Here Be A Dragon

Architecture is a funny old game. Even with high-powered machinery, computer-aided drafting, and the like, projects sometimes drag on for quite a long period of time, and never completely come to fruition.  The same was certainly true of the work of some of the greatest architects of the past, who sometimes had to abandon what they had started due to lack of funds, politics, or the like.

The great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí i Cornet was no exception. Even casual students of his work are familiar with his Basilica of the Sagrada Familia, still under construction nearly a century after his death, but other projects by the great master never quite got completed either. One example is the Park Güell, a housing development he designed in the NE corner of the city; or the Colonia Güell, a company town located outside of Barcelona. What both of these projects have in common was their sponsorship by Gaudí’s greatest patron, Count Eusebi Güell.

Gaudí did manage to finish Güell’s mansion in downtown Barcelona, the Palau Güell, located off the Ramblas in the former Chinese Quarter.  However like many 19th century Barcelona industrialists, Güell wanted a weekend and holiday retreat that was outside the city center, which would afford him and his family more space, fresh air, and tranquil surroundings. The same phenomenon was occurring in major cities all over the world, from London to New York to Tokyo, where business leaders would purchase or build such retreats in towns and villages not too far from the cities in which they worked, so that they could be reached in a few hours by coach, train or the like.

Güell’s decision to have his summer house in the Les Corts district near Pedralbes, which was then well outside the city, was one imitated by many of his Barcelona contemporaries. However none of the grand mansions which popped up in the neighborhood in the 19th and 20th centuries had anything quite like the unusual gatehouses known today as the “Pavellons Güell”. They were just part of a colossal scheme by the Catalan architect and his patron to create what would have been a fantasyland, complete with remodeling the existing house to look like a Moorish Revival palace, surrounded by vast gardens, and featuring several ornate entrance gates, all encompassed by decorative walls.

Unfortunately, Gaudí never got to redesign the house. It was later presented to and transformed into the Palau Reial de Pedralbes by the Spanish Royal Family. They themselves hardly used it (although General Franco did) and today King Felipe VI prefers to stay in the less-grand Palauet Albéniz overlooking the sea, when he is in town. The pavilions were given to the University of Barcelona, with public access strictly limited to guided tours on specific weekends during the year.

After languishing in limbo for some time – what do you do with stables and gatehouses no longer attached to an estate? – as a result of a deal between the city and the university, for the past few months Barcelona has been working to restore the buildings, in order to make them accessible to the paying public. The city plans to invest close to $1 million in bringing the pavilions back to their former appearance.  For a fee, the plan is allowing the public to visit these previously almost-inaccessible works of the great architect, and to make their surrounding gardens, also partially laid out by Gaudí, more accessible.  The hope is to make the pavilions available for things such as concerts, lectures, community events, and the like. Imagine having your wedding reception or anniversary dinner catered in one of these buildings!

True these may rank, in terms of size, among the smallest of Gaudí’s completed buildings.  However, it is wonderful to see new life being breathed back into these fantastical structures, after so many years of benign neglect. While their original purpose may have vanished long ago, their extraordinary design continues to fascinate us today, more than 125 years after the magnificent gate pictured below first swung open to receive visitors.

Dragon Gate

Colors Into Battle

Today has two important associations for me, being September 11th, but it’s also a chance to reflect on the symbolism that we see on days like today.  We often don’t stop to consider where that symbolism comes from, so rather than wade into politics, I’m going to beg the reader’s indulgence and ruminate a little on that collection of pattern and color known as a flag.

Being a proud American citizen, and particularly living in DC, it’s hard not to be aware of the fact that September 11th is a day when we mourn those who died in 2001 during the terrorist attacks on this country.  I wore my Stars-and-Stripes socks today, along with blue and red, but truthfully didn’t see much of that sort of personal display on the way in, even though I work near the White House.  With the passage of time this is somewhat inevitable, as memory fades, so that our grandchildren decades from now will not mark 9/11 in the way that we do.  After all, most of us know when Pearl Harbor Day was, but fewer and fewer Americans every year can say that they remember it, and know where they were when they heard of it.

Meanwhile, being half-Catalan, ethnically speaking, I’m also very much aware that September 11th is Catalonia’s National Day, known as “La Diada” or “The Day of Days”.  This date marking the defeat of the Catalans at the hands of the Bourbons in 1714 is a strange one to choose for a national holiday, since most countries celebrate their victories, rather than their defeats.  However in the intervening years since the passing of the Franco regime, the use of the red and gold stripes of the Catalan flag on this date has increased along with Catalan pride and assertiveness, to the point that Catalonia is going to hold a vote on independence from Spain this November.  All eyes are waiting to see what happens in Edinburgh next week, but in the meantime huge demonstrations marked by giant flag displays are going on all day today in Barcelona.

It’s interesting that flags continue to have a hold on our psyche, when to some extent one could argue that their usefulness on the battlefield has largely been eliminated.  Previously, when you, your buddies, and the enemy were all covered in mud in the trenches, whether France in the 15th century or the 20th century, you would have to keep an eye out for the flag bearer to know where you were and where you were supposed to be. The flag bearer himself was a descendent of even more ancient human place markers, like the standard-bearers of the Roman legions, whose gilded eagles and other symbols were tramped all over Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

The ability of either Old Glory or La Senyera – as the Catalan flag is known – to stir emotions and remind citizens of their principles, centuries after each of these designs first came into use, shows what a remarkably effective tool they still are, even though on the battlefield they are no longer the utilitarian objects they once were.  They continue even today to help people to find themselves, in a sense, for they concentrate into a single image or object what really matters to them.  Today, both in America and in Catalonia, seeing the flag means far more to the average man or woman than does any speech, policy paper, or the like, because imagery remains the single most important tool in capturing the public imagination, and in encapsulating what the people feel about the place they call home.

Detail of "Follow the Flag" U.S. Navy recruitment poster by James Daugherty (1917) Library of Congress, Washington DC

Detail of “Follow the Flag” U.S. Navy recruitment poster by James Daugherty (1917)
Library of Congress, Washington DC

Batman and the Basilica

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Tim Burton’s Batman, hard as it is to believe that so much time has passed.  At the time of its premiere, “Batman” was a revelation for many reasons, not least of which was the design of the film.  From lighting to sets to costumes, the movie continues to draw the eye even today, a combination of 1940’s film noir with the shocking colors of comic book exaggeration, reflecting the era in which Batman himself first appeared on newsstands.  Even the look of Vicki Vale, as played by Kim Basinger – full confession: I had a poster of her as Vale in my room as a teen – owed much to film noir actresses of the 1940’s, like Barbara Stanwyck and Veronica Lake.  Basinger of course, would later go on to win an Oscar for portraying a Veronica Lake call girl look-alike in the movie L.A. Confidential, itself an homage to the films of the 1940’s.

On a seemingly unrelated note, yesterday was the 162nd birthday of the great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1956), whose work the reader is already very familiar with if he is a regular visitor to these pages.  Combining a host of design influences from Gothic castles to Hindu temples, Japanese forts to Arabian palaces, his work is impossible to categorize, but never fails to make a profound impression.  Interestingly however, one of the centerpieces of Burton’s take on the story of the Dark Knight owes a great deal to the uniqueness of this architect.

British designer Anton Furst was charged with helping bring the Gotham City of Burton’s imagination to life on screen, and managed such a remarkable achievement that he won an Academy Award for his efforts.  Mixing various elements from the history of architectural design into a stunning, if oppressive whole, Furst’s greatest challenge would prove to be that of Gotham City Cathedral, where the climactic final conflict between Batman and The Joker takes place.  In trying to come up with a design for the building, Furst realized that the right reference for this singular element was the work of Antoni Gaudí.

In an interview he gave for a book accompanying the release of the Burton film, Furst explained how he tackled the problem of creating a structure which would fit into the world of the Caped Crusader, as envisioned by Burton:

The problem here was to create a cathedral which was taller than the tallest skyscraper and still make it credible. It had to be over 1,000 feet (330 metres) high. I then remembered that some of the 1930s skyscrapers in New York produced a cathedral effect at the top by means of interesting gothic detail. I began to solve the puzzle…I basically stretched Gaudi into a skyscraper and added a castle feel which was especially influenced by the look of a Japanese fortress.

Gaudí himself was strongly influenced by Japanese design in his own work, a fact which is not lost upon the Japanese themselves, who are among the most enthusiastic patrons of his work and legacy.  Japanese individuals and corporations have been particularly generous over the past several decades in their contributions toward the ongoing work of completing the architect’s magnum opus. the still-under-construction Basilica of the Sagrada Familia.  When completed, the Basilica will be the tallest church in the world at 560 feet (170 meters), although that is nowhere near the height of the fictional cathedral created by Furst for the film.  Fortunately, despite its massive size, the completed Basilica will be nowhere near as dark and frightening as Furst’s creation.

Interestingly enough, just a few years ago DC Comics came out with a special one-off Batman adventure, which was set in Barcelona and featured a climactic encounter between Batman and Killer Croc at the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia.  In doing so the comic’s writers and designers referenced the tale of St. George and the Dragon, one of the favorite legends for Catalans since St. George is the patron saint of both Barcelona and Catalonia.  However one wonders whether they were aware of the fact that they were not the first to see the potential connection between the Dark Knight and Catalonia’s most famous architect.

Cover art for "Batman in Barcelona" by Jim Lee (2009)

Cover art for “Batman in Barcelona” by Jim Lee (2009)