Antonio Gaudi’s Willful Genius
“I have got rid of my existing shortcomings but, however, I could not improve my nasty character”.
There are people who are very eager to become architects. There are some, who manage to become architects. However, there are, but very few ones that are born to be architects. Antonio Gaudi is one of them, though in his youth he rather belittled his abilities. At the ceremony in the School of Architects, when receiving his diploma, he sarcastically remarked, “Lorenzo, do you hear, I have been told that I am already an architect…”
We are well acquainted with the creative work of the genius and know well each of his constructions. Only what do we know about his personality? Not about Gaudi the genius architect but about Gaudi – the human being? We know that he was fair-haired, blue-eyed, had a beard. In his youth, he tried to look like a dandy and collaborated with noble people. However, as his enemies asserted, he looked like more a handicraftsman dressed in his best Sunday suit than a man from a high society did. He had a reputation for atheism and was on friendly terms with socialists. The friends of his youth remember him as a jolly man who liked jokes. At a mature age, he became reserved and even sullen. Being a reverent believer, he spent the most part of his life on constructing the Holy Family Cathedral (Sagrada Familia). Gaudi wore an invariable black suit threadworm to such a state that when a tram knocked him down, all took him for a homeless tramp and sent him to a hospital for the poor. He was an implacable nationalist. “He is the most violent Catalonian out of all the Catalonians,” – one of his close friends said about him. Well, perhaps, this is all…
He was not disposed to write about himself. His friends and colleagues have told most of the information that we know of him. It was they, who have brought the stories about the life of the master to us. His friends recollected that the great architect did not like to use the pronoun “I” and therefore wherever it was possible he used the pronoun “we”. Moreover, he never liked to pose before cameras therefore his photographs are a great rarity. When the next in turn celebrity accompanied by newspapermen came to have a look at the construction process of the Cathedral, Antonio Gaudi took his hat off in a salutary gesture trying to hide his face with it.
It is hard to define in one word the character of the artist. His modesty in an amazing way was combined with eccentricity causing difficulties in his relations between him and the clients.
Guell’s Palace and the Country House
Antonio Gaudi’s friendship with Eusebi Guell went down in history. The Maecenas approved of all the extravagant ideas of the architect. The attitude of Senora Lopez, Guell’s wife to this was opposite to her husband’s. She could not imagine her life in a house under the heavenly dome. Exactly by such a dome, symbolizing space, the master had crowned the salon of the house built for the family in the center of Barcelona. Later the building was named Guell Palace. The family could stand their life in such “extravagant” conditions only for several years. However, the Theatre Museum, which was housed in it after a century got something good in return.
When constructing Guell’s country house, Gaudi did his best pretty well. Being very fond of dragons, he placed the figure of this monster made of forged iron over the main entrance. The frighteningly opened jaws of the reptile hardly corresponded to the hospitable and affable friendly image of the living quarters as the owner expected it. Most probably, it brought horror on all who entered the manor.
The Vicens House in Barcelona
Gaudi, as a rule, ignored the client’s opinion taking into account only his own one. Well, for example, Senor Manuel Vicens an owner of a pottery, a pureblooded Catalonian, commissioned from Gaudi the construction of a house in the neighbourhood of Barcelona. It is not known what the architect took into consideration when putting into shape the central entrance of the house in an “outlandish” manner. In the words of one of his contemporaries, such unusual entrance “gates” would have been more appropriate for a palace of some Oriental Sultan. Here, naturally, arises the following question: “Why did the clients stand the willful character of the architect and permitted him to take liberty to demonstrate his wild behaviour?
The answer can be found in the historic situation that had taken shape in the late 19th century. The technological progress expected from those who constructed buildings the presence of high-level of education, therefore in Barcelona in 1971 was opened a School of Architecture. The young architects tried, by all means, to distinguish themselves from artisans and their dream was to belong to the clan of the elite. The moment turned out to be appropriate. “The new rich”, which had scraped up their fortune in the “Americas” (or, as they said, in “Indias”), and the bourgeoisie, raising its head with confidence, was eager to prove its vital triumph. The easiest way to satisfy this human weakness was to build a house that would be absolutely unlike the neighbouring one. The clients started searching for architects with an original vision, which frequently did not necessarily suppose the presence of good taste. In such conditions, Gaudi found himself, as people say, “in a proper time and a proper place”. His imagination ran over the edge and his self-confidence sometimes reached eccentricity.
The Episcopal Palace in Astorga
Gaudi left his personal brand even on religious buildings. When Monsignor Juan Grau by birth from Reus (that is nearby the architect’s native place) was appointed Bishop in Astorga (Castilla), he suggested that his fellow-townsman should build the Bishop Palace. After the Bishop’s sudden death, the vicar and the canon tried, as quickly as they could, to do everything possible to curtail “the creation of the Catalan’s”. The construction of the building was completed many years later. In spite of it, the architect achieved his aim: if you look from afar, you will notice that the Bishop’s Palace resembles a medieval castle very much that was not assumed by either the Bishop, or, least of all, by the rest of the priests from Astorga.
The Bellesguard Tower
Gaudi’s contemporaries noted rather often that his casually made remarks sometimes resulted in unexpected consequences. The following thing, for example, happened to the Bellesguard Tower.
In 1900, the Figueras widow bought a medieval castle (better to say, what had survived from it) - the so-called “The Palace of Martin the Humane”. The history of the castle was a legendary one: in the opening years of the 15th century, a magnificent royal wedding ceremony had taken place in it. King Martin the Humane (the last Catalan count-king) married Margaret de Prades. The new owner of the “palace” – the Figueras widow – ordered Gaudi to revive the castle from ruins. Probably she meant nothing particular; she only needed comfortable living quarters. The architect was a great worshiper of the history of his native country and wishing to re-create the glorious past of the unit constructed something alike a medieval castle with a tower (a castle is not a castle without a tower!). All would have been passable, but the tower… In the owner’s opinion, it turned out to be extremely tall. Moreover, towers were out of fashion, besides it could be struck by a lightning! A lightning rod was needed! Having heard about that request, Gaudi only laughed because he had never heard of cases when a lightning had struck anything in that district. “It is dangerous to tempt God’s foreknowledge!” However, the frightened owner continued to insist and a lightening rod was set. Well, can you imagine, just after a few days, an unprecedented storm burst out in that very district and the lightning exactly struck the tower.
The Batllo House in Barcelona
In Paseo de Gracia in Barcelona the industrialist, Josep Batllo, had a tenement house and Gaudi was entrusted with the reconstruction work. If his idea was to create something unique, than he managed to hit the nail home… At first glance, the house reminds of an abode of elves. Trying to find an adequate explanation to the unusual exterior of the building, the Barcelonans nicknamed it “a house from bones” because the columns and the other architectural elements of the façade reminded them of tibiae and fibulas, vertebrae, clavicles and skulls. All put together produced rather a strange picture. Nevertheless, Batllo paid for each expensive invention of the architect, but the latter totally ignored all the practical remarks and wishes, which from time to time came from the owner of the house.
Josep Batllo was not as strong-willed person as his wife, who was from the Godo family, and the latter were not ones to be trifled with. During the reconstruction process, the mistress of the house visited the construction cite rather often, and her disappointment grew stronger and stronger. In particular, she understood that the oval forms of the interior premises would not permit to bring in the piano of her daughter into the musical salon. Several times, rather tactfully, she expressed her doubts to the architect, but Gaudi simply ignored them. At last, the construction work was completed, and it really turned out that the piano could not go in because the room was small for the instrument. Having forgotten about her good manners, the mistress sharply expressed all she thought about the self-willed architect. In response to the angry tirade, Gaudi announced with coolness, “Madam, if the piano does not go in, buy a violin for your daughter!”
Gaudi was going to realize one more of his ideas in this construction. The architect had designed chairs of different shapes for the mistress’s salon (he often designed furniture for the houses he built). The chairs for men were to be ordinary in form, for women he intended to make other ones, in his opinion, more comfortable. (You know that women’s skirts in those times were rather cumbrous. However, Senora Godo having learned about the architect’s plans, literally, flew up from the burst of her indignation. Her negative answer was instantaneous and categorical. There is a limit to everything; she would not allow anyone command in her salon. As a result, all the chairs had an ordinary traditional form.
Love in Mataro
If the men-customers, as a rule, enthusiastically accepted the architect’s ideas, but with their wives Gaudi evidently could not find a common language. He could not club together his relations with the opposite sex in his private life either.
Gaudi’s collaboration with the first in Spain working-class cooperative began when he was just 22 years old and he had not received his diploma of an architect yet. There in Mataro, he met a girl to whom his love was very passionate. It was Josefa Moreu, or simply Pepeta (as she was called in her family), - a mistress in a kindergarten and a teacher of French working in the same cooperative. Josefa was several years younger than Antonio was. She, having delicate features and golden hair, distinguished from the rest not only by her beautiful appearance but also by her delicate manners that surprisingly combined with her free way of thinking, daring ideas and desperate actions. Pepeta often appeared on the beach and that was considered in those days an absolute shamelessness, though of her bathing suit reached her knees, which demonstrated the height of her chastity.
She could play the piano, sing and was interested in politics. Through he brother, she collaborated with socialist, anarchists and masons. Such a girl could not but attract Gaudi’s attention. Though being in love with her for a long time, he did not dare tell her about his feelings. When at last he dared to do it, Josefa had already been engaged to another man. It is difficult to say what sort of relations a man with Gaudi’s character could have with the girl, which at that moment had already had a serious life experience. According to her brother’s recollections, in her early youth Pepeta had a passionate love affair. Being decisive and independent by nature, she, neglecting decency, escaped from home with her lover. Joan Palau turned out to be a drunkard and a gambler, frequently beat his young fiancé until the moment when he left her penniless in one of the North African ports where he was engaged in some trading. For three month, Pepeta did everything to survive living among sailors, criminals, prostitutes and smugglers, earned her living as a piano-player in one of the port pubs. Having overcome her shame, she at last appealed to her father for help and, thanks to it; she was able to return to her home country.
Antonio since the time when he began earning good money wore well-tailored suits, smoked cigars. He was a fine figure of a man: strong, of medium height, with a Roman profile (one may see such a profile in the Catalan museums). Only the delicate town manners to court women and mix with society: to take one’s seat, to fold up a table-napkin or a handkerchief – these were things not inherent in the grandson of a peasant. If even in the company of men he was always shy and not communicative, then what could be said about his behaviour in the company of women…
Gaudi perfectly coped with clay, stone, glass, wood and iron, but he was absolutely at a loss when he was to hold correctly a fork and a knife in his hands. His poor mother a devoted worshiper of the Blessed Virgin Mary had brought up her children in artless peasant manners, teaching them to pray correctly and to nothing else.
“Though my sister Pepeta admired Gaudi’s genius, but as a man the latter had never attracted her attention. In everyday life he cared little about his appearance, - wrote the girl’s brother in his reminiscences.
If it were any other man, not as reserved as Antonio Gaudi was, the result would have been quite predictable. Josefa Moreu rejected his proposal. How did the further life of this unusual woman turn out? Her second marriage was not happy either. Again being alone she opened in Barcelona a boutique trading in women’s hats, which quickly became popular. Her third marriage was crowned with success: the man adopted her four children from the previous marriages and turned out a well-bread person with a good sense of humour.
What about Gaudi? As fate had willed it; he, rather often, had to meet the object of his unrequited love, because they lived in the same street in Barcelona. When the architect moved to Guell Park, Josefa frequently visited the family of Doctor Trias who lived in the neighbouring park premises. Evidently, Gaudi could not forget the pain inflicted by his young days’ sufferings. His friends told whenever he came to know about her visit, he tried not to approach the house of his neighbours.
The La Pedrera House in Barcelona
In a three-minute walk from the Batllo House, there lived Pere Mila, another industrialist, in a small ordinary house surrounded by a garden. The house had been built on the site of the Chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary Roser that once had stood there. Senor Mila was also very eager to build something unusual. Perhaps he would have never applied to Gaudi if it were not because of his wife Roser Segimon: a beautiful woman who was born in the same locality as the architect. It was she who wished to entrust the construction work to her fellow townsman, though later she regretted many times that she had done it. Though the Milas: husband and wife were extravagant by nature, but sometimes even for them it was hard to understand Gaudi’s revolutionary ideas. Well, Senora Segimon and her husband Senor Mila commissioned from Gaudi a project of a big apartment house. The new house began to rise forming steep curved shapes more reminding of something produced by a volcano eruption among mountains than of something created by human hands. Well, the house was built… It was rumoured that people nicknamed it “La Pedrera” (“quarry”, or simply “horrible stone”).
Gaudi supposed that he would crown the building with a tremendous statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, only the Mila’s categorically objected to this idea. However, the architect persisted on doing it: “Isn’t it so, - said he, - that earlier in this place stood the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary? Therefore Virgin Mary should have her place in this house and the place should be observed from everywhere.” As far as the owners were unambiguously against his idea, Gaudi, though unwillingly, but had to obey and the statue was not erected.
I would like to make a slight digression. Quite recently, the members of the society “The Friends of Gaudi” in Barcelona began a campaign to restore this idea to life. They even offered a model of a statue to a public judgment. “If the construction of the Cathedral Sagrada Familia (the Holy Family has been continued even after Gaudi’s death, - they say, - then why, at last, not to complete this project following the architect’s idea? According to Gaudi, this very statue attaches importance to the building.” The nowadays owner of the house – the bank la Caix did not approve of this idea. but who knows, perhaps, the bankers at last would yield to the assertiveness of “The Friends of Gaudi” and in some years the tourists during their next visit to Barcelona will see the La Pedrera House crowned by the grand (4,5 m.) statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary with a baby in her arms? The Japanese sculptor Etsuro Sotoo is the author of the model of the statue. Several years ago, he visited Barcelona and his heart was won by Antonio Gaudi’s work. Having offered his help in the construction of the Cathedral Sagrada Familia, he modeled several sculptured groups for the Passion façade.
He was not the only worshiper of the Catalan architect. The architecture of the genius turned out to be dear to the inhabitants of the Rising Sun Country. To another worshiper of Gaudi – a Japanese architect Toyo Ito, the Barcelona authorities allowed to reconstruct the façade of the hotel located almost opposite the La Pedrera House. At the inauguration, the architect said that he had no slightest idea to compete with the genius master. The façade created by the Japanese architect, according to his words, expressed dynamism and the flowing of sea waves and has something in common with the appearance of the La Pedrera House. The inhabitants of Barcelona and its guests may judge for themselves whether he was a success or not in the realization of his idea.
However, let us return to Gaudi’s relations with his clients – the Mila family. The architect decorated the roof of the building with unusually shaped flues, which resemble knights wearing ancient helmets than ordinary chimneys. One of them on Gaudi’s order was riveted with shiver of green bottle-glass; he wanted to decorate the other ones in the same way, but the mistress stepped in because she did not like this sort of cheap decoration material, which in her opinion did not correspond to the social status of the family. Until now, this flue is standing in proud solitude, playing in the sun with the bottle shiver.
The last of the disagreements between the architect and the owners of the house took place when Gaudi produced the account for overtime work. The Milas refused point-blank to pay the total sum. They thought it was too priced out. Gaudi applied to court and the decision was made in his favour. The owners had to hypothecate the newly built house in order to pay the architect. Gaudi was rejoiced very much at his victory and donated the money to one of the nunneries.
He had problems nor only with his clients but with the city authorities, too. Not wishing to go back a step from his project, Gaudi, when building the Mila House, occupied by one of the columns a part of the pavement in Paceo de Gracia in Barcelona. A member of the City Council carrying out an inspection noticed that violation. He immediately notified the person responsible for the construction work demanding that the column should be immediately moved away from the pavement. Having heard the news the indignant architect blurted out, “All right, I will cut off a part of the column but on the cut I will write when it had been done and on whose order”. After it, the inspector did not return to that problem any more.
When the building rose in all its beauty, the officials of the City Council saw that its dimensions exceeded the accepted standards by 3 000 cubic meters. They issued an urgent order: the garret of the house should be taken down, otherwise Senor Mila would be fined to 100 000 pesetas.
When the passions abated, the Barcelona authorities thought everything over again and put forward an unprecedented magnanimous decision: as far as the Mila House is “a work of artistic value” then usual standards cannot be applied to it. It is good fame and a credit to the Barcelona officials for their foresight!
In those times, not all possessed an ability to apprehend such innovations. For instance, as one story goes, when the French Minister Georges Clemenceau during his brief stay in Barcelona saw La Pedrera, he declared that he would never pay another visit to the city where authorities allow building such monstrous constructions. Gaudi himself was very pleased with the outcome of the affair. He even asked to make for him a copy of the document.
In spite of the high charges for his work, Antonio was tired to serve the bourgeoisie. All the thoughts of the master were dominated by the project of the Cathedral “The Holy Family”. From year to year noticeably faded his interest to everything mundane. One of the journalists of those days wrote: “Gaudi – the elegant Senor from the high echelon, who at the beginning of the construction work of the Cathedral, gave orders sitting in his automobile, little by little became pious and began to lead an ascetic, almost monastic, life.”
There were rumors among his contemporaries that God was the only Being with whom Gaudi was on perfectly good terms.
Autor: Nina Kuznetcova
Translator: Nicholay Zapyatkin