Architectural Myths #2: The Artist

Q. What links Love, Architecture and Religion?

A. The answer could only be Antoni Gaudí (1852 – 1926), couldn’t it? Here’s a pic of him looking dapper, before he stopped caring about this-worldy things like appearance.

Gaudí’s always been a bit of a strange one. In a 20th century history lecture or book, he usually gets a mention as eccentric, artist, nobody-else-quite-like-him and then the conversation moves on to someone easier to comment on. FACT: Nobody loved his buildings or philosophy enough to imitate them. Josep Maria Jujol is sometimes called a student, but he may have just been a collaborator on a number of projects – especially this one, Casa Batlo.

His contribution however, remains unclear, perhaps because the story of Gaudí as the exceptional, individual, solitary, unique, genius, artist-architect person is the accepted one. As we know, Gaudí built a few tourist attractions for Barcelona, and one rather big cathedral that’s almost finished. He has a reputation as an artist. He captures the popular imagination. People say things like “Now that Gaudí – he was a real architect!

One thing we know is that Gaudí was very fortunate to meet a rich patron, Eusebi Guell rather early in his career. As a result, Gaudí became rather famous and popular designing fancy houses for Barcelona industrialists and was a leader in the Catalan version of Arts & Crafts. He seemed to have had a very nice life until it all started to go a bit pants when he was about 42.

According to Austen Ivereigh, writing in The Guardian, “[Gaudí] was knocked off course by being rejected by a woman he loved, and began to explore – in a very modern, considered way, in full knowledge of the alternatives – the beliefs in which he had until then shown little interest.”

According to Wikipedia, Gaudí devoted his life entirely to his profession, remaining single. He is only known to have been attracted to one woman — Josefa Moreu, teacher at the Mataró Cooperative, in 1884 — but this was not reciprocated, apparently.  Thereafter Gaudí took refuge in the profound spiritual peace religion offered him. So goes the story…

Well then! Let’s fire up the internet and let’s see what we can find out about this Josefa Moreu minx! Here we go!

At twenty two and still without his diploma in Architecture, Gaudi worked at a Mataronesa Labor Cooperative, the first cooperative factory in Spain.  Here he met Pepeta (Josefa) Moreu, a kindergarten teacher and a French professor at the Cooperative.  He had always been in love with Pepeta for a time but never declared himself, and by the time he did decide to do so, she was then engaged to Josep Caballol.

It is to be mentioned that Pepeta had previously been married to a military officer named Joan Palau, a constant traveler who traded merchandize from Northern Africa, Ceuta, Melila, Tanger, Oran.  Sadly though, he was a gambler and a drunk and constantly beat his young wife.  All her dreams and hopes of him changing had become hopeless as he eventually lost his job, got into debt and ruin, abandoning his poor Pepeta almost due with child.  She then had to struggle to survive in the streets through smuggling, theft, and  prostitution.  It was during these moments of desperation that she then sought out her family and begged for help and with some money given to her she returned to her native Mataró. 

Being neighbors in the same street Diputación, Gaudi had always known and followed Pepeta´s  life closely.  He was however a timid and shy man and kept his distance.  Pepeta, a young mother not yet twenty two then decided to open a shop in  central Barcelona specializing in elegant hats, a fashion that was all a rave at the time.  

Great stuff – this is why we love the internet! Josefa/Pepeta is elsewhere described as a “freethinker” which, I imagine she would have had to have been, as an abandoned mother/divorcee in turn-of-the-century Spain. I somehow get the impression she could look after herself. I’m a bit surprised she had any time to learn French, let alone become a French professor if she’d been a wife, mother, smuggler, thief, prostitute and fashionable hat shop owner all before she was 22!

Gaudí then spent the next 30 years getting rid of his money, spending more and more time praying, giving up meat and alcohol, improving life for the poor in his neighbourhood, and getting on with his new job, the Sagrada Família, convinced that God had called him to this great task. He died, after being run over by a tram aged 72, a beloved pauper, lauded as genius and admired as a saint. [Ivereigh]

As Gijs van Hensbergen’s fine biography of Gaudí records, his ascetic existence included breakfasts of burned toast, and lunches of lettuce leaves dipped in milk [!]. His old suits would be tinged with green mould, he wore shoes made of courgette roots and after his collision with the tram he was found to be wearing underpants held together by safety pins. He believed that Catalonia had been chosen by God to take forward Christian architecture. [Moore]

To me, something about the “If-Josefa-doesn’t-love-me-then-God-does” thing just doesn’t add up. Waiting 20 years to propose to someone and then getting all upset when they refuse is not the behaviour of a rational, mature person. It seems he had some personal demons.

I mention this because what happened after – Gaudí’s spirituality, his love for God, etc. is never questioned. I’m not doubting its reality or strength but, like his supposed feelings for Josefa, we can’t automatically assume it was either healthy or sane. And we shouldn’t assume that either had anything to do with Sagrada Familia being the way it is. When we are dealing with the artist myth, every biographical detail is scrutinised for meaning. (Amazon sells a big book of Le Corbusier’s letters to his mother, but I’m not sure what any of that has to do with his buildings. Is it a case of, as the French say, “to understand is to forgive”?)

At first, the Catholic church hated the Sagrada Familia, not on aesthetic grounds, but because they thought Gaudí was going a bit too far in showing everybody how religious he was. Now that The Church desperately needs a few more people like that, Pope Benedict was in Barcelona in November last year, consecrating the cathedral and finally claiming Barcelona’s tourist attraction as its own.

PB is on record as saying that “The Basilica’s modernity [?!], lies in the way Gaudí internalises what is usually left outside – plants, animals, nature – while putting on its outside what is normally confined within church walls: altarpieces and sculptures narrating the Christian salvation story.”

At last, something I can openly and blatantly disagree with! It’s quite common in fact for churches to have bits and pieces of the “Christian salvation story” (or its grisly opposite) on the outside. Here’s a typically cute depiction of Hell on the front of Lincoln Cathedral. 

And as for plants, animals and nature being internalized rather than “usually left on the outside” well … umm … it doesn’t take much imagination to see a column as a tree trunk, especially if light is coming, more or less, as it does, from the direction of up. When did it become modern to have planty bits inside buildings? And churchy stuff on the outside? Perhaps he means something along the lines of “blurring the distinction between inside and outside”. This would make Gaudí and Mies architectural bedfellows? As Facebook suggests, “It’s complicated.”

I believe in keeping things simple. Here’s what I believe.

  • Buildings are artificial things. They do not grow magically from the ground. They can only be brought into being with the input of huge amounts of money and labour. 
  • Since buildings are artificial things, it is wrong to expect a building to look like a natural thing. Natural-looking buildings are dishonest. Natural looking buildings are fake. People who can’t accept the world as it is, like to believe that buildings should imitate Nature. Gaudí, I’m looking at you!
  • Since buildings are artificial things, you have to waste a lot of money if you want to make buildings look like something they’re not. (In passing, I must mention that people do tend to waste a lot of money trying to achieve the effect of something that’s logically impossible. It’s not in the nature of buildings to be transparent or weightless either, but trying to make them appear so occupied much of 20th century architectural endeavour.)  

Gaudí was not a cheap architect. Fortunately, the cost of the SF has been completely paid for by donations (€12.5 entry). Check out the church’s website and book your pilgrimage here. Me, I’ll pass. I confess to being a Gaudí agnostic. Gaudí did what we’ve come to know as Artist Genius Architecture. Maybe that brand of Architecture is like those other big unknowable concepts of Love and Religion, in that you have to believe in it first before it’s possible to see what’s so great about it. That’s just me being gracious. I just don’t get why one would want to make buildings like that. Call me a misfit, etc.

2 thoughts on “Architectural Myths #2: The Artist

  1. Gillyinnes

    No matter what an ‘artist’ or ‘misfit’ creates its come from the imagination and then made into tangiable reality in the form of paintings, sculptures, buildings etc ….. its the imagination made real ..quite how far this is successful is entirely personal opinion as are most if not all things in life. for this alone there is nothing ‘different’ or ‘misfitting’ in gaudi’s work no matter how expensive it is – I have known idiots spend 500,000 on a car for its curves and speed … they obviously thought it was worth it! Just like Gaudi and his freinds and sponsers thought Gaudi’s work was worth what it cost – this is no more or less silly then anything else that people choose to value and pay stupid amounts of money for. As for trying to make ‘nature’ into a building and thus calling the building ‘dishonest’ is just linguisitc poppycock …. for one – a building cant have the human attribute of being dishonest – it was just built and exists. Is it any less ‘honest’ than a pillar or a train station ..of course not …. silly statement to make. Gaudi stated ‘the book of nature is always open’ as quite simply – it is. many poets and architects and playwrites and painters have been emtirely inspired by nature, as are those that study the natural world. Thats because it is intriguing, beautiful and shocking at times …. beyond what we can imagine in our own minds – so why should many people not be obsessed or fascinated with this …. of course they will be. Like anything else we humans like we ALWAYS try to mimic it – thats how we learn and expand and capture history such as cave paintings … they may not look like the real dog or cammel but it doesnt make them ‘dishonest’ or ‘not at allnatural’ …. silly statment you made. Gaudi kicked around as a child with ill health lots of natural places with dried grass and amamzing meditarranean flowers and trees – like any child his imagination was triggered and this is going to reflect in anything he created late in life. To suggest that gaudi was trying to bring nature into a building which is ‘impossible’ is very close minded. Of course gaudi knew a pillar was never giong to be a real tree trunk … or a metal spoked cirlce was never going to be a real palm tree …. but he used the shapes and characters of nature to create shapes and characters out of various textiles … wonderful if you ask me … there is nothing fake about it. If oyu want nature take a walk in the park …. if you want creative and forward thinking and to see the work of a dreamer who dared to realise his dreams and imagination for the pleasure of himself or others and to place his home town on the map and who has to be thanked for creating an amazing toursit economy in an otherwise poor area – then go to barcelona and see gaudis work – i highly recommend it!!!

    1. Graham McKay

      Thanks Gilly,

      What you say is true. If I agree that it’s not possible for a building to be dishonest then you’ll have to agree that Gaudi was just being silly – Nature is not a book ok? But, as you say, natural things, forces and process are indeed amazing and intriguing, beautiful and shocking at times. And often, it is more than we can imagine. Like you, I think it is perfectly reasonable for people to be obsessed and fascinated by Nature.

      However, buildings are not natural objects. They don’t grow by themselves – never did, never will. They are big and complex things that require a lot of time, skills, money and materials to build. They are artificial, constructed objects. The constant theme of this blog is that it would be a much better use of resources if we did not try to make buildings appear to be “natural”, “transparent”, “floating” or give them any other quality that it is impossible for them to have.

      If Gaudi or anyone else is in awe of Nature and wants to imitate it as some form of devotion, then that’s fine with me but it’s a bit like an Elvis fan wanting to be an Elvis impersonator. Not really my thing.

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