Barcelona, Spain. I stepped inside Gaudí’s Casa Batlló and became small. Not physically, of course, since the proportions of the house with its low ceilings and narrow staircases made me feel quite enormous, actually, as I maneuvered the winding layout. I say “small” to mean enchanted, overwhelmed, and comfortably lost within the twisting, labyrinth-like structure. I felt like my 9 year old self on one of our rocky, even austere, but stunning Bainbridge beaches. Gaudí’s internationally famous designs are, simply put, reminiscent of sea life and various natural forms: his work gives the impression of amorphous currents in a fluid substance, spell binding in their simple and seemingly effortless logic. Watching the other tourists bound to their audio guides, bending back to gaze at the ceiling as instructed by the recorded voice, I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony. It shouldn’t take an explanation to get it. His work makes sense on a primal, basic level and can be understood without the help of scholars and researchers, it is structure and form that is modeled on something that everyone understands universally: water, organic form, life.
Gaudí’s inspiration will always be a mystery to our modern eyes in terms of technical engineering, practical use of space, and aesthetic as he transcended not only his own generation, but ours as well. Architects today struggle to understand his successful designs, yet oftentimes (and paradoxically) fail to catch up to his turn of the 20th century modernity. What they should be looking at is the tide, the human form, a conch, or the skeleton of a sea animal. Gaudí was an eccentric, but–at the time and still today–considered ingenious. Our natural environment, after all, is more sustainable and logical than that which man has created and the success of his designs–the incredibly advanced approach to arches and curvature, conservation of materials, and use of light–owe much (along with his study of the Gothic, Art Nouveau, and traditional Catalan architecture) to this study of natural form.
Other Spanish artists (I’m thinking of Velazquez in particular) have a tendency to insert themselves in their work. Whether this meant turning themselves into a national sensation as a celebrity or by literally placing an image of themselves in their paintings, the machismo culture never fails to remind us that yes, these men were brilliant, but more importantly they had big cojones. But being inside Gaudí’s Casa Batlló, the architect’s presence evaporated, if you let it. His was deeply thoughtful work, but not pretentious. Instead, he created a building that became a living, vibrant creature (some say he was trying to tell the story of Saint George–the patron saint of Catalonia–that killed a dragon with his lance by creating a scaly, arching rooftop that terminates with a lance-like turret and cross) in which the visitor may lose himself. Gaudí created spaces that encouraged discourse between the visitor and his environment: in the repetition of the brightly lit arches in the hallways, the chimerical use of tiles that sweep up the air shaft, and mysterious combination of geometry and asymmetry I wanted to simply inhabit the space, to stay.
Gaudí, a naturalist, believed that the “line was man’s and the the curve nature’s.” Ignoring the former, Gaudí embraced the parabolic curve, creating instead something that took on the appearance of, or at least I thought, the vertebrae of an animal (in his hallways in particular), the pattern off the back of a turtle’s shell as wall decoration, or the shape of wave’s crest for a facade. A perfectionist in every sense of the word, Gaudí oversaw the placement of every tile and the construction of each chair that would later sit in his dining rooms. The wrought iron fence in the backyard of the Casa Batlló, for instance, appeared to be a simple black iron fence. Upon closer examination, one may notice an alternating pattern of spikes, barbs, and globular fixtures. He combined aesthetics and function to turn a basic fixture common to every backyard into the scaly spine of, I would like to suggest, a kimono dragon.
The building, designed for an upper middle class family at the turn of the 20th century, denies the fact that it is a home. By the time I reached the fourth or fifth floor that led to the roof, I almost forgot that a family conducted daily life here. But Gaudí was a deeply religious man and his piety did not let him forget the importance of creating a space meant solely for reflection and empty of distraction. In a nearly empty room aside from a simple water feature, he accomplishes this. A perfect concentric circle, the simple room’s acoustics draws the visitor’s attention to the center where a globular fountain steadily trickles water. I sat down for a minute here and took it all in. Though the genius of Gaudí cannot be praised enough, here in a small rooftop sanctuary, I forgot Gaudí for the moment (turned off my audio guide, set down my heavy camera, and ignored all my literature on the place). Suddenly, as I am sure he would have wanted, I returned to the beach.