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26 June, 2013
Antoni Gaudi
As painters, we tend to think that we "own" the various historic art movements our craft and the practitioners thereof have fostered over the years. We seldom stop to think that there is Baroque music, or Impressionist poetry, or that Dada also had its manifestation in drama. Surrealism is an interesting example. Did you know there is Surrealist architecture? Really! Did Salvador Dali take to designing skyscrapers? No, although he dabbled a little in fashion design, he left the Surrealist architecture to a fellow Catalan, a man by the name of Antoni Gaudi (pronounced GOW-dy). Never heard of him? Well, if you lived in Barcelona, Spain, you would have. His magnificent cathedral there is practically the logo for the city, even though mostly it consists of the crypt and four giant, bottle-shaped spires making up one transept. The rest of the structure is unfinished, including the nave itself. But the visual image he left behind is so extraordinary it would seem to have come from a Star Wars epic rather than the early twentieth century.

Gaudi was born in 1852. He died in 1926. Some critics would class his life's work more as Art Nouveau than Surrealist, but in truth, if it looks like it was painted by Dali, it must be Surrealist, and that's exactly the case with his greatest masterpiece, the amazing Casa Mila. In describing the structure one has to dispense with traditional architectural terms other than to say it's "approximately" ten stories tall and has doors and windows. It's an apartment building and occupies a street corner on a busy urban thoroughfare in Barcelona. Gaudi hated straight lines. He bowed to them only in his door and window frames. That's about the only place you'll find 90-degree angles too. There's not a rectangular room or vertical wall in the whole structure. Roofs, walls, balconies and window openings are curvilinear, chimneys (of which no two match) are cone shaped that, like the rest of the structure, ripple, flow, and bulge. Ornamentation is rich and, for lack of a better term, "vegetarian." It looks like something out of a science fiction movie built by a race of giant wasps.

Gaudi has even contributed his name to our vernacular--gaudy. It's something of a misnomer though because, while his structures are quite phantasmagorical, his colours are very earthy, nothing at all like the strident, perhaps discomforting hues we might associate with the word. Gaudi's work is a strange anomaly. His inspiration seems to have been nature itself, rather than other architects or architectural styles. Likewise, his work is so unique, he's had few if any followers. And while his building medium of choice would appear to be free-formed concrete or stucco, the fašade of Casa Mila is actually cut stone, the roof, marble tiles, the chimneys constructed of the fragments of that stone left over from construction, concreted together along with tiny pieces of broken glass as they spiral into the sky. Even the floor plan has a sort of random quality to it, centred on one oval and one fan-shaped courtyard providing light to inner rooms. If you should ever visit Barcelona, seek out this 1907 vintage structure, but take note--signs along the street remind pedestrian tourists to beware of passing cars. People have actually been killed gawking at this structure (no doubt by gawking motorists).

Contributed by Lane, Jim
5 August 1999

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