Thursday, 25 February 2010

Stepping into the World of Gaudi

The most unique and original architect of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was not an American, Frenchman or Italian, but rather a Spaniard called Antonio Gaudi. To be precise, he was a Catalonian (a citizen of Northern Spain), which is a fact that you are often reminded about when walking around Barcelona. In any case, he was a remarkable designer, both in the creativity of his vision and the scale of his endeavors. Having studied many of his buildings as a significant part of my Art History course, I was finally going to see them for myself, while Jules was going to be introduced to him for the very first time.

The great thing about Barcelona is that many of its most famous attractions are within walking distance from the city centre, so on a fine sunny day we began our pilgrimage to Gaudi’s most famous domestic dwellings. ‘Casa Batilo’ is a remodeled apartment building that must have astounded its owners when it was completed at the beginning of the twentieth century. The locals affectionately refer to it as ‘the house of bones’ because of its organic nature, resulting in window structures and balcony forms taking on an almost skeletal quality. It is an amazing combination of colourful mosaic, flowing lines and ornate ceramic shapes, that are interwoven into what can only be described as a wonderful piece of ‘fantasy architecture’. However, the building that really saw Gaudi recognized as one of the new breed of art nouveau modernists can be found close by and its called ‘Casa Mila’. It is a much larger building than Casa Batilo and reflected the ongoing development of Gaudi’s organic style, combined effectively with the use of stone and wrought iron. There is not a straight line to be seen in this building and it is crowned with a rooftop of the most amazing chimney designs that you’re ever likely to see.

The intricate and fantastic nature of Gaudi’s designs often resulted in some quite extended building times. Such was the case with the large garden complex of ‘Guell Park’ that took fourteen years to complete. Despite being a little out from the town centre, Jules and I found that it was well worth tracking down, as not only was it a wonderfully imaginative example of Gaudi designs, but it also provided some of the best views of Barcelona. As we entered, people were lining up to be photographed next to the amazing mosaic dragon fountain that welcomes you before making the climb up the grand stairs. There is a nice atmosphere with guitarists playing and lots of kids on school excursions clearly excited to be there. We take a rambling trail to the upper level, passing through grotto-like structures as we go, to eventually rest on the multi-coloured mosaic seats to admire the view. This is certainly one of the most unique and pleasurable parks we have ever visited and we can well understand the time taken to build it.

Yet its construction time pales into insignificance compared to Gaudi’s greatest achievement, ‘Sagrada Familia’, the basilica church that dominates the Barcelona skyline. When building commenced in 1882, even Gaudi couldn’t have imagined that it would have remained incomplete to this day. Such is the detail and intricacy of Gaudi’s planning that despite steady ongoing construction for over a century, it is still anticipated that it will not be fully finished until 2026. As you can imagine, it is a church like no other and not surprisingly it has already been granted world heritage status despite remaining incomplete. What I particularly liked about it was the many whimsical features that could be seen at closer viewing. From the fruit bowl mosaic spires, to the turtles carrying the weight of its enormous columns, such decorative features tend to lighten the tone of the buildings sombre religious mood, reinforced by the countless chiseled statues that surround it. Each time the scaffolding is removed it reveals yet more aspects of Gaudi’s fertile imagination and the scope of his vision for this Barcelona icon.

Gaudi justifiably remains one of Barcelona’s favourite sons. His designs are unique to this day and like no other, his buildings have put an undeniable stamp on this city. While his designs are not to everyone’s taste, they remain totally individual and for anyone interested in design and architecture, his works are certainly a must see. Stepping into a Gaudi design is like entering into another world and it is difficult to imagine how such expressive designs could ever be built today.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Brilliant Barcelona!

One of the places that continued to be mentioned as a place we must visit was the Spanish city of Barcelona. From Paris it’s an overnight run by train, which we boarded with much anticipation at 8.00pm. Being quite an old train, the sleeper could have been a little more comfortable, but we eventually arrive safely in Barcelona at 8.30 am. Despite its size the city was relatively quiet and an over night down pour had left the streets glistening as the sun broke through for a new day. This was considerably different from the grey skies and cold days we had only yesterday left behind in Paris.

 We walked to our hotel, which was nicely positioned on the most popular street in town, Las Ramblas. From here we would later enjoy all of the daily action of this wide and leafy boulevard, with its numerous souvenir stalls and plenty of street performers (well, if you can call standing like a statue a performance). These interesting characters seemed to be positioned every few metres and came in all forms … everything from Edward Scissorhands through to a man disguised as a human pot plant! Each seemed to have a steady stream of tourists eager to have their photograph taken alongside them, for a small donation of course. In any case, it all seemed to add to the relaxed and happy nature of Las Ramblas, which made it such an inviting place and with Sangria in hand, it was certainly a great place for us to soak up the atmosphere of this bustling city.

As with most cities we visit, Jules is always keen to seek out the best places for food and it wasn’t too long before we found ourselves in the local market (Mercat de La Boqueria) with its delicious assortment of fresh produce, much of which would find its way into the many surrounding tapas bars, which we also thought was our culinary duty to explore. Back on the streets, we marveled at the range of interesting architecture that can be experienced around every corner. Of course the famous Gaudi buildings are legendary, but there are also some wonderful architectural delights that reveal the cities diverse architectural past. We were amazed to discover that Barcelona has its very own Arc de Triomf, which is far less formal than the one in Paris, but no less impressive. A favorite area was Barri Gotic, which is the centre of the old city of Barcelona and is a wonderful labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets and tall medieval buildings. This is the Gothic quarter of the city with plenty of charm and character. On one of the days we were there, a cool wind was sweeping through so we headed to the nearby Placa Reial, which would provide a warm and sheltered haven. The square is like a little piece of paradise with it’s palm trees and ornate street lamps, all surrounded by a beautiful arched façade … simply a perfect place to sit in one of the cafés, sip a coffee and sketch, which is exactly what we did!

Over the years, Barcelona has been the venue for some notable world events. The 1992 Summer Olympics certainly provided the city with a number of modern structures and stadiums as well as a wonderfully clean and efficient underground train system. This enabled us to move easily around the city and we even went as far a field as to visit Montserrat in the rugged mountains surrounding Barcelona. Earlier events such as the World Exposition of 1923 had also created a number of significant landmarks. From Placa Espanya we ventured passed two large and distinctive towers to view what remains from the event. For me, the Barcelona Pavilion by Mies Van Der Rohe was a building I had really wanted to see and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The building was originally part of the German section of the exhibition and represented new modernist (led by the Bauhaus) developments in architecture. Over 80 years after the event, it still remains one of the world’s greatest and most influential buildings with it attention to minimalism and stylistic purity. While the Spanish Pavilion is far more traditional, it still exists and was designed to represent regional styles of the period. Today it provides an important centre for local arts and crafts, with many practitioners working directly on sight and we particularly enjoyed wandering around and viewing the artists at work in their studio and picking up the odd piece.

Our time in Barcelona passed so quickly and we could well understand why so many people had recommended this city to us. The local Catalonians had been so welcoming and despite it’s size, we had found it to be a very relaxed metropolis, with so much to offer … and we had only begun to scratch the surface! It remains one of our favorite cities and our voices are certainly added to the chorus of people who continue to sing its praises.