Barcelona’s Gaudí: Madman or Genius?

September 15, 2013
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Casa Batlló

About Antoni Gaudí and his works in Barcelona

Barcelona, Spain and architect Antoni Gaudí are intertwined in the minds of many. Seven works of Gaudí, in or near Barcelona, are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites. They are Park Güell, Palau Güell, Casa Milà, Casa Vicens, La Sagrada Familia, Casa Batlló, and the crypt in Colonia Güell.

Born in Reus in 1852, Gaudí received a traditional religious and humanistic education, excelling in geometry and arithmetic. In 1878, when he graduated from the Barcelona School of Architecture, the Dean said, “I am not sure to whom I presented a diploma today, to a madman or to a genius.” Seeing a few pictures of his work before my visit to Barcelona, I leaned toward the madman categorization. After visiting Barcelona, seeing some of his work, and learning more about his structures, I am inclined to say genius. Quite possibly, he was a little of both.

Gaudí’s first public works are two helmeted lampposts in the Plaça Reial square.

Gaudi lamppost

Gaudí began work in Barcelona at a time of prosperity for the city, at the beginning of a cultural avant-garde movement that saw artistic and technological innovations. Barcelona had a large and growing number of wealthy upper class people. The city, contained within medieval walls until 1854, was overcrowded. In 1869, a plan to expand the city began. The Eixample (the Enlargement) district was designed in the area beyond the old city walls, between Barcelona and Gracia. It became the most sought-after real estate in Barcelona. The new bourgeoisie built lavish buildings, many in the Modernisme style.

Palau Guell

Palau Guell cones

Palau Guell cones

Wealthy industrialist Eusebi Güell  was Gaudí’s main patron. In 1885, when Gaudí was still unknown, Güell commissioned him to design his private residence. With innovative use of traditional building methods and a wide variety of materials, Gaudí created a bold and unique building. Twenty sculptural chimneys, covered in broken pieces of ceramic tile, marble, and stained glass, have become its iconic symbols. 

Casa Batllo

Between 1904 and 1906, Gaudí renovated a building for Josep Batlló. The house had been built in 1877. Gaudí replaced the original facade with a new one of stone and glass, redesigned the exterior walls in a wavy shape, plastered them with lime mortar and covered them with mosaics of coloured glass and ceramic discs. The interior of the house was also completely renovated. Today, Casa Batlló operates as a museum. You can tour the interior and see the architectural details.


Casa Milà, known as La Pedrera because of its rough outer appearance, was constructed between 1906 and 1912. It was built as two apartment blocks with independent entrances linked by two large inner courtyards and a common facade. Today, tours of the interior include a visit to the unusual rooftop, the attic where information on Gaudí is displayed, the exhibition room, and one of the apartments, decorated as it would have been when the building was first occupied.

 Casa Mila courtyard

Casa Mila rooftop


There are 6 skylights/staircase exits on Casa Mila’s rooftop. Four are covered with broken pottery. The staircases also house water tanks. The 28 chimneys are twisted to more efficiently release smoke.

 Casa Mila attic

Casa Mila’s rooftop dizzying shape is the result of Gaudí’s use of the catenary arch. Gaudí’s techniques for optimizing weight-bearing in his structures were simple and clever. Using ropes to create inverted arches, he experimented with varying weight levels and adjusted calculations for larger proportions. Modern computer simulations have validated his calculations. Gaudí also had a strong connection to nature. He observed and borrowed many constructs. He said, “Everything comes from the great book of nature.”

Gaudi inverted arch display

Park Güell

As a student, Gaudí lived in residences in the Gothic Quarter. When he started his career, he lived in several rented flats in the Eixamplearea. In 1906, he bought the show house in Park Güell, the real estate development he was designing.

Gaudí lived in Park Güell until 1925, when he moved into his workshop at La Sagrada Familia. Gaudí’s house in Park Güell is now a museum, containing pieces of furniture he designed. He used rounded forms to conform to the human body.

Gaudi bench

The format of this two-seater bench was designed so occupants’ backs would be turned slightly toward each other, encouraging prayer and reflection.

Gaudi prayer area

What the prayer area in Gaudi’s bedroom may have looked like

Gaudí was a religious man. Religious symbolism appears in many of his works. In 1883, he began work on La Sagrada Familia. From 1914 on, he concentrated exclusively on that project. Construction of the church continues today. For more information, see my blog entry La Sagrada Familia.

La Sagrada Familia

There are two of the Gaudí Unesco World Heritage sites I didn’t visit when I was in Barcelona this summer. Casa Vicens, a residence built between 1883 and 1889, is his first important work. Colonia Güell was to be a place of worship in a manufacturing suburb. Güell ran out of funds to complete the church and only the crypt was finished.

The younger Gaudí dressed splendidly. In older years, he cared less about appearances and wore old, worn-out suits. In 1926, on his daily walk to Sant Felip Neri church for prayer and confession, he was run over by a trolley. Carrying no identity papers and being shabbily dressed, he was assumed to be a beggar and did not receive immediate aid. Later, a policeman transported him to a charity hospital, where he received rudimentary care. He died three days later.

La Sagrada Familia
Which Gaudí works do you find most intriguing?

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    Barcelona Architecture | Destinations Detours and Dreams
    April 2, 2015 at 12:37 pm

    […] Antoni Gaudí is the architect most frequently associated with Barcelona. He went beyond the bounds of modernism. His works are dominated by organic forms. His techniques for optimizing structures were revolutionary and ingenious. See my post Barcelona’s Gaudí: Madman or Genius? […]

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