Monday, August 18, 2014

Visit to Europe - part 4: Gaudi's Barcelona

So after a swift reboot of our trip to Barcelona, things improved. After basking in the AC for an hour or two, we set off for Montjuïc, the site of the National palace, the Joan Miro museum and the Olympic venues from the 1992 games. The walk up to the palace from the Espanola Metro stop is pure photo-bait. The cascading terraces matched with fountains creates the spectacle, the unexpected escalators leading almost all the way to the top was an unexpected treat. In addition to housing examples of Gothic and Medieval art from Spain, the National Palace also provided one of the better views of downtown Barcelona.



The Joan Miro museum is nicely structured as an overview of his work but at that point in the day we starting to lose steam. After we left it was a short walk to a funicular leading down to Paral-lel and then a short tour of the famous shopping district La Rambla.





The next day we found another funicular (this one closer to what I think people mentally picture with that word) that lead to the top of Mount Tibidabo, the amusement quarter for the city. We had a surprisingly good and economical lunch at the cafeteria and then took some pictures of the slightly surreal clash of skyline, roller coasters, and gothic cathedral. One of these pictures shows a large hovering hummingbird hawk-moth, which I was certain was a tiny bird until I noticed the antennae, sipping nectar from a flower.




We had gotten a glimpse of Antoni Gaudi's work during our first day of bus tour but after coming down from Tibidabo, we decided it was time to take a tour of one of his more famous works, the Casa Batlló.

Okay, I'm just going to put this out here - I wish I had known more about Gaudi before I came to Barcelona. I knew in vague terms who Gaudi was. I knew that he had started this mind-bendingly weird basilica (which I shall describe shortly) and had the impression he had designed all of these incredibly strange houses. Our tour of Barcelona mentioned a few more factoids - that he had a difficult childhood but after his peculiar genius was recognized by a financial backer in the late 19th century (Eusebi Guell) Gaudi set out to remake the face of his city. His modernisme architecture gets lumped in with the concurrent Art Nouveau movement but other than certain swirling, vine-twining motifs, it really doesn't have much in common with that style. Ultimately, Gaudi was struck by a Barcelona tram and died several days later when he was mistaken for a bum.

Gaudi took nature as a kind of hand-book for how to build structures, using the structure of bee combs, plant stalks, and sea shells as practical models for how human-sized structures should be built.

For example, on approaching the Case Batlló, we were confronted with a house that seemed to have been somehow grown into place, the columns and balconies more like the exposed skeleton of some marine animal than what might be traditionally be called architecture.



 And yet, walking through the cavities and ventricles of the Casa Batlló, one is struck not with the weirdness of its flowing, organic shapes, but its essential correctness. The melting, liquid forms lend something very human to the living space inside - light. Gaudi was obsessed with light and this home was designed to permit as much natural light to filter down as possible. Even in the lower floors, unobtrusive skylights and gill-like louvres allow the outside into where people would live. We were invited to touch the house, to grip the curving handrails and open the doors. Gaudi left his mark on nearly everything within or without the house. The furniture was designed by him, the handles to the doors were modeled according to casts taken from his own hands. From the coral reefs of the bottom floor to the trencadís dragon spine curled at the top of the house, this was the product of a single fevered mind.





We ran out of time to visit the Sagrata Familia afterwards and so reserved it for our final day in Barcelona. Apparently many, many others had more or less the same idea because by the time we reached the line curling around the base of the basilica, all of the tickets were sold for visits before 6 pm. That was cutting a little close to the time of our flight out of Barcelona for comfort but Josh was able to get some online tickets for a slightly earlier time. That did mean we had some time to kill, which we used on a long walk back to the Gothic Quarter. In addition to tromping through several plazas filled with sounds of eating, drinking, and Spanish guitar, I came across a true oasis. Just up the avenue from the Barcelona Arc de Triomf, were stores for comic books, manga, miniatures, and board games. I dubbed it Plaza de Geek, and could've spend the rest of the afternoon bopping between each store.



But we were determined to go inside the Sagrata Familia and so, after navigating the Metro, arrived at 5:15 to walk through the gates. It's tempting to just let the pictures speak for themselves but I'm afraid they can't really give you a true sense of the scale and size of the Sagrata Familia. I realize that this is a structure built with a religious purpose in mind, consecrated by Pope Benedict in 2011, with a large crucifix hanging from the center of the transept in case any one was confused to the building's owners. But as try as I might, the basilica still persists in my mind as something separate or even superseding religion. As outlandish as the wet sand castle exterior appears, the inside is just sublime. It's like standing between the trunks of a petrified red wood forest, or sneaking around the legs of some Elder God.  The museum beneath the basilica shows how all of these natural forms are married to geometry, the structure of the basilica rife with parabolas, hyperboloids, and other conic sections. That's what makes Gaudi special, even his more bizarre experiments fulfill a purpose. For example, his unusual branching columns provide more room for windows, more room for light to fill his cavernous vault. Here, as in the Casa Batlló, light is the both the means and the end. Mostly people just walked around, visibly staggered by the scale of the place, bathed in spectral auras of light.








In college I read a book by the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould called "Wonderful Life" about the Burgess Shale formation. In it Gould describes how the various creatures imprinted onto the shale were at first interpreted as belonging to familiar taxonomies - worms, crustaceans, and various invertebrates known to science at the time. It was only when the original shale samples were examined that the truth became clear, that the Burgess Shale showed the riotous profusion of life, the nearly unclassifiable experiments during the Cambrian Age. Creatures such as the spiny hallucinengia with very few descendants left in the world. I feel that something similar is going on in Gaudi's masterpieces, an experimentation with form that is sometimes echoed by current trends, but never surpassed.

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