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

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)

God’s Garbage Man

Ours is a civilization both fascinated with and repelled by what we consider garbage.  We spend hours in front of a screen, voyeuristically watching emotionally disturbed people known as hoarders, climbing over mountains of junk and rotting food.  We weep over images of children in the developing world, picking over scraps in a junkyard for something they can sell. We shake our heads over news reports about the amount of garbage clogging our waterways, killing off plants and wildlife.

Then we pull ourselves together, drive to the local big box store, and buy a bunch of poorly made, imported goods on impulse.

Within weeks or months, many of these objects will become part of someone else’s hoard, garbage dump, or floating pollution island.  We will not give a thought to those who suffer from the consequences of these decisions, because we don’t have to look at them, as we insulate ourselves from the weak, the poor, and the sorrowful.  After all, the consumerism dominating our present age has taught us that people are little more than means to an end, to be used as objects, and objects are infinitely disposable in our disposable society.

In this month’s issue of Magnificat, author Heather King has a terrific reflection on the life and spirituality of the great Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudí i Cornet, which speaks to this point.  His is a figure well-known to you if you visit these pages regularly, or drop by my ongoing Catholic Barcelona project.  In her piece, Ms. King describes the ways Gaudi, whose cause for beatification is presently being considered at the Vatican, gradually diminished himself, even as the Sagrada Familia rose higher and higher.  She also quotes from Gijs van Hensbergen’s very readable Gaudí : A Biography, in which the author lists some of the items which the architect employed in the fabrication of his designs, including “broken tiles, crockery, children’s toys, old needles from textile mills, metal bands for baling cotton cloth, bedsprings, and the burnt-out linings of industrial ovens.”

Gaudí’s most famous work, Barcelona’s Basilica of the Holy Family, a.k.a. the Sagrada Familia, is sometimes referred to, as Ms. King points out, as the “Cathedral of the Poor”.  Yes, it is full of cut stone, stained glass, and polished marble, as one would expect in the construction of a building which, upon completion, will be the tallest church in the world.  However it is also full of applied decoration, employing some of the scrap heap odds and ends which Hensbergen describes above.  The massive, breathtaking scale of the place is humanized and humbled by these details.

Whether you like Gaudí’s masterwork or not however, oftentimes secular commentators on this, one of the most famous churches and architects in the world, will miss the point of what he was doing.  God’s garbage man is not simply making use of what the contemporary art world would call, “found objects”, in bringing his designs to life.  What he is doing is showing that, as the old billboards and bumper stickers one would see on American highways used to say, God doesn’t make junk.  Even these discarded, unwanted elements of man’s intelligence and ingenuity, themselves gifts from the Almighty, have their place in His Creation.  We may think that these articles are useless, but as the Lord tells Samuel before the anointing of King David, “Not as man sees, does God see.”

In the Sagrada Familia, as in other works where Gaudí managed to create things of beauty out of the stuff nobody wanted, we see a reflection of what other saintly people have done, when it comes to embracing all aspects of God’s Creation, particularly those members of it who are seen as disposable, little more than junk.  One thinks of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, for example, taking in the Untouchables, who were quite literally thrown away on the streets to die.  Or we recall St. Damien of Molokai, caring for Hawaiian lepers, all banished to an island where no one would have to look at them.

In seeing that all of Creation matters, even the parts of it that we would rather just toss out, Gaudí is holding up a mirror to all of us.  He is showing us that there is beauty to be found in the everyday, in the ignored, in the unwanted.  We cannot continue to treat everyone and everything around us as disposable, without suffering the consequences of that mindset ourselves, one day.  What Gaudí’s work shows us is that if we make an effort to remember that none of us are garbage, and that there is beauty to be found in everything, perhaps that, in turn, will encourage us to be better stewards of the Creation which we have been given.

Crossing Vaulting Sagrada Familia

Vaulting at the crossing inside the Sagrada Familia