catalan architect Gaudi­.

Hughes and Gaudi – the odd couple. They shared much but also differed. They both were born into comfortable families. Both did poorly in their later schooling. Both were, as young men, very social and both loved Barcelona.  But then they parted.

But if Hughes and Gaudi were to walk together down La Rambla today, Gaudi would be stooped and shuffling. In his last years, he looked the vegetarian, humble, almost hermit-like man he was. Gaudi refused to wear glasses and let his white beard and hair grow. It would get cut only when the nun who tended to him cut it so that he would look less shabby.

Hughes would probably walk with difficulty as well. In May of 1999, while visiting Australia, he was seriously injured in a traffic accident on the western side of the continent. His right leg was broken in 5 places and the accident left him in a coma for several weeks.

But as mismatched as they were, they’d raise no eyebrows on today’s Rambla, the city’s main street coming up from the port area.  It is full of tourists, artists of all types and pickpockets. Hippies, druggies, human statues, jugglers and beggars all share space here.

They would walk by the magazine stalls, fast and sit down  food places, flower vendors and stalls selling birds and cats whatever.

Putting the port behind them and continuing their walk, they would come to Guell Palace.

Gaudi designed the front with what today would be called his “signature” parabolic arches. As with so many buildings on the streets of any city, they were there to let in the horse and carriages. But these were especially large. They led to a below ground space with stalls. Gaudi’s use of decorative forged iron abounds. The terrace or roof of the palace is a garden of sculptures which seem more at home in a theme park than a house. But they also became a  trademark of his. The houses had many roof vents. He used the vents as decorative pieces in his work. They take many forms, twisting and turning as if driven by the wind. He used a technique called trencadeswhere bits of colorful broken tile and glass are used to cover the vents rather like a patchwork quilt.

Walking on, Gaudi would have recognized La Boqueria, Barcelona’s fascinating covered food market, while Hughes might’ve appreciated the “Dunkin’ Donuts” shop at its entrance.

They both would have enjoyed the street that everyone knows as The Rambla, meaning a dry riverbed. At times it was a broad pestilent sewer. But now it is as big a tourist draw as Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia.

The odd couple would soon reach Plaza Catalunya. Above them was Passaig de Gracias, one of the more pricey streets in Spain. This led to the Eixampli or the expansion of the city. With growing wealth, influence and population, the city had outgrown the area by the port.

With that wealth came power and the desire for those who had it, to flaunt it. The textile merchants wanted the next bigger palace. Gaudi was the man for it. And Hughes would be the man to criticize it.

Robert Hughes was born in Australia in 1938 to a family of prominent lawyers. He studied art and architecture. At university, he became involved with a group of writers, poets, artists and drinkers.  Doing poorly at his studies, he dropped out and worked as a cartoonist and art critic in Sydney. He eventually left for London in 1965 where he lived by his writing. He eventually became an art critic for Time Magazine and moved to New York.

In 1987, The Fatal Shore became an international hit.  In 1992, Barcelona, his artistic, cultural, architectural history of that city, was published. Hughes was fascinated by the city but Gaudi­ seemed to both charmed and confused by it. He would describe his work as devotional cliche and kitsch. But yet, there was something about it that drew him and many others.

At #48, they would have paused to gaze on the Casa Calvert (1898-1900) designed by Gaudi­ for the widow of Senor Calvert, a wealthy textile merchant. It is probably one of the least controversial of his designs but the only one for which he won an award.

Hughes, awarded the “Order of Australia” in 1999, might have congratulated him on it. But the old architect would have shook his head sadly.

Anton Gaudi­ was born in June 1852 in Reus Spain south of Barcelona, the 5th and youngest son of a prosperous metalworker and boilermaker. He was a sickly child and wasn’t able to enjoy the rough and tumble of his friends. He spent time in the fields in the area looking at the forms of nature. He also spent time in his father’s workshop marveling at how he could transform flat metal in rounded shapes.

As an architect he came to use “organic construction” where one form seems to grow from another and where he came to distrust straight lines. He was a dreamer, not a draftsman.

He moved to Barcelona in 1869 to finish his schooling, enrolled in architectural school in 1872 and graduated in 1878. That was the same year he was to meet his very rich patron, Eusebi Guell whose wallet was as deep as Gaudi’s imagination was high. Guell was to become as important to him as the Popes were to Leanardo de Vinci and Spanish king was to Valasquez.

Soon, they’d pass a Starbucks to the left but Gaudi would turn his back on it and look across the busy street. It was the Casa Mila (1905-1910) or “La Pedrere” (nicknamed the stone quarry by kinder locals, but was called many other things), another of his buildings on the tourist trail.

If it were criticized by the locals at first, now, he’d be bemused by the busloads of Japanese tourists with their chittering Nikons paying to see the interior of this amazing building,

Sloping around the corner of #92, it seems to soar out of the sidewalk and occupy more space than it does. One can’t look quickly at his buildings. He said that in nature, there is not a signal vertical column. One follows some curved line until another going up, down, waving along interrupts it. Concrete arches jut out over windows, wrought iron snakes along. It might be enough to cause them to take shelter in the Starbucks.

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