Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 26, 2021
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Gaudi's Barcelona


In 1992 Barcelona staged one of the most exciting Olympic Games in recent memory. A frantic pace of construction overcame gloomy predictions that facilities would never be completed in time. But away from the Olympic clamour, at the city's oldest construction site, things have always proceeded more leisurely. Antonio Gaudí's astonishing church of the Sagrada Familia was begun in 1882 and it still has no roof. The name of Antonio Gaudí i Cornet is closely tied to Barcelona, for it was in the Catalan capital that this innovative architect built most of his works. Born the son of a boilermaker in the town of Reus in 1852, Gaudí came to Barcelona to study architecture at the age of 21. The city was booming. Its ancient encircling walls had been torn down to allow for growth and migrants were pouring into the city to work in the burgeoning textile and steel industries. A new breed of wealthy entrepreneurs quickly developed, many of whom were eager to beautify Barcelona.

Into this hotbed came young Gaudí. His passion for architecture was almost religious; nothing else interested him. Drawing inspiration from nature, he was convinced that it held the key to many architectural problems. For example, he felt that the structure of a tree provided the ideal model for designing support pillars for major buildings. Impatient with formal studies, Gaudí became apprenticed to a firm of Barcelona architects, convinced that he could learn more quickly by putting his bold ideas into practical form. Gaudí used his superb technical ability to bring his astonishing free-flowing creations to life, such as using the parabolic curve to form dramatic arches.

Gaudí spent little time at the drawing board, preferring to work out his unique designs with scale models. Modesty was not one of his faults. He once said: "Knowing exactly whether a thing should be higher or lower, flatter or more curved. This is nothing more than a quality of clear-sightedness and I, fortunately, can see things clearly. I cannot help it."

Gaudí left Barcelona a rich legacy of his eccentric genius. Most of his buildings are within walking distance of each other and the Barcelona Tourist Office publishes an excellent free map indicating the location of each one.

The Casa Batlló on the Paseo de Gracia is a good place to start -- and a hard structure to miss. Gaudí took an ordinary building on Barcelona's most elegant street and transformed it into a whimsical fantasy with scarcely a straight line to be found. It's no wonder it was almost impossible for him to depict his buildings with two-dimensional plans. The facade of the Casa Batlló curves gently in and out so that fragments of bright ceramic tile embedded in its surface sparkle in the sun. The roof, shaped like the spine of a dragon's back, is covered with glistening scale-like tiles and over it all rises a bulbous-shaped tower topped by one of Gaudí's "trademark" four-armed crosses.

Nearby, on the opposite side of the Paseo de Gracia, where it intersects with Carrer de Provenca, is the Casa Mila, the finest example of Gaudí's secular architecture. Locals call this granite building La Pedrera -- or "the stone pile." Its softly flowing facade is countered by a series of wrought-iron grilles that look like pieces of shrapnel twisted harshly into abstract forms. One observer has called the Casa Mila "a kind of stone lung, breathing gently," while others have likened it to a cliff sculpted and eroded by the wind, or even a series of underwater reefs. The roof, which is sometimes open to visitors, is crowned with joyously sculptured chimneys and ventilators.


Continuing north, the Paseo de Gracia narrows to become the Carrer de Gracia. Nearby, on Carrer de Carolines, is the Casa Vicens, built in 1878. Still a private dwelling, it was the first house built by Gaudí and combines an astonishing mix of styles and materials. Gaudí juxtaposed Arab, Mediterranean and Oriental motifs by using brick, stone and ceramics. The basic materials are ochre-coloured stone and unglazed red brick, but much of the building's striking character comes from bold patterns of vivid green and white checkered tiles, many of them painted with flowers and birds. It helped that the client was a tile manufacturer.

From the Casa Vicens it's an uphill walk -- or a short cab ride -- to the Parc Güell, named for Gaudí's principal benefactor. Eusebio Güell, an industrialist and grandee of the Catalan establishment, commissioned Gaudí to design a complete "garden city" on this site overlooking Barcelona. Although the venture was an economic failure, a few buildings were completed before work stopped in 1914. Gingerbread-like pavilions with ceramic-tile roofs and mushroom- topped towers flank each side of the main entrance. Inside, the park steps lead past two brightly tiled fountains, one in the form of an iguana and the other a serpent's head. At the top of the steps is a covered colonnade with one of the park's gems on its flat roof: an exuberant, sinuously curving bench decorated with vividly coloured pieces of tile. Maybe the whimsical Parc Güell is where Walt Disney got the idea for his Magic Kingdom.

The architect's unquestioned masterpiece is the Church of the Sagrada Familia. It's as much a symbol of Barcelona as the Eiffel Tower is of Paris or the Tower Bridge is of London. From 1914 to his death in 1926, the building became Gaudí's obsession. Working on nothing else, he even lived in a temporary house on the building site. If the church is eventually completed to Gaudí's original concept, it will form a huge Latin cross, dominated by a colossal central pinnacle erected over the transept. Representing Christ, this pinnacle will be surrounded by four lower spires symbolizing the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Two of the three exterior facades have been completed. Each has four spires, and each one of these represents one of the 12 apostles. Looking up at these towering "minor" spires, the height of the planned central pinnacle is almost beyond comprehension. A tiny elevator inside one of the spires whisks you up for a close-up view of the bizarre ceramics that crown each tip. It also provides a dizzying view of the open nave of the church far below. People aren't neutral about Gaudí's church. Many love it, while others agree with author George Orwell, who visited the Sagrada Familia while serving in the Spanish Civil War. In Homage to Catalonia he wrote that the church was one of the most hideous buildings in the world, adding: "The Anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance."

When Gaudí died, struck by a tram outside the church in 1926, he left no building plans and some later additions have been criticized. Work goes on at a snail's pace and is completely dependent on donations.

To walk through the entrance of the cathedral and gaze up at the blue Catalan sky is an unforgettable experience. Far above, stonemasons sculpt delicate rose windows in a medieval- like scene, while below them huge tower cranes rise from the floor of the nave where concrete reinforcing rods poke up, anticipating the pillars that will someday support that long-awaited roof. Gaudí predicted it would take 200 years to complete the Sagrada Familia. Unless Barcelona finds some more of that Olympian drive, that means workers are unlikely to leave this building site for almost another 90 years.

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