This is the second of a three-part series on the great Modernist architect Antoni Gaudi, published in the November 2019 ISSUE arts magazine. Part 2 focuses on his Parc Güell. Click here for a link to the story. To see a digital version of the pages, click on the image below. For more images, see the photo gallery below the page link.

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A Walk in the Park

Gaudi, Güell combine in harmonious balance of nature, man

The iconic salamander guards the stairs at the entrance of Antoni Gaudi’s Park Güell in Barcelona. ISSUE photo by Andy Coughlan

This is the second­ of a three-part series on the Modernist architect Antoni Gaudi

BARCELONA — Painter Bob Ross told us to embrace the ”happy accidents” in art, although Antoni Gaudi would probably tell us that it is simply divine intervention. One such accident of coincidence happened in 1878, resulting in an ambitious project that would propel Gaudi to fame.

The Esteban Comella glove factory commissioned the architect to represent them at the Paris World Exhibition, where he was to design a display case for their new luxury line of designer gloves. While it seems like a minor project, Gaudi had designed furniture before as he worked to pay his college fees (and he would go on to design furniture to fit the houses he designed).

Typically, he built a three-dimensional model out of clay and plaster. It was decorated with Neogothic floral designs and other nature-related symbols. When the fair opened, Gaudi’s display case drew quite the crowd and he was awarded the silver medal for design.

Antoni Gaudi used locally sourced materials to represent natural caverns on the covered walkways, above, which also supported upper walkways that snake through Park Güell.
ISSUE photo by Andy Coughlan

More importantly, it caught the eye of 32-year-old Eusebi Güell, an entrepreneur and investor from Torredembarra in Catalonia, some 80 miles from Barcelona. The son of a textile mogul, Güell had more than doubled the family business holdings. As well as his father’s business acumen, Güell inherited his mother’s love of the arts, and he was a generous patron.

Güell was in Paris on business and decided to visit the World Fair. He was so impressed with Gaudi’s cabinet that he cut his trip short and went to Barcelona. He tracked the architect down at the Taller Punti, a workshop where Gaudi was a partner with his mentor, Eduald Punti. The workshop looked like a barn that featured a series of workstations. Despite its rustic look, it had a good reputation for producing high quality ironwork, carpentry and art glass. Güell met Gaudi, and the two exchanged contacts, leading to a professional partnership that would last 40 years until Güell’s death in 1918 at age 72.

Gaudi, at only 26, was not yet an established architect, but that would soon change. Under Güell’s guidance, Gaudí was commissioned to design furniture for the Sobrellano Palace. When Güell saw the reaction, he began to pass out Gaudi’s cards to potential employers. 

In 1879, Joan Gibert Cassals commissioned Gaudi to produce a series of shelves and display cases, stools and counter, and a hand-painted sign for his pharmacy in Barcelona. 

In 1882, Gaudi designed and built a network of hunting lodges and wineries on Guell’s estate at La Cuadra, which was dubbed “Bodega Güell.” Charles Rivers Editors’ book “Antoni Gaudi: The Life and Legacy of the Architect of Catalan Modernism,” describes wine cellars as seeming “to have been lifted right out of the magical woods from a Grimm fairytale, with its peculiar brick bridges and arches, heavily slanted walls, and caricatures of steep, painted roofs.” 

The unconventional contours became a Gaudi staple.

“There are no straight lines or sharp corners in nature,” Gaudi said. “Therefore, buildings must have no straight lines or sharp corners. The straight lines belong to men, and the curved ones, to God.”

The lion gargoyles at Park Güell allow for drainage from the terrace.
ISSUE photo by Andy Coughlan

Gaudi accompanied Güell on business trips, and the following year landed the commission for Casa Vicens, which was featured in the first installment of this series. In 1890, Güell conceived of a utopian industrial village for the workers in textile mills in the Barcelonan municipality of Santa Coloma de Cervelló. He engaged multiple architects, and Gaudi, whose reputation for piety was unmatched, was commissioned to design the church. Güell underestimated the costs involved, and by 1914 the project had run out of money. As was the case on many of Gaudi’s projects, he had only finished the crypt.

Colónia Güell, as the village was to be called, is important in the careers of both men as it was the precursor for the project the businessman is most known for, “Parc Güell.” It was to be built on the steep, barren Carmelo Hill (the lush vegetation there now is entirely Gaudi’s doing).

The park was intended to be an affluent living community located on Carmel Hill in Barcelona. Güell got the idea while traveling in England, where he saw the landscaped gardens. It was to be a counterbalance to smoky industrialized areas of the city. While Güell was interested in the ideas of social reform that were being discussed in England at the time, Park Güell was definitely intended to be a suburb.

The entrance to Park Güell incorporates many of Gaudi’s signature features.
ISSUE photo by Andy Coughlan

Gaudi planned a series of gardens that would organically flow together. An underground cistern that can hold 2,600 gallons of water sits under the ground to irrigate the gardens.

Güell planned to sell 60 individual triangular lots for housing, which would be built to the owner’s taste with the architect of their choosing. The house lots were designed to sit on the hill in such a way that that each house had an unobstructed view of the city below. Ultimately, only two houses were built, neither designed by Gaudi. One was intended as a show house, the other, at Güell’s urging, was bought by Gaudi and he lived there with his father and niece from 1906 on. 

Gaudi worked to build a village that was perfectly aligned along organic principles. It was his chance to fully put into practice his philosophy of finding, as in nature, the balance between function and beauty.

Many of Park Güell’s walkways resemble caverns.
ISSUE photo by Andy Coughlan

A long wall snakes and conforms to the landscape, covering 50 acres around the park. The arches and pillars that border the roads and walkways are carved out of rock. They look like they are caves hollowed out of the earth. The roads and paths are designed to merge in with the topography. 

The most interesting aspect of the park is the menagerie of hand-made animals, including Gaudi’s iconic lizard, which has been adopted as a symbol of Barcelona and is found in every souvenir shop in town. The 8-foot-long salamander is built into the staircase at the entrance to the park. Some have theorized that is represents the alchemical salamander — a symbol of fire. Others claim it represents the dragon that is fabled to live at the center of the Earth — Gaudi was known to be a fan of Greek mythology (it is known locally as “el drac” — the dragon). A third theory argues that it is the crocodile featured in the emblem of the French town of Nimes where Güell was born.

The relatively crude representation is encrusted with blue, orange, teal and violet broken ceramic tiles, which is a Gaudi trademark. The tiles also decorate the cottage and the built-in seating on the terrace. The lizard is also a drainage outlet with water running from its mouth.

On the second flight of stairs, a snake head decorated with ceramic tile pieces of various hues of blue protrudes from a ceramic medallion below the Catalan flag. Various and sundry gargoyles and lion heads jut out from columns. Apart from decoration, they serve to facilitate the park’s drainage system.

Climbing the winding paths, one culminates at a terrace at the top of the hill that gives a stunning view of the city below. At 258-feet by 150-feet, it was conceived as not only a meeting place, ­but also as a Greek theater, where the inhabitants could put on plays and hold festivals. Only half the terrace is on solid ground; the rest is supported by columns from a covered area that was intended to be a marketplace. The large hollow columns help drainage from the terrace, and large mosaic circles on the ceiling, depicting the four seasons, aid ventilation. As there is no actual flat surface and everything is on a slight incline, the water moves in different directions, a concept Gaudi pulled from nature.

The serpentine seating on the terrace allows for intimate conversations.
ISSUE photo by Andy Coughlan

The seating on the terrace is ornamented with mosaic, and the seating is shaped to resemble a winding serpent. It has holes to help it drain. The way the seating winds in and out allows for a great number of people, but also allows small groups to gather and have intimate conversations. Gaudi even took into account physiology, taking great pains to make the seating fit the body for maximum comfort. Rainer Zerbst, in “Gaudi: The Complete Buildings,” writes that Gaudi is said to have sat a naked man on plaster that was still pliable and then reproduced the imprint as a form for the seating.

The development was not the financial success Güell hoped it would be, and work stopped on it in 1914. However, Parc Güell is now a tourist attraction and a recreational park. Gaudi’s visionary philosophy is evident at every turn, from the beautiful mosaic work to the marvelous walkways. Güell made it possible for the architect to give us a glimpse of the breadth of his brilliance. The park that bears his name is a testament to the importance of patronage.

Next: Gaudi’s masterpiece — la Sagrada Familia.

Story package by Andy Coughlan, ISSUE editor

Park Güell offers a great view of the city. ISSUE photo by Andy Coughlan

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