Monthly Archives: January 2011

“To Confirm Atheist Prejudices”

Antony Beevor, in a new book review in today’s Guardian, discusses a history of Jerusalem by renowned scholar-author Simon Sebag Montefiore. In his opening, Beevor says that “The 3,000-year conflict provides a terrible story…one that is likely to confirm atheist prejudices.”

I’m not sure what Beevor meant, since this idea is not mentioned again, although he does suggest that the book argues against certain popular fundamentalist ideas about Jerusalem’s fate being central to the arrival of the apocalypse. Maybe that is what is intended. We could then interpret the sentence as, “The story of Jerusalem likely confirms the absurdity of extremist thought about the endtimes.” If Richard Dawkins had written the review, we could have interpreted the sentence as, “The story of Jerusalem proves that religion is really bad.”

As is my wont, I reject both of those arguments, not necessarily as wrong but as weak compared to an even stronger one which is being kept in reserve. I haven’t read Sebag Montefiore’s book, but I can be fairly certain that it does “confirm atheist prejudices.” Why? Because scholarly histories of religious subjects presuppose natural, human explanations for religious phenomena, and therefore implicitly reject the divine.

Put it this way. If you were writing the history of Jerusalem, you would be faced with a decision: should you assume that one of the religions which exists in Jerusalem is indeed true, and based on true texts and events, or should you assume the skeptical mode of the historical scholar? Once this decision is made, the result is a foregone conclusion.

Thus, a Jewish scholar could conceivably have written a book vindicating the Jewish claim to the city, based on the actual truth of the Biblical texts. A Christian scholar could have written a book based on the assumed fact that Jesus was indeed God and that God therefore did indeed walk the earth in the city. A Muslim scholar could have written a book taking as historical fact that Muhammad ascended to heaven from the city.

By assuming none of these truths as a foundation, the mainstream secular scholar, like Simon Sebag Montefiore, immediately turns the tables. This is because it can then be assumed that religion is a human phenomenon, the product of human minds and foibles, a system whose creators so-called are not gods but groups of real people.

That starting point, coming before any description of actual religious views, is the real beginning of the road “to confirm” atheistic tendencies. For the atheist, agnostic, or generally unaligned non-believer, what happens next is that the natural explanations for religious belief – in Jerusalem’s case, tribal groups squabbling over a major city have transformed into religious sects squabbling over a major city – ultimately prove sufficient. Non-believers find it is possible and even logical to formulate a historical narrative for religious movements, figures, and ideas which does not include the presupposition that those religions are actually right.

Of course, religious scholars share in this assumption, too, about all the other faiths of the world. So, for instance, a Christian scholar who’s expert in Islam will not be caught admitting that the explanation for stories about Muhammad ascending into heaven is that Muhammad actually did do just that. It is only for one’s own faith that one maintains a blind spot.

This is why it is the tendency of all secular historical scholarship to be just that, to be implicitly or explicitly secular. This is why anthropologist Pascal Boyer’s book Religion Explained spends hundreds of pages analyzing theories which purport to tell us why religion exists – after rejecting the “religion is true” argument in a matter of two or three sentences. And this is why Boyer’s book poses a greater threat to belief than anything Richard Dawkins could ever hope to write. “To confirm atheist prejudices,” or indeed to create a new agnostic where there had not been one before, the first step is simple: one must explain the human story without recourse to divine intervention.

It sounds like a tall order, but people like Simon Sebag Montefiore have been doing it for centuries.

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London Philharmonic: Eötvös, Liszt, Zemlinsky, 26 Jan

The London Philharmonic Orchestra program last night opened with a UK premiere, “Shadows” by Peter Eötvös. It’s sort of a mini concerto for flute, clarinet, a percussionist with snare drum and suspended cymbal, and orchestra. It also calls for a bizarre orchestral layout in which some of the forces sit with their backs to the audience. Here’s a diagram (click to expand):

From where I was sitting, I had a great view of the saxophone player's back.

I couldn’t figure out why the orchestra was asked to sit like this based on the music itself: to muffle the brass? To divide the strings really dramatically? Aside from placing the solo instruments literally in the center of the ring, there seemed to be no particular aural advantage to this. Since the performance was recorded for a CD, perhaps the CD experience will explain Eötvös’ decision.
As for the music itself: it fairly clearly was originally a chamber piece; the best movement was scored for flute and clarinet alone. At other points the orchestra interjected Scary Music chords, reminiscent of Jaws or film noir, and there were some interesting coloristic effects – neat sounds being produced by the ensemble as a whole or individual soloists. Still and all, I’m not entirely sure I could deduce from listening why Eötvös actually wrote the piece. My cynical guess is he had a nice chamber duet sitting around and fulfilled a commission by arranging it up (N.B. looking at his website, this guess is wrong; it was originally for the soloists plus a small wind ensemble and handful of strings). It achieved interesting colors and sounds but didn’t develop any sort of argument or even conversation. 

Maybe it was this context, but I was far more impressed with Liszt’s Second Concerto than I’ve ever been before. Alexander Markovich walked onstage and immediately captured attention, by means of being the most morbidly obese person I’ve ever seen at a classical concert. It actually affects his playing technique, since he has to hold his arms up over his own girth. But, as my friend pointed out, it also affects his theatricality, because his rather large face amplifies any sort of feelings he’s going through – feelings of intensity, or wicked grins, sort of bubble across the chins. At any rate, his pianism had absolutely everything Liszt demands: brilliant technique, great poetry, fire and brimstone. It was a fantastic performance matched by the LPO and Vladimir Jurowski at every point: I think the reason I liked the concerto so much in this performance, compared to so little on the Cziffra CD, was the excited, brilliantly on-point accompaniment, which played up the humor (!) in one of the central episodes and riveted everywhere else.

Google reveals a fellow blogger says Markovich had “the unalloyed joy of a five-year-old.” That’s basically true, and part of his appeal. Plus, he played an encore of enormous wit and good humor, all the way through which he grinned like a little kid and seemed to watch his own fingers the way a child watches cookies baking or Michael Jordan playing ball. It was a piano arrangement of Waldteufel’s Les patineurs, souped up to be absurdly difficult and merrily silly. I suspected Godowsky, but his unofficial website’s list of works doesn’t allude to Waldteufel at all. Samuil Feinberg and Marc-Andre Hamelin similarly pleaded innocence. Heck, I’ll claim to have written it. Markovich had a blast, so we all did too.

After the interval came Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony, with soprano Melanie Diener and no less than Thomas Hampson taking the baritone role. I’d never heard the piece before, and on first listen, it has some riveting sections and a couple which were less appealing. One problem was Diener, who struggled to make herself heard. Hampson, of course, is a class act, and every one of his songs was a stunner. The orchestral accompaniment is a miracle of music-making, for it has all the wild movement and oscillation of an oceanscape, uses huge numbers of instruments really well, and transitions from one mood to another really easily. If a couple songs let me down, others were gripping; my friend lost interest halfway through (it is 48 minutes), but that was sad because my favorite part was the very last, when Hampson took a seat and the orchestra wound down to a blissful, breathtaking conclusion.

Note to Eötvös and others of his brand: the reason you introduce a mood, usually (Richard Strauss’ Vier letzte lieder is a good counterexample) is to contrast it with something. Zemlinsky’s piece really captured my imagination because after all that sturm und drang, after all the volatility and uncertainty, that final wind-down felt like going home, or a leaf falling gently to the ground. Or maybe a hard day’s night.

The end of the Lyric Symphony feels like this.

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Privacy Alert: iTunes Makes Stalking Easy

iTunes is a creepy program.

Apple’s almost-handy music program has a feature called “Shared Libraries.” It enables you to share your iTunes library with anyone on the same network, including any and all strangers. If you want to spread your fantastic taste to those around you, simply open iTunes and wait for them to bow before your superior ears.

On Monday I was sitting in a reading room in the British Library, and upon opening iTunes was immediately greeted with a list of other iTunes users within range – this even though I had not connected to the internet or even joined a network. I clicked on the library belonging to “L.Y.” (her full name appeared on my screen), browsed through her collection, and discovered that she has a wonderful medieval music album by Jordi Savall, Alfred Cortot’s Debussy, Pablo Casals’ Bach cello suites, and a truly comprehensive collection of Glenn Gould’s Bach. She has a 90-minute-long playlist of songs with “morning” in their titles. Her favorite tracks are Aretha Franklin’s “You Send Me,” an obscure cover of “Sittin Here Drinkin,” and polished French pianist Alexandre Tharaud playing Erik Satie.

L.Y. has nearly six hours of music by a composer named R.L., whose name I have also shortened because a quick Google search of his name revealed that they are dating, and her total collection comes out to 228 days’ worth of music, which for some reason takes up less than half the disk space of my 57 days’ worth of music.

Naturally, I immediately wanted to find out if somebody else can listen to the stuff in my library. But I could not figure out how to do this. I had “Home Sharing” turned off, but of course was not at home. Finally, Google informed me that there is a check-box to leave unticked under “Edit > Preferences,” and that even if you do tick the box you can demand that people enter a password before entering your library.

Still and all, most people don’t put up walls around their music collection. At the British Library that day there were seven iTunes libraries picked up by my computer, and only one of them was password-protected. Here in my dorm room there’s a library available from someone named “Mike” and I can see he has broad tastes. Mike has both death metal and “The Best of ABBA.” He’s also got My Chemical Romance music videos and three Mariah Carey albums. I am officially creeped out.

But back to the original topic: L.Y., if you’re reading this, it’s a good thing I was in a mood for a symphony by Kurt Atterberg because otherwise I would have been enjoying your music and wondering just who the heck you are. (Not that I’m wondering: you have a compendious website!) Even without listening to your music, I can tell from your playlists that you love the poetry of Rumi, enjoy watching TED Talks, and have previously attended, or are currently attending one of, or enjoy free podcast lectures from, Stanford and Texas A&M Universities. Unless you want to advertise this to any old stalker (you’re probably safe in the British Library, but who knows who’s lurking?), I suggest you password-protect your iTunes library or close the door on it entirely.

iTunes is a creepy program.

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Enjoying The Fall

Today a friend told me about a movie called The Fall, which she said was “perhaps not the best movie on the planet, but it is hands down the prettiest.” So I googled it and discovered that The Fall is described as a “vanity project” by director Tarsem Singh, who spent millions of his own dollars and four years of work creating it. Rather than employ computer generation technology for special effects, Tarsem (he doesn’t use his last name) insisted on doing everything the old-fashioned way. That means that to film a single one-second shot of the characters walking along the Great Wall of China, the actors and crew actually went to China.

That’s how I decided that, great or not, The Fall was a movie I needed to see. So I watched it. And it is like no other movie on earth.

The blue city is a real place: Jodhpur, India.

Well, that’s not necessarily true. Like The Wizard of Oz, it employs two worlds, a real world and a fantasy world, populated by the same actors who, in fantasy land, don masks, mustaches, and outlandish personae. Like The Princess Bride, it is a swashbuckling tail of a bandit seeking to claim the love of his life from an evil lord. That is where is all comparisons end. If The Princess Bride were a symphony by Dvořák, The Fall would be by Mahler; if The Princess Bride were Much Ado About Nothing, The Fall would be The Tempest and King Lear. Combined.

The movie contains a story. A young girl (Romanian youngster Catinca Untaru, aged 5-9 while the film was made) is stuck in a hospital in the American west sometime around 1910. Another patient is Roy, a stunt man in the moving pictures industry who has become paralyzed on the job. Roy begins telling the little girl a story. He’s just trying to befriend her so she will steal morphine pills for him. He does not care about the story, really, especially not after his girlfriend sends word that she has moved on to a man who can still walk. In fact, Roy is just popping pills until the time is ripe for suicide.

The story he tells the girl is, at first, altogether different. An evil “Governor Odious” gives six different men (including Charles Darwin, in an outrageous fur coat) reason to want him dead. They are all exiled on a desert island together, where they plot to kill the Governor and escape to land on the back of a swimming elephant. Along the way they encounter the Governor’s bride-to-be, who, naturally, falls in love with one of the bandits.

All this takes place against a jaw-dropping backdrop of real places. The Fall was filmed in 26 countries, or something like that. The desert island scenes were shot in Fiji. Governor Odious’ palace is in India. A desert which traps Alexander the Great (yes, really) is in Namibia. On the way they cross the Great Wall and traipse across various other extraordinary corners of the earth, including an unbelievable desert oasis, a sort of reverse Tower of Babel with infinite staircases descending into a pit, and a community of Turkish dervishes. Every so often there’s a happy recognition: “Oh, look! It’s Prague!”

Yes, this "reverse tower of Babel" is a real place too. It's called Chand Baori and it's a medieval Indian well. The dude in the amazing coat is Charles Darwin.

But this is not a movie about bandits and adventure. There are no catchy one-liners like in The Princess Bride; indeed there’s almost no dialogue at all. This is a movie about the story. The themes are imagination, memory, fantasy, and dreamscapes. Where do they come from anyway? How are they formed? How do we inhabit them?

The Fall, in parts, actually feels like a dream. That is because although Roy is narrating the story, the little girl’s imagination is supplying the visuals: we are very firmly not in a fantasy world of Roy’s but inside his listener’s head. As we meet some of the characters she comments, “I like them.” Gradually the bandits all begin to look like people she knows. Later, she starts to dislike the chain of events, so she jumps in the tale too. In the turning point of the film, she begs Roy not to kill off a character and he defends his right to kill off anyone: “It’s my story.” She replies: “Mine too.”

And so more and more improbable things happen; at first we accept them because they are whimsical and wonderful and entertaining and Roy’s a good storyteller. Then we accept them because the stakes keep getting higher. Finally the real world and the fantasy grow close, too close, far too close, and we accept it because the pace is like a runaway train and the emotional impact is like you’re standing on the tracks.

So what is The Fall? It is well-acted, or at least accurately acted (that is to say, overacted when overacting is required). It is absolutely fantastically beautiful. It has a rather good soundtrack. Tarsem Singh directs like a man possessed, which he had to be to spend four years and his savings on this. The Fall is a huge pleasure to watch, an emotional rollercoaster and so mentally stimulating that I’ve written this in less time than it took to watch the movie, immediately after watching the movie.

But that doesn’t answer the question. What is The Fall? It is a story about stories. It is the legend of love, longing and mortality, an emblem of the need all human beings have to narrate their interiors. It is imagination projected without filter, fantasy uninhibited, the innermost emotional narrative drawn out of doors. I have finally found apt comparisons for this film. It is like The Tempest, in which Prospero can decide fates with his magic staff, which he ultimately casts away. It is like the Tim O’Brien novels Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried, the latter of which aims to prove, as The Fall does, that you really can save a life with a story. Sure, The Fall is indulgent. But so are all dreams.

When you look at your reflection, what do you see?

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Sorry, C.S. Lewis

Hello, readers! I have one blog post yet to write about my holiday in Spain, but inertia has kicked in so pardon the brief interruption for a little bit of an opinion column.

C.S. Lewis has joined Twitter from the dead, thanks to a devoted admirer, and is posting a daily thought copied from one of his books or other writings. He can be found here. Today, I happened to see his “tweet for the day,” which is as follows:

Christianity if false is of no importance & if true is of infinite importance but it can’t be moderately important-CSLewis

This is a classic example of a Lewisism, because Lewis’ trademark rhetorical device is the false dilemma. His writings are littered with false dilemmas in which the reader is asked to choose between the “Christian answer” to something, and a totally absurd alternative.

That’s what we have here. If Christianity is true, it is of “infinite importance,” which is a pretty obvious consequence. But if Christianity is “false,” then it “is of no importance.”

Lewis had good reason for thinking this was a deep thought, and no doubt so do his many followers; for what it is standing in for, what it is pretending to be, is this: “Christianity, if false, should be rejected; if true, it should be followed.” That’s so obvious it’s dumb; by changing “should be rejected” to “is of no importance,” he makes the insight obvious but clever-sounding.

It’s also totally wrong. In fact, it sounds like a joke. Christianity, if false, still dominated western society for millennia, had an incalculable impact on European, African, and American art, culture, and politics, informed the mindsets of thousands of historical figures and hundreds of important philosophers, was responsible for many innovations, inspirations, and acts of great moral courage, and was equally responsible for the deaths of millions of people. Christianity, if false, arguably changed history more than any other religious movement despite that falsehood.

Obviously Lewis has done something typically Lewisian: committed a logical fallacy. This can be plainly seen by working backwards: (1) The King James Bible is of literary importance; (2) The King James Bible is a product of Christianity; (3) “Christianity if false is of no importance & if true is of infinite importance”; (4) since the King James Bible is not of no importance, as a product of Christianity it must be of infinite importance; (5) therefore, Christianity is true.

Voila! I have just proved Jesus was God by noticing that Barack Obama quotes the Bible. The proper response to C.S. Lewis’ assertion is probably: “What? That’s just silly.”

Unfortunately, “that’s just silly” also characterizes my responses to many of the C.S. Lewis quotes on this Twitter account:

We’re half-hearted creatures fooling with drink & sex & ambition when infinite joy is offered us. We’re too easily pleased. This generalization says more about Lewis’ youth than it does about the state of humanity as a whole. For example, I drink little, sex less, and am going into academia, but do everything I do with a fully-devoted heart.
Every uncorrected error & unrepented sin is, in its own right, a fountain of fresh error & fresh sin flowing on to the end of time. This is the kind of crushing, demoralizing thing which makes people collapse in self-doubt. It’s okay to make mistakes. How the hell else do you plan on being alive? Don’t make the same mistake more than twice, though. You should feel remorse when you have wronged people, and you should try to right your mistakes, but if you feel that each misstep you make will be “flowing on to the end of time,” you’ll make Woody Allen look like a Hallmark card.
Friendship is unnecessary, it has no survival value; but it’s one of those things that gives value to survival. Of course friendship is necessary! But Lewis is using this “aphorism” to argue against evolutionary theories that “survival value” is our primary motivator. To which I would kindly point out that you are much more likely to survive if you have friends than if you have enemies!
And all that is just from the last week. C.S. Lewis was an immensely talented writer with a gift for putting things clearly. That’s sad, because it means that he’s hugely popular. The trouble is, see, that nearly every time he wanted to say something clearly, he reduced it to a simplistic thought that is patently wrong. This is as true of his full-length books as of his tweets, for in the books he tries to summarize his argument in tweet-length snippets as a rhetorical device. This is a mistake, for the simpler Lewis puts an idea, the easier it is to see why his idea is wrong.

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Sanctus

We’ve all seen pictures of the outside of Antoni Gaudí’s church Sagrada Familia. Pictures that look a little bit like this:

It looks sort of … crustacean, like a giant dead horseshoe crab.

And pictures like that are interesting, but not terribly exciting. Looking at these photos, it’s easy to say, “okay, this is a fairly detailed brown pile of rocks that a Lord of the Rings villain might live in. Big deal.” The photos always depict a building which commands respect but not fondness. Author George Orwell once called the Sagrada Familia “one of the most hideous buildings in the world.”

I visited mainly because, let’s face it, when you go to Barcelona, you have to. But I was also beginning to suspect, based on the all-encompassing genius of Gaudí’s design for the Casa Batlló, that the Sagrada Familia had some kind of surprise in store. It does.

First of all, looking at a picture of the Sagrada Familia taken from across the street is like admiring a painting through binoculars, or listening to Beethoven being played by middle schoolers. This is not just a building; it is a great work of art, and demands to be “read” with the same intensity that we bring to our analyses of Bach or Dostoevsky or Turner. The outside is spectacularly detailed with carvings and dramatic goings-on which really only reveal themselves when you get up close. Very close. One side of the building has a little statue of a bassoon player. The bassoonist is apparently serenading baby Jesus. (You can see it by clicking the picture above and viewing it full-size. The bassoonist is above the two doors and an inch to the left.)

So the exterior of the Sagrada Familia remains a curious, intriguing but mostly pretty darn weird thing. It’s bursting with odd angles, shapes, and openings, and the dashes of color which have recently been added – a whole new facade has been finished with the colored-tiled words “Sanctus Sanctus Sanctus” on each new bell tower – are distracting against the brown canvas.

But then you step inside.

The interior of the Sagrada Familia, almost all of it constructed after Gaudí’s death but almost all of it built according to his detailed models and designs, is a masterpiece of art comparable to a Beethoven symphony, a Shakespeare play, or a Velázquez painting. I’ve long known there was an art in architecture, but the art, the genius, the beauty of the Sagrada Familia’s interior is overwhelming. I have no doubt that when it is finished, some visitors will walk in and burst into tears. Maybe it’s happened already.

The artistic medium of the outside of the Sagrada Familia is stone. The medium on which Gaudí & Co. work inside the building is light.

Walk in – and look up.

From the outside, you really cannot see many windows in the building; it’s covered so well by its crustacean detail that to some extent one suspects the windows are intentionally hidden. Once you step inside, you see that light is streaming in from every corner of the building. Perhaps the most notable example is the hardest to view: directly above the altar, or (since I’m not Catholic) directly above the “priests-only section,” is a spire in the roof which is not topped by a cross or any other decorative ostentation. It is a spire topped by a conical skylight.

And it is breathtaking. With the glowing golden patterns around it and the light streaming in from on high, it feels like an escape hatch into eternity.

The central section of the church is dominated by massive and creative columns: like one of those optical illusion drawings of people with three legs, the columns have eight points at the base and sixteen at the top because they gradually morph as they ascend. The design is inspired by trees, because even the peak of the columns is merely a point at which “branches” ascend in different directions. As a result, the interior looks not unlike a man-made forest.

But the interior of Sagrada Familia is, despite a signposted claim to the contrary, not complete. Only about one-third of the windows along the walls have had their stained glass added; the stained glass work only began in 2001. The artist is named Joan Vila i Grau, and his contributions are integral to the experience. In the apse of the church, or “that small curved place way at the front, behind the altar,” the stained glass windows have all been installed, and they illustrate most dramatically of all the use of light in the church.

The stained glass, see, is not the usual affair of pictures of saints or, as in many English cathedrals, parables about poor schmucks who didn’t pay all of their tithes and as a result met horrible deaths. The stained glass is abstract. Each window is a study in a certain color, in order to illuminate the immediate space with those colors. Here is how it works. This:

Fiery and glorious

…becomes this:

…a symphony of reds.

All around me, photographers were gasping over the unbelievable pictures they were taking. It is impossible to walk into Sagrada Familia and walk out without a great photograph. Indeed, I suspect you could spend your entire career capturing the interior and never tire of new angles, new possibilities. I didn’t, unfortunately. Halfway through my two-hour-plus visit to Sagrada Familia, my camera’s battery pack died. Few places in the world are as glorious a place for a camera to die. I almost didn’t mind. Besides, I’d already taken an exquisite series of pictures of the organ, a curved instrument lining the back of the altar. Because of its position, the organ reflected the light coming from every single stained glass window at once. This is my new desktop wallpaper:

Whew!

I stayed for an hour after the camera died. La Sagrada Familia is one of my favorite buildings in the world; probably my favorite, in fact, because I’d never even thought of having a favorite building before. It is, as mentioned, an artistic masterpiece, as yet unfinished but already as capable of inspiring as Bach or, indeed, the Bible. In a sense, taking pictures of such a creation is like sketching your own copy of the Mona Lisa on the back of a Sam’s Club receipt. But then again, the experience of being there, of standing inside this massive monument to human creativity and dedication, is so overwhelming that nobody would really want it to be imitable anyways. There’s only one place in the world where you can feel the way you feel when you stand in the center of Sagrada Familia. That’s what makes it such a triumph.

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Let’s Live in a Gaudí House

I came to Barcelona for the nice weather and the food. I got those: it was largely T-shirt territory, and the food was fantastic. But I left Barcelona hoping to go back someday for a different reason: Antoni Gaudí.

Antoni Gaudí is an architect whom you can’t really like from the outside. Pictures of his buildings always make them look fanciful at best, or perverse at worse. Take one look at the goofy curves of his work, like La Pedrera, which always looks like it’s thinking about collapsing, and you see no reason to value him above the level of “amusing curiosity.”

I thought even less of Gaudí before I got to Barcelona. All the pictures of Sagrada Familia I’d seen made it look kind of ugly, and since I didn’t know anybody who would actually stick up for him, nobody ever mentioned that he designed anything else. Except a park with giant tiled lizard statues. That sounded cool. But can you take a guy seriously when his second-most famous work is a park with giant lizard statues?

Then the concierge at my hotel circled Casa Batlló on my map, and I figured it was worth a trip if it was cheap. I walked on over (on over being a couple miles, actually), and took in the outside: Casa Batlló stands out into the Passeig de Gracia with a combination of assertiveness and whimsy, its waves of windows and undulating façade making the straight, stock-still buildings around it look boring. The Casa sort of jumps out into the roadway.

I stepped inside, audio guide in hand. Normally audio guides stink, and this one has way too much pointless music and redundant sentences. One wonders if they thought about the fact that people would rather not look like dorks holding speakers to their ears if the audio guide is saying things like (actual quote) “Now, use your imagination and pretend this holographic portrait is Gaudí himself approaching to bid you adieu.” But this audio guide is actually interesting: if you don’t listen, you miss a lot of stuff. Each room of Casa Batlló is packed with tons of achingly brilliant detail.

The thing about Antoni Gaudí, see, is that not only did he live in a fantasy world of design, he had a genius for practical things to make the house nicer. Example: the front staircase is carved to look like the spinal column of a gigantic sea monster. It is very, very cool.

Doesn't it look like Captain Nemo would live here? That's a skylight under the stairs, by the way.

Then you start walking up the staircase, and you notice that the handrails look really weird: fat and flat with a bulge to one side. You put your hand on it and realize it fits perfectly. Same with the doorknobs throughout the house, which look dopey until you put your hand on one and it feels really nice. Gaudí wasn’t just playing around. He was building a house that works.

And there’s this: every room in the house, and I mean every room, has either a window or a skylight. Gaudí ensured the house would be filled with light during all daylight hours, and as a light-lover, I was entranced by that. (My roommate at Rice told me one year, “I know you like being by big windows,” and gosh, it’s true!) The center of the house is its main staircase, and on either side of the stairs are massive shafts of air from the gigantic rooftop skylight down to the ground floor. The shafts, onto which many rooms have windows, are covered in blue tiles:

Side note: there's an opera called "I was looking up and then I saw the sky"

Get this. The blue tiles get gradually darker as you go upwards, so that when viewed from the bottom at midday, it looks like it’s all the same color. Gaudí was a genius! Oh, and to make sure staircase climbers didn’t fall out of the stairs, Gaudí didn’t just settle for a wooden railing; he installed wacky glasswork that makes for psychedelic photographs:

It looks like a reflection in water

Here’s another stroke of genius: curved windows on the living room.

Curved stained glass has to be seen to be believed. By the way, the stained glass was installed to prevent excess light, and the bottom panels can be opened or closed to ventilate the room.

And the ceiling in the same room:

The audio guide makes a point of mentioning how easy it is to do this with plaster.

The back patio is sloped with a peak running down the middle, like a roadway, to allow rainwater to drain off. The central ridge originally had a row of massive flower boxes. Gaudí designed a fireplace with a curved ventilation shaft to avoid the skylights. A room for entertaining guests could be partitioned off into three small rooms if necessary. Inspired (or so we are told) by fish gills, vertical wooden slats can be opened or closed to let outside air into the main rooms. And just look at Gaudí did with the attic:

I'd live in this attic.

In other words, the guy designed a dream house. Several of his other houses dot Barcelona; distressingly, two were closed, but a third is still lived in by a private family. They sure have the good life.

After the overwhelming sense of awe I had at tiny, domestic Casa Batlló, I knew I had to go see the Sagrada Familia. Yeah, the house was colorful and curvaceous and fantasy-like, and a big church was unlikely to be any of those things. Yeah, the Sagrada Familia looks like a brown pile of rocks with lots of barnacles in most photos. But the genius who designed this house couldn’t possibly be boring in a building as grand as a church.

As it turns out, Sagrada Familia makes the Casa Batlló look like an outhouse.

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