Many of the structures built for the Universal Exhibition were conceived as temporary, and the fact that they did not have to last created a climate of wild experimentation. This, in turn, stimulated Gaudí and his contemporaries to build a succession of permanent buildings with an equally exuberant spirit of creativity.
Another important group of elements in the current exhibition are drawings by the influential architect and theorist Violet-le-Duc. Most likely, Gaudí heard about the design delirium of the major European Universal Exhibitions through newspapers and word-of-mouth, but he actually traveled to France to see examples of Violet-le-Duc's work.
In marked contrast to the British Gothic revivalists, Violet-le-Duc took a rigorous, rationalist approach. His drawings often look like a cross between Westminster Abbey and the Eiffel Tower. He was fascinated by the technical aspects of Gothic, particularly the interplay between thrust and counter-thrust, and he felt that modern materials (iron) and forms could take the place of the flying buttress.
Gaudí's own interest in articulating the forces involved in supporting a structure can be seen in his unfinished work, Church of the Güell Estate. The columns, set at a dramatic angle, seem to strain against the immense weight of the vaulted ceiling.
How Gaudí Worked
The next section of the show, "The Studio," offers valuable insight into the way Gaudí worked on the Sagrada Familia during the last 14 years of his life. But the exhibit creates confusion by skipping over much of the architect's civic work. This section is designed to demonstrate that Gaudí worked less as an architect and more as a sculptor, employing plaster casts of models, skeletons, and photographs to elaborate his artistic vision.
Particularly remarkable is a copy of the Gaseta de les Arts from 1926 that contains photos of Gaudí's studio in the Sagrada Familia. It looks like the Tomb of Tutankamon, a cave-like space packed with plaster molds and sculptures in various stages of completion.
In reality, there is no solid evidence that Gaudí stopped drawing at any stage of his career and turned his attention exclusively to plaster. What we do know is that the architect had more than one studio during his lifetime, and that when he moved into the Sagrada Familia in 1925, he carried with him documents from previous projects. All this material, including over 500 drawings, was destroyed in a tragic fire during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s.
By not explaining the fire and the consequent challenges associated with understanding Gaudí's creative process, "Universo Gaudí" ignores 36 years of the architect's career. While the first section of the show marks a spirit of eclecticism true to both Gaudí and his times, "The Studio" seems to send the message that Gaudí begins and ends with Sagrada Familia.
This organization of exhibit material sets up a false hierarchy within Gaudí's work, which, instead of helping us reach a more balanced vision of his contribution, distorts it significantly. Although most of Gaudí's drawings have been lost, he left behind many fine buildings that illustrate his sources of inspiration and professional priorities.
How Gaudí Influenced
The final section of the show, "The Legacy," focuses on Gaudí's influence on posterity. The visitor is treated to drawings by Le Corbusier, paintings by Salvador Dali, photos by Man Ray, and watercolors by German expressionist architects. But because "The Studio" is incomplete in describing Gaudí's work, the third part of the show is less convincing in illustrating the connection between Gaudí and the artists that drew inspiration from him.
The essential element missing from "Universo Gaudí" is the architect's focus on observation of nature and abstraction of organic forms. In my view, nature is at the very center of his universe, and everything else is secondary. In his work we can see the delicate segmentation of leaves in vaulted ceilings, chimneys reminiscent of tree groves, and even columns that resemble DNA structures.
What Gaudí achieved is much richer and more complex than imitating or copying nature through photography or casting techniques. His analytical process distills the structural beauty of nature, which endowed his work with a timeless quality.
Rachel Grossman writes about travel, fine arts, architecture, and interior design from Madrid, Spain. She holds an undergraduate degree from Harvard in Russian Literature and a graduate degree from the Courtauld Institute in Modern Art History.
Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...
A screen by Navarro Baldewegg introducing "The Studio" portion of the exhibit "Universo Gaudí."
Photo: Rachel Grossman
The unbuilt Church of the Güell Colony, circa 1898-1915, shows Antonio Gaudí's interest in architecture expressing structural forces.
Image: Colección Particular, Barcelona
Interior of Church of the Güell Colony by Antonio Gaudí.
Image: Colección Particular, Barcelona
Wall and Hanging Iron, from "Entretiens sur L´Architecture," 1865.
Photograph of Gaudí´s studio, published in the Gaseta de les Arts, Barcelona, 1926.
Photo: Gaseta de les Arts, Barcelona, 1926
La Celle Saint-Cloud, by Le Corbusier, one of the architects influenced by Gaudí.
Image: Le Corbusier
Book of Printed Velveteens, published by Morris and Company, circa 1890, a component of Gaudí's cultural environment.
Image: Morris and Company, Book of Printed Velveteens, circa 1890
In the Tower at Bellesguard, the ribbed ceiling demonstrates Gaudí's interest in seeking inspiration from details in nature.
Photo: © Pere Vivas and Ricard Pla, Triangle Postals
Click on thumbnail images
to view full-size pictures.