Barcelona is Antoni Gaudí’s city. Despite the beautiful beaches and fresh seafood, some two million tourists travel to Barcelona each year mainly to bask in the (unfinished) glory of the Sagrada Famillia and listen to guitar players as they stroll though Park Güell.
Though Gaudí’s art has become synonymous with Barcelona, the artist and city didn’t always have this kind of relationship. Gaudí’s benefactors had deep enough pockets to provide his imagination free reign–yet this strange, cantankerous, pious artist often came to heads with city officials struggling to make his far reaching designs conform to practical building regulations. Street lamps in Plaza Real, paling in comparison to the magnificent spires of the Sagrada Familia, are the only project he was ever assigned by the city.
Like many artists before him, Gaudí’s inspiration came from Mother Nature. Diagnosed with rheumatism as a child, the young Gaudí turned to the rich Catalan landscape to escape his illness. His early connection with nature would later inspire his organic forms and amorphous structures. His modernist buildings are heralded as exemplary Art Nouveau yet some of his awkwardly comely creations were regarded as kitsch. Picasso and George Orwell are among those that publicly disliked his work. Orwell famously remarked that the Sagrada Familia was the most hideous building he had ever seen.
Gaudí often changed his mind and his designs yet saved no drafts or personal documentation. His magnum opus remains unfinished due in part to the destruction of the blueprints during the Spanish Civil War. The completion of Sagrada Familia, scheduled for 2026, falls on the 100-year anniversary of the artist’s untimely accidental death. Gaudí was struck by a trolley in 1926 and died three days later. Alas, his own eccentricity helped to do him in; his ragged appearance deterred aid from passerby unable to identify the secluded artist with a penchant for worn-in clothing. Gaudí allegedly gave his shoes to his brother to wear first because he detested new items. After the trolley accident, Gaudí was admitted to a pauper’s hospital. Rather than move to a hospital with better care, this loner chose to stay where he had been taken.
Barcelona is finally beginning to celebrate the divisive man that adorned their city with his unique motifs. Whether his work is appreciated or not, it is difficult to separate one from the other. Without Gaudí, Barcelona could be just another charming Spanish beach town and without the landscape of Barcelona, Gaudí might have been just another street artist on Las Ramblas.