God’s Engineer

As celebrity architects create increasingly fantastical cityscapes, it’s worth remembering why Gaudí remains unmatched.

What is admired as whimsy could be awful as fact—real slithy toves in an actual wabe. The shapes of 21st-century architecture are increasingly whimsical. (Two words—Frank Gehry—suffice to describe the trend.) I’ve been looking at flighty modern buildings in Los Angeles, Shanghai, London, and Dubai. They put me in mind of the Barcelona architect of a hundred years ago, Antoni Gaudí. And they remind me why, although I am entranced by Gaudí’s work, I’ve always been reluctant to go see it. Finally I give in. Maybe an inspection of Gaudí will help me understand the new oddball global cityscapes.

The exemplarily fantastical Casa Batlló, from 1906, is a six-story townhouse on Passeig de Gràcia, which is very much Barcelona’s Park Avenue. The roof is an ocean swell thickly rippled with ceramic tiles that undulate in colors as well as curves. Vertical waves, gentle rollers, shape a facade encrusted with the mosaic technique Gaudí developed, trencadís. Hundreds of thousands of bright bits of china and glass are splayed in clumps and bunches: flotsam and jetsam (or a bad sun rash) as ornament. Interspersed in the trencadís, decorating the decor, is a picnic litter of plates splashed in motley glazes. Columns on the lower floors are modeled on human bones. Each props open a whale-jaw rictus of cast concrete. The upper-floor balconies are sheet metal hammered into pelvic girdles with strips of twisted steel like seaweed fluttering from each hip. The effect should be Casa Davy Jones’s Locker. But Casa Batlló is beautiful. And it fits right into the neighborhood. Only a genius could have pulled this off.

Once in, I want to move in—aspirationally and kinetically. The hall streams. The stairs surge. There are no edges, no corners. Walls glide into ceilings. Rooms flow into rooms. It is a peristalsis house. But light, cheer, air, and comfortable proportions are everyplace. The design is meant fully for people and, what with all the tourists, is full of them. They are in good spirits, as the spirit of the house demands. Every detail is crafted to delight. Even the air shaft is a masterpiece, tiled in shades of azure, deep-tinted at the top and gradually lightening to spread sun evenly to all floors.

Three blocks up Passeig de Gràcia, Casa Milà, completed in 1910, is better yet. The big apartment building has the hard but fluid segmented continuity of an invertebrate, though its limestone shell is really supported on the kind of steel skeleton introduced not long before by Chicago architect William Le Baron Jenney. Casa Milà insinuates itself into its corner lot with a lovely dead-bleached-insect grace. Some 150 windows, all seemingly different, are arranged in sinuous asymmetry. Some are armed at their sills with ferocious railings of wrought iron that, to me, seem abstractions of mandibles, tentacles, stingers, and jellyfish sacs. The roof is separately aggressive, a banked and mounded parapet with dormer windows that could serve as embrasures, and chimneys molded to evoke Catalan knights in armor.

Casa Milà is a carapace, a fortress, but a fortress of domestic pleasantry. The apartments wander through the complexity of the building’s form, so their floor plans look insane. But Gaudí didn’t like blueprints or even renderings. He preferred to work from models. And the apartments are models of open-plan living, lofts in advance of fashion, except with better natural light, greater ventilation, more common sense, and a happier mood. Few lofts today have a sewing room, and none have ceiling plaster whipped like meringue.

All of Gaudí’s works, however outwardly unruly, proceed from internal discipline. His father was a boiler-maker. Gaudí loved geometry. To determine the catenary curves of arches, he would tack a sketch of a foundation plan on the ceiling, hang loops of string, and attach weights along the loops in proportion to down forces. Then he’d take a photograph, turn the print upside-down, and get his elevation view. Gaudí pioneered the parabolic arch, with its perfect distribution of load. The arches beneath Casa Milà’s stone roof are so strong, each is built with a single course of upended bricks.

Gaudí also had a sense of proportion. Every design is sized to the effect intended. Casa Milà, for example, should be scary. But it’s too human in scope and scale. It’s charming instead, like a child’s drawing of something scary—if your child were Degas.

Less than a mile northeast of Casa Milà is La Sagrada Família (Holy Family) basilica, where Gaudí was operating on a scale that’s superhuman. He began work on the church in 1883, when he was 31. From 1914 until his death in 1926, he devoted himself solely to the project, which is still under construction and maybe always will be.

I stare with an exalted crick in my neck at the immensities of the bell towers, swirled spires of lace made from rock. (Eventually there will be 18 of them.) It would shake the faith back into anyone to look at Gaudí’s depiction of all creation melting in love on the Nativity facade. I behold, with strained peripheral vision, the nave and aisles that hold 14,000 worshippers. And these are the least interesting parts of the building.

Gaudí considered the Gothic style imperfect, because buttresses are needed to hold up the soaring magnificence. The house of God should stand on its own. Gaudí found solutions in plant and animal forms, in hyperboloids, paraboloids, and helicoids (respectively, saddle-shaped curves, cones, and spirals). And he made use of fractals, structures that split into smaller replications of themselves, the way broccoli does.

Gone are the buttresses. Gothic gloom is dispelled. The sun shines through the walls from floor to roof, and through the roof as well. Genesis 1:3, “ and there was light.”

If a Gothic cathedral is (as some have said, misapplying their Shakespeare) a sermon in stone, then La Sagrada Família is a sermon in broccoli. And none the less powerful for it.

On inspection, Gaudí’s architecture isn’t whimsical at all. His dedication to something even bigger than the ego of an architect sets him apart from others who have built odd and surprising buildings. Art Nouveau got its inspiration from nature. The Bauhaus got its inspiration from engineering. Critics have said Frank Gehry gets his inspiration from crumpled pieces of paper. Gaudí had inspiration already, and nature showed him God’s engineering.