Is Gaudí Getting Closer to Sainthood?

Regular readers know of my admiration for the great Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudí i Cornet (1852-1926), most famous for his Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.  The hugely original and innovative Gaudí was a deeply devout man, and spent the last decades of his life working exclusively on this structure which, when it is completed around 2026, will be the tallest church in the world.  With a new Vatican-approved graduate studies program being named after him, and Gaudí’s cause for beatification now in the review stage in Rome, one wonders whether this is a sign that the Vatican is moving in the direction of his canonization.

Located in Barcelona, the Antoni Gaudí School offers graduate studies in Church history, Christian art, and now archaeological studies, in conjunction with programs approved by the Vatican.  The architect himself loved archaeology, not only as part of his research and design process, but also as a reason to go out into the countryside at the weekends with fellow enthusiasts.  Groups of these thinkers and creative individuals would explore ancient ruins and crumbling castles to get a better sense of their own history, as well as to understand design concepts and building methods.

Pope Benedict XVI admired the Catalan architect a great deal.  He not only traveled to Barcelona to dedicate the church and raise it to the level of a Minor Basilica, but he also used a photograph of the sculpture of the Holy Family on the Nativity Facade of the building for his official Christmas cards that year.  An exhibition celebrating Gaudí’s work was mounted at the Vatican at the same time. And recently, Pope Francis accepted a gift of a portrait bust of Gaudí from the group promoting his cause for beatification, a work based on an original carved shortly after the architect’s death.

The current expectation is that the Congregation for the Causes of Saints will complete their investigation sometime in the spring of 2015, and will make their recommendations to the Holy Father at that time. Despite some earlier rumors that beatification was going to be announced for certain, so far there has been no official word from the Congregation on that point. It would seem to me more likely that he would first be made a “Venerable”, if the cause is moving forward, but Catalan sources insist that Rome will be skipping straight to beatification.  To my knowledge, Pope Francis has never spoken about Gaudí publicly in the way that Pope Benedict has, so we can’t assume anything one way or the other with respect to his urging the work of the Congregation forward.

That being said, the fact that the Vatican seems to be encouraging naming things after “God’s Architect”, as he is often called, seems to me to be a good sign.

Work underway on the central towers of the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Work underway on the central towers of the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

>A Monument Restored

>Today the city of Barcelona dedicated a monument whose original, by one of Catalonia’s most important architects, was destroyed by a Spanish dictator 82 years ago, marking one of the last elements of recovery of its urban heritage following decades of cultural repression by Madrid. As a 50% Catalan and an 100% architecture fan, it is great to see that the people of Barcelona can still find ways to recover some of what they have lost architecturally over the years. At the same time however, the rebuilding of this monument raises certain architectural issues with respect to landscape and planning, that are worth the reader’s general consideration.

The “Four Columns” monument was designed by architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch, and erected in 1919. Puig i Cadafalch was one of what we might call the “big three” of Catalan Modernist architecture, alongside Antoni Gaudí i Cornet and Lluís Domènech i Montaner. Puig i Cadafalch is perhaps most famous for the Casa Martí, a building whose ground floor contains “Els Quatre Gats”, the exuberantly decorated tavern near the city’s Cathedral where the young Picasso and other artists would gather, and for the Casa Amatller, an equally elaborate structure on the luxurious Passeig de Gracia which stands alongside buildings by these other two legendary architects. The resulting juxtaposition is often referred to as the “Block of Discord” because of the way each building competes with the other to be the most over-the-top structure.

The “Four Columns” memorial refers in stone to the Catalan flag, which features four vertical stripes on a gold background; in this case, each pillar stands for one of the stripes. The monument was originally constructed not with stone, but brickwork coated with plaster, reflective of the love of Barcelona’s innovative architects of the late 19th and early 20th centuries for taking humble materials and using them in unexpected ways. See for example Barcelona’s Arch of Triumph located on the Passeig de Sant Joan, constructed in 1888, which is built of complicated brick, iron, and stone patterns and sculptural elements, rather than the usual marble; Domènech i Montaner’s 1905 Palace of Catalan Music, which employs similar methods; or Gaudí’s beloved serpentine park bench at the Park Güell, made of concrete and broken glass, tiles and porcelain.

Originally the “Four Columns” monument stood in a central location on the slopes of the mountain of Montjuïc, in the SW corner of the city, which my readers may know was the site of the Olympic Games in 1992. Puig i Caldfach envisioned a great hall on the top of the hill, with esplanades and boulevards leading down to a central plaza at the bottom. At the time the pillars were erected however, these structures had not yet been built, and the end result of the urbanization of the area was not exactly what the architect had intended.

The location for the monument was just below the site of the National Palace, the large domed exhibition hall which is now the National Museum of Catalan Art, and close to the site of Mies van der Rohe’s highly influential Barcelona Pavilion, both of which were built for the World’s Fair held in Barcelona in 1929. In the lead-up to the fair, the then-dictator of Spain, General Miguel Primo de Rivera, thought that the columns were too incendiary in encouraging Catalan nationalism, and had them dynamited and torn down. On the spot where they used to stand, a huge fountain basin was built, which is now a favorite excursion spot for tourists in the evenings; the “Magic Fountains”, as they are known, dance and change colors while classical music is played.

Debate began a number of years ago on the reconstruction of this monument, and early this year new columns to Puig i Caldafach’s original design – but made of more stable concrete rather than brick and plaster – were erected just above their original location. The hope of both the city government and the Catalan government is that the newly rebuilt monument will allow the vast open area around them to serve as a public gathering point for Catalan celebrations, particularly “La Diada”, Catalonia’s National Day, and provide better access and facilities for those who wish to attend such events than the more cramped location further up the hill where these events have been marked up to now. It was disappointing to read that the Spanish national conservative party, the Partido Popular, which originally voiced its support for the rebuilding of this monument, has now come out against it; as anyone familiar with the history of Catalan politics knows however, this kind of two-faced reaction is not to be wondered at.

The problem from a purely architectural perspective, however, is that the site has changed since the monument was originally put up. The surrounding buildings, completed in the 1920s, are now at least somewhat dependent visually on the fountain as a sort of wheel around which they rotate. Some architectural critics have pointed out – not entirely without cause – that the placement of these columns as close to their old position as possible has had a negative impact on the sweeping vistas of the place; the eye seems to halt at the columns rather than naturally following the stairs and terraces up to the museum on the top of the hill.

This raises the question of whether everything that is torn down should be rebuilt, even if it is possible to do so. There is obviously a very big difference between rebuilding four columns to look as they were and, say, rebuilding Canterbury Cathedral to look as it was. Cost is certainly one factor, but in this particular case the landscape has changed considerably since the monument was built, as well as since it was torn down.

That being said, taking into account the fact that I appreciate the landscape design of the present assemblage of buildings, fountains, terraces, and so on, I do think that the restoration of the monument does more good than harm. The “Magic Fountain” is little more than a giant concrete saucer, rather than a confection of statuary and architectural elements, and the fact that the surrounding landscape architecture features classical statuary, balustrades, and grand spaces for promenading leads to the conclusion that we do need some sort of a vanishing point for the space, rather than simply staring into the side of a hill.

What would be infinitely better, in my opinion, would be if the city would tear down the ridiculous pair of towers which stand at the entrance to this esplanade area, which are copies of the campanile of San Marco in Venice. They serve no purpose whatsoever, and the fact that they are such blatant copies of an existing structure, when Catalonia has never been at a loss for creative and talented architects, makes them seem a bit tawdry and more redolent of Las Vegas than the Veneto. But we shall leave that question for other armchair architects to consider.

The demolition of the original “Four Columns” monument,
on orders from Primo de Rivera, in 1928.

Papal Visit to Barcelona: Gaudí the Man, Part II

Regular readers know that this week I have been writing on subjects related to the upcoming Papal Visit to Barcelona, when Pope Benedict XVI will be consecrating the newly-designated Basilica of the Holy Family, or “Sagrada Familia”. Yesterday readers were able to examine several photographs of Antoni Gaudí i Cornet, the architect of the church, in conjunction with a loose timeline of what was going on in his world at the time the pictures were taken. Today we will take a look at some of the aspects of the great architect’s native place and age, and perhaps gain some insight into his thoughts and outlook.

It is impossible to underestimate the importance that Gaudí’s being a Catalan, and emphatically not a Spaniard, had on his work. There are those who would find such a statement to be somewhat inflammatory, for the issue of Catalan nationalism has often been a cause of conflict in Spanish history. Yet as a man who appears in the universe at a particular place and time, Gaudí like any of us was a man informed and shaped by where and when he found himself.

When Gaudí was born in 1852, Catalonia was beginning a rapid transformation from a commercial backwater into an industrial powerhouse. As money poured into the industrial cities of Catalonia, Barcelona foremost among them, the Catalans went on a building boom which they had not experienced since the heady days of their lost empire in the 14th and 15th centuries. New fortunes were being made, and new fortunes need new homes, factories, offices, warehouses, parks, churches, schools, libraries, and theatres: in short, there was plenty of work for ambitious young architects.

At more or less the same time, the Catalans were rediscovering their history and their language. With the encouragement of the elites, they began to express and patronize their cultural identity as a people in poetry, music, and art, in a movement known as the Catalan Renaissance or Renaixença. Spoken and written Catalan once again began to take over the cities (it had never really been stamped out in the countryside), and festivals that had fallen into disuse or which were banned under the Bourbon autocracy in the 18th century were revived, such as the reestablishment of the Medieval “Jocs Florals” or “Floral Games”, last celebrated in the 1400’s and revived in 1859. Catalan newspapers, magazines, novels, and songs were created to spread the use of the language, while the plastic arts commemorated important figures and concepts from Catalonia’s past.

Gaudí was very much a part of this movement, and to look at a building like the Sagrada Familia without understanding that it was designed by a Catalan architect of this period and built by men committed to a conservative, Catholic Catalan nationalism, is to completely miss the point of it. The evocation in its design of the unusual, towering finger-like rock formations of the holy Catalan mountain of Montserrat, location of the image of Our Lady housed in the ancient Benedictine monastery dedicated to her, is obvious to anyone who has visited both sites. The Catalan love of nature, particularly of the combination of sea and mountain – mer i muntanya – throughout the decoration of the basilica, is conceptually important in many aspects of Catalan identity: there is even a national dish bearing this name.

Although he could speak Spanish when he wanted to of course, Gaudí continued to use Catalan as his primary language throughout his professional life. This may be part of the reason why there are so few Gaudí buildings that exist outside of Catalan-speaking areas. In fact, there are no buildings by him that exist outside of Spain, though he did design a skyscraper for Manhattan which, sadly, was never built.

The architect’s insistence on Catalan knew no bounds: when King Alfonso XIII of Spain came to visit the construction site of the Sagrada Familia for example, he addressed Gaudí in Spanish, but Gaudí answered him only in Catalan. This sort of Catalanism was both very serious, in a political sense, and also very funny – to Catalans anyway. Gaudí knew who he was, and he was not going to defer to a Bourbon who refused to learn the language of a significant portion of his kingdom.

On another occasion, the great Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, who frankly was rather full of himself, visited the Sagrada Familia and announced that he thought the whole thing was a waste of money which would never be finished. During the tour which the architect attempted to give, Unamuno wandered around wringing his hands, and very rudely saying out loud, “I don’t like it, I don’t like it,” in Spanish. The (naturally) offended Gaudí decided to follow along behind Unamuno imitating his gestures, and saying, “I don’t like it, I don’t like it,” in Catalan. This sort of behavior was to get him into trouble however, as we shall see.

Most nations or peoples celebrate what they consider to be their national holiday in order to mark a particular high point. For example, these holidays will often take place on the anniversary of achieving independence, or the birth of a significant figure. Catalonia however, marks its national day, known as “La Diada” or the “Day of Days”, on September 11, 1714, the day of their greatest defeat. This was the day that the Bourbons took Barcelona in the Wars of the Spanish Succession, abolishing the local autonomy which had been established in Catalonia during the Middle Ages, and later preserved, albeit with increasing restrictions, under the Hapsburg Empire, along with the use of the Catalan language.

In 1924, the government of Spanish dictator General Primo de Rivera ordered the closing of all churches in Catalonia on September 11th, in order to prevent popular commemoration of La Diada. However, some edict from a military junta was not going to deter Gaudí and other Catalan Catholics from marking the occasion as a conservative Catholic Catalan would normally do. And so on the morning of the holiday, he set out for mass at the Basilica of Sts. Justus and Pastor, located just across from Barcelona city hall, which planned to hold a mass to commemorate those who had died on September 11th during the French siege. Those interested in learning about this ancient and beautiful Gothic church can read about its fascinating history on my other blog, Catholic Barcelona.

What happened next shocked many observers, not only in Barcelona and in Spain, but around the world. As the 72-year old Gaudí made his way across the square in front of the basilica, he was stopped by the Guardia Civil, the Spanish national police, who refused to allow him to enter the building. They asked him to identify himself and explain what he was doing there, to which the elderly architect replied – in Catalan.

Matters escalated as the police continued to question Gaudí in Spanish, and he continued to answer them in Catalan, remonstrating with them for trying to prevent him from attending mass. They insisted that he was breaking the law by attempting to attend the mass and by addressing them in Catalan, to which the architect responded: “My profession obliges me to pay my taxes, and I pay them, but this does not oblige me to stop speaking my own language.” Gaudí was then arrested, and taken to jail where he was housed in a communal cell with petty criminals.

As the arrest was witnessed by many people, someone contacted his office at the Sagrada Familia with the news of what the old man had been up to. One of his assistants contacted a priest friend of the architect, who then came down to bail Gaudí out and pay the fine for disturbance of the peace and speaking Catalan, which amounted to about $700 in today’s money. In an interview he gave to a journalist the following day, Gaudí made the comment that after his rather shocking experience, he was convinced that with such actions on the part of the police forces, a radical transformation of Spain was inevitable; his prediction would later be proven correct with the establishment of the Leftist Republic in 1930, and the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

Tomorrow, in our final post before the Papal Visit, we will have a round-up of some of the interesting things to look out for during the coverage of the event.

A caricature of Gaudí at work, by his friend Ricard Opisso i Sala