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.
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:
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:
Here’s another stroke of genius: curved windows on the living room.
And the ceiling in the same room:
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:
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.