The World’s Greatest Swimming Pool (That Never Was)

We could probably nominate a number of structures as candidates for “World’s Greatest Swimming Pool”. For example, the “Neptune Pool”, a Greco-Roman fantasy by architect Julia Morgan at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California comes to mind. It incorporates not only a wealth of decorative tile work, statuary, and other ornaments, but even the restored façade of an actual Roman temple which publisher William Randolph Hearst imported to the U.S. But for my money, the greatest of all swimming pools was one designed by the Catalan Surrealist Salvador Dalí – which was never built.

Back in the 1950’s, Dalí created a set of 6 tiles for a massive swimming pool, which was supposedly commissioned by a member of the regime of Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco. Called “The Catalan Suite”, the tiles bore images of different elements which the artist associated with the seaside in Catalonia, including the sun, starfish, compass roses, birds, and trencadís (the broken tiles often used by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí.) The bright colors would have sparkled beneath the surface of the water in the strong Mediterranean sunlight.

The most likely candidate for the commission, it seems to me, was Eugeni d’Ors, like the artist a fellow Catalan conservative and Franco supporter, who was often put in charge of overseeing artistic commissions by the Spanish government. Dalí and d’Ors had known each other for many years, since the older d’Ors was a friend of Dalí’s uncle and a fellow member of the Ateneu (“Athenaeum”), a private club for intellectuals and the well-to-do in Barcelona. They worked together on several projects, including publication of “The Cobbler of Ordis”, a collection of poems by Dalí’s lifelong friend Carles Fages de Climent, which contained a preface by d’Ors and illustrations by Dalí.

In 1954, a total of 100,000 of these Dalí-designed tiles were produced at a factory in Onda, a town in the Valencian province of Spain known for its high-quality industrial ceramic output. Yet although the materials were ready to go, the swimming pool itself, unfortunately, was never built. I suspect the reason is that d’Ors just so happened to have died in 1954, probably around the same time that the tiles were completed. As a result, Dalí was left with thousands and thousands of tiles, and nowhere to put them.

Enter German lawyer Peter Ackermann who, as this article explains, met Dalí twenty years later, when the artist was trying to get these unused tiles off his hands. About 60,000 of the tiles were left, and while it’s difficult to imagine a normal person losing 40,000 tiles, this is Salvador Dalí we’re talking about, after all. Presumably the rest disappeared as a result of breakage, theft, or the artist giving them away; they turn up at auction periodically.

Unlike his near-contemporaries Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró, Dalí did not seem particularly interested in clay as a medium, which is highly unusual for someone hailing from the Iberian Peninsula. While Picasso designed pots and vases produced by French ceramics factories which today are highly prized by collectors, and Miró created enormous ceramic tile designs for walls or floors that were installed in public spaces, Dalí did not do much exploration in this area. Yes, he designed telephones that looked like lobsters, and couches that looked like Mae West’s lips, but things made out of dirt were not something that seem to have attracted his attention all that often. That makes this particular foray into the world of ceramics all the more special.

The Artsy article tells us that Mr. Ackermann is now selling his 60,000 tiles to whoever wants to take them off his hands. Since I didn’t win the Powerball jackpot last week, I won’t be acquiring them for my make-believe villa on the Costa Brava. But if you have around $20 million on your hands, and are thinking about building yourself a nice place in which to take a dip, consider the possibilities of paving that backyard oasis with tiles by the greatest Surrealist artist of the 20th century. You’ll almost instantly have the greatest swimming pool in all the world.

Sun

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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)