Traced to its Greek foundations, the word architect comes from archi (chief) and tekton (builder). In the case of Catalan "chief builder" Antoni Gaudí, the derivation seems prosaic. For Gaudí, the word breaks easily into the three trademarks of his architecture: arches, technical brilliance and sureness, this last quality sometimes degenerating into rudeness and arrogance.
Like many artists, Gaudí began with more detractors than fans. One critic in the early 1950s described his famous façades as "tortures of the imagination, fetuses in stone, bulbous obscenities." But today, many hail him as a genius, some are calling on the Pope to make him a saint, and more than two million people come to Barcelona each year to stare at his buildings, love them or hate them. With the 150th anniversary of his birth on June 25, the city of Barcelona and the Catalan and Spanish governments have proclaimed 2002 International Gaudí Year. More than 100 events are planned in homage. Already the Spanish press has dubbed it Gaudímania.
Born in 1852 and run over by a Barcelona tram 74 years later in 1926, Gaudí would probably be embarrassed by so much fuss. A vegetarian bachelor who washed in cold water and wore tattered suits, Gaudí avoided publicity. He left few personal papers, most of his architectural records were destroyed during the Civil War, and there are only a handful of black-and-white photos of him, which can't show the intense blue of his eyes. When not at building sites Gaudí spent much of his time kneeling in prayer. But he would probably have smiled to learn that when International Gaudí Year is launched officially this month by Queen Sofía, the "chief builders" on hand in Barcelona's City Hall will include America's Frank Gehry, Britain's Norman Foster, Japan's Arata Isozaki and Spain's Oriol Bohigas.
The coordinator of International Gaudí Year, Daniel Giralt-Miracle, says Catalans have had an uneasy relationship with the man they are now celebrating. "I think Barcelona has finally decided to have an entente cordiale with him," says Giralt-Miracle, who is director of the Gaudí Space, an area dedicated to the architect's works located in the vast attic of one of the best-known of them, the Casa Milà, in Barcelona's elegant Passeig de Gràcia. An example of this relationship is that Catalans unflatteringly dubbed the Casa Milà La Pedrera "the quarry," for its stone façade.
Giralt-Miracle says one aim of the year of conferences, exhibitions, school activities and open days smaller shows are being negotiated for cities ranging from Berlin, Rome and London to Shanghai and Philadephia is to go beyond the postcard image of Gaudí's best-known work, the incomplete Sagrada Família cathedral. (Its latest guesstimated finishing date is 2030.) "Today Gaudí is more popular than known, and we want to change that," says Giralt-Miracle. "He had his feet on the ground, but his imagination in the infinite, arriving at a time the turn of the 19th century when the Catalan bourgeoisie had lots of money and there was an atmosphere of ostentation, creating the need for an exuberant and emblematic architect."
International reaction to Gaudí has also been ambivalent. Architecture critic Nikolaus Pevsner ignored him altogether in the 1936 edition of his seminal Pioneers of Modern Design. It was only after 1962 that Gaudí was admitted to its pages. George Orwell, in Barcelona during the Civil War, was more explicit, calling the Sagrada Família "one of the most hideous buildings in the world."
Many architects would say Orwell was talking through his hat. Le Corbusier described the school Gaudí designed as part of the Sagrada Família project its roof an ingenious, wave-like structure as "a masterpiece." Norman Foster has called Gaudí's methods revolutionary. Spain's best-known architect, Santiago Calatrava, shows Gaudí's influence in his use of trencadís (broken ceramic tiles) as decoration, his use of arches, and his primary source of inspiration nature.
The ornate decoration of many Gaudí buildings can be seen as at best superfluous, at worst kitsch. In his excellent biography Gaudí, published by HarperCollins last year, U.K.-based Dutch architect Gijs van Hensbergen says of the Catalan's first private commission, a house in Barcelona for the wealthy tilemaker Manuel Vicens, "ornamentation is everywhere in riotous and tasteless profusion."
While Gaudí was unlucky in love and had poor health, he was enormously fortunate in those with whom he surrounded himself. He found patrons, particularly businessman Eusebi Güell, who rarely interfered with his vision. Given that Gaudí was given to changing his designs over and over during the building process, they needed to have bottomless pockets. Gaudí was also backed by superb Catalan craftsmen, particularly in stone and iron, and his studio included men both loyal and brilliant in their own right. One, the largely unrecognized Josep Jujol, is described by Van Hensbergen as one of architecture's "greatest creative geniuses."
Many of Gaudí's buildings were never finished, he often fell out with owners or planning authorities, and toward the end of his life he became ever more despotic and rude his irritability perhaps exacerbated by his contraction of the livestock disease brucellosis. The Catholic Church, however, has few doubts about the man. A movement within it wants the Pope to canonize him, and the Archbishop of Barcelona has called for him to be named patron saint of architecture. Many Catalans draw the line at sainthood, arguing that Gaudí's legacy of buildings is, as Daniel Giralt-Miracle puts it, "glory enough."
Luckily for the throngs of tourists and architecture buffs who will visit the various celebrations during 2002 (see the International Gaudí Year site at www.gaudi2002.bcn.es) much of that legacy is intact. This is despite the view sometimes held at the time of their construction that his buildings, with their weirdly angled columns and arches, would fall down. A Catalan construction worker once dared to tell Gaudí that the galleries he designed for the house of Manuel
Vicens would collapse when their supports were removed, their projecting brick corbels being unable to bear their weight. The worker even stayed on for several hours that evening, waiting to see disaster happen. The galleries remain today, just as Gaudí designed them.
When Gaudí graduated in 1878 from Barcelona's School of Architecture, its director announced to his fellow teachers, "Gentlemen, we are here today either in the presence of a genius or a madman." The jury is still out, but this year's celebrations may incline history to cast its verdict for genius.