The journey of Antoni Gaudí
Classic training – “Either he’s a genius or he’s crazy”the director of the school of architecture of Barcelona is said to have launched aboutAntoni Gaudí (1852-1926), who presented him with his diploma in 1878. In the library of this institution he trained in the innovative ideas ofEugene Viollet-le-Duc (known for his rationalism and his restorations of buildings such as Notre-Dame de Paris or Mont-Saint-Michel), to that of the English writer, poet and painter John Ruskinor even the thought of the architect Owen Jones (known for his writings on decorations, his detailed study of the Alhambra and his travels in Spain, Greece, Turkey and Egypt). In 1878 he met Eusebi Guell, a wealthy industrialist who became his patron and friend. Together they shared the religious faith and passion for Catalonia and launched Gaudí’s great architectural projects: palaces, hotels, parks, churches, temples and even furniture.
The search for style – For Violet-le-Duc, “style is to a work of art what blood is to the human body; it develops it, nourishes it, gives it strength, health, duration. † Gaudí was inspired by Gothic art, mudéjar (Spanish Christian art influenced by Islamic art), Mozarabic (Spanish Christians who speak Arabic), Baroque and European Art Nouveau. It gradually distinguishes itself from the influences of the past by showing a typical Catalan modern and urban style, where transformed nature is omnipresent.
Key works – Gaudí’s fate is linked to the city of Barcelona, where he spent almost all of his life. He built there, among other things, the Güell Palace in 1889, the Casa Mila in 1907, the Park Güell laid out from 1900 to 1914, or even the immense building of the holy familybasilica whose colossal construction began in 1882 and is still unfinished to this day (a prioriit should be by 2026, the centenary of the architect’s death).
Doing something new with Catalonia
Building renovation – The precepts of Viollet-le-Duc influence Gaudí. Restoration is not just a technical job † it is a creation of a material that is already there. “Restoring a building is not maintaining, repairing or redoing it, it is restoring it to a full state that at one point may have never existed” (Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, Reasoned Dictionary of the French Architecture of the XIand in the 16thand century, 1854). Gaudí indeed developed his own technique in contact with the ancients, when he assisted his master, the architect Joan Martorello, for the renovation of the facade of the Barcelona Cathedral. By observing the ancestral techniques of construction (the vault) and decoration (the decorations), he learns to innovate architecture and create new forms (the parabolic arch, previously called chain arch in architecture) while respecting the past. † The application of his knowledge gained in the library enables him to become aware of the nature of the novelty : it is not a negation of the past, but its integration and its sublimation in the present, that is creation. Renovating is not just repairing, it is also making something new out of the old. This is the beginning of Catalan Art Nouveau.
Back to the origin – “Nothing has been invented, because nature has already written everything. Originality always consists of going back to the origin”, says Gaudí. True to his Catalan heritage but also to that of humanity, Gaudí likes to use raw materials such as beaten earth and natural stone. The work of the concrete and the slope of the pillars are reminiscent of the caves and the first human troglodyte habitats, excavated in the rock on the mountainside. The recurring presence of water (as in the fountain in Park Güell) symbolizes the origin of life. He then developed his own style, a kind of modernism that was both prehistoric and historic, creating a meticulously reworked wild nature in the heart of the city.
Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926) (design), partition wall for the “Casa Milà” (1909). Oak, light pink cathedral glass, 196 × 400 × 2.5 cm. Kiki and Pedro Uhart collection. Photo © Christian Crampon/Sophie Crépy – Press Office/Musée d’Orsay
Organic shapes – “Seek the reason for every shape, for every shape has its reason” (Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, preface to architecture talks, 1863). True to the modernism of Viollet-le-Duc, Gaudí architecture works as a sculptural work, so that the surface appears independent of the structure and the form seems to have a purpose. Inspired by minerals and plants, it follows the flexible forms of nature: undulations of ceilings, walls, facades, roofs and balustrades. It is through an ingenious management of the loads (the inclination of the columns) that his works apparently defy the laws of gravity and architectural statics (the crypt of the church of the Colonia Guell) and give the impression of natural movement.
The colors of the Mediterranean – “For an architectural work to be beautiful, all elements must have the right location, dimensions, shapes and colors” (Antoni Gaudi, Words and writings, published in 1981). Gaudí mixes aquatic shapes with the colors of the Mediterranean (sand yellow and navy blue). He prioritizes the spontaneity of the sensitive image, largely inspired by Arab-Andalusian art, over the imagination, which he considers to be more intellectual and Scandinavian: “We own the image. Imagination comes from spirits. Imagination is characteristic of the people of the north. The image is specific to the Mediterranean. †
Architecture like a mountain – Gaudí compares the profession of architect to that which “want to climb the mountain”, both because of the difficulty and the source of inspiration. He probably knows the implicit analogy John Ruskin makes between architecture and mountains: ‘Send the architect to our mountains. Let him learn there what nature means by flying buttress, what she means by a dome. (John Ruskin, The seven lamps of architecture, 1849). This is apparent from his preference for vaults and pillars without buttresses, the height and sturdiness of which recall the majesty of the peaks, and his transformation of an area nicknamed “Mountain Pelée”, on the outskirts of the city, into a park. Guell).
The religious peaks
The vaults of heaven † “All beauty is based on the laws of natural forms” (John Ruskin). In his vaulting, Gaudí was inspired by the height of cliffs, rocks, caves, trees and mountains. We find this trademark both in the furniture (the vestibule of the At home Mila, whose woodwork is reminiscent of the shape of a church organ) and in its architecture (the cosmic symbolism of the Güell Palace, whose central space rises more than fifteen meters like a star vault). The real work of the architect, inspired by religious faith, is that of the man who wants to reach heaven.
The monumental work – The famous basilica of the holy family brings to the top the religious dimension of his work which, through the creation of a transformed nature, pays tribute to the mystery of life. The interior, made of vaults without flying buttresses, recalls the sky, while the exterior recalls the emergence of a crazy nature in the heart of the city, through a forest of pillars and towers in the colors of wood, to create an emotion to call. connected with the source of life itself, with the vegetable origin of the world: “The architecture of a city is to move, not to provide a simple service to the human body” (John Ruskin). Gaudí no doubt had Ruskin’s words in mind as he began construction on the immense cathedral, which he knew would survive his death: “When we build, think we are building forever. † Antoni Gaudí died on June 7, 1926, run over by a tram while entering the construction site of the holy familywhere he had spent the night in his studio, to go to the church of Sant Felip Neri.
The “Gaudí” exhibition will run until July 17 at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Visit the museum’s official website for more information and to find the ticket office online.