The man who created the world's most sexy, emotionally charged and theatrical buildings lived a life of fasting and fanatical celibacy.

By Douglas Cruickshank
Published April 11, 2002 10:37PM (EDT)

Excepting sex, it's usually impossible for whimsy and earnestness to exist simultaneously in the same place. Another exception is Antoni Gaudm's fantastical architecture -- but in a way that's sex, too, according to "Gaudm," Gijs van Hensbergen's biography of the man who possessed one of the most distinctive architectural visions of recent centuries and created what are still some of Barcelona's, and the world's, most dramatic buildings, including his masterwork, the Sagrada Fammlia church.

After being rejected at age 29 by the first and only woman he proposed marriage to, and having but one short-lived crush thereafter, Gaudm, whose devotion to Catholicism bordered on the fanatical, turned to a life of celibacy. "It was in his work that Gaudm sublimated all his feelings and his passion," van Hensbergen writes. "Gaudm was clearly, even if subconsciously, using his buildings as metaphors for rather more."

Van Hensbergen doesn't suggest that Gaudm channeled only his underfed libido into his hot, hallucinatory architecture (such a notion would have horrified the ultraconservative architect); the author's contention is that Gaudm focused all his emotional life and need to "love and be loved," not to mention his religious fervor, on the innovative buildings he designed and engineered. It's a case made convincingly in van Hensbergen's exhaustively researched book, which now stands as the visionary Catalonian's definitive biography -- the first in English.

Van Hensbergen's book reveals more about Gaudm's personal life than has ever been reported before, but that's not saying much; that material comprises a small percentage of the text because the architect's personal life was for much of his adulthood austere, to say the least. Still, his sensuous, undulating buildings are sexy, emotionally charged and theatrical, which is perhaps why they continue to capture the public imagination and make him and his works a locus of both awe and derision even now as we approach the 150th anniversary of his birth on June 25.

Over the years, Gaudm's work has been dismissed as kitsch, tasteless grandiosity rendered in stone, steel and polychrome tile, nearly as much as it's been celebrated and praised. Not surprisingly, Salvador Dalm and many of the other surrealists loved Gaudm's buildings, which resemble something you might see in a dream and which tease the unconscious with their religious symbolism and animated, organic appearance (one observer called it "anthropomorphizing nature"). Picasso, who critic Robert Hughes insists was influenced by the architect, hated him. "Send Gaudm and the Sagrada Fammlia to Hell," the cubist wrote a friend in 1900. The disgust was mutual, according to John Richardson; Gaudm "despised and distrusted the progressive young artists of Barcelona, who would soon include Picasso."

Evelyn Waugh couldn't be bothered to emerge from his cab to look at Gaudm's buildings. George Orwell called them "hideous" and said, "I think the anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing [the Sagrada Fammlia] up when they had the chance." Yet Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright's teacher and the father of the skyscraper, extolled Gaudm's church as "the greatest piece of creative architecture in the last twenty-five years. It is spirit symbolized in stone." Le Corbusier was also a fan, and Walter Gropius said, "Some of the Sagrada Fammlia walls are a marvel of technical perfection."

Van Hensbergen writes, "What his detractors disliked more than anything was the wayward vulgarity of his buildings ... It has suited most apologists and critics to focus on Gaudm, the isolated genius, a misunderstood, slightly mad eccentric, the last of the Romantics." But that radically oversimplifies Gaudm and his work, van Hensbergen says.

He sets things right in "Gaudm" by doing a masterly job of putting the architect in context -- in terms of the socio-political climate of the place and time in which he worked, and also in regard to Gaudm's own peculiar life, extreme religious philosophy and daily regimen. For much of his life, the architect turned his money over to his father, with whom he lived. In 1894, his strict adherence to a complete Lenten fast took him to the threshold of starvation and was reported on in Barcelona's dailies. And even when not fasting he ate a Spartan diet -- lunch typically consisted of lettuce leaves dipped in milk accompanied by a few nuts, raisins and copious amounts of water. Why lettuce? Always the architect, Gaudm knew that the wrinkled leaves provided more surface area to hold the milk than a smooth leaf would have.

Van Hensbergen had a potentially insurmountable task before him in writing "Gaudm." Gaudm was intensely private; needless to say, he didn't keep a diary or confide much in others, and most of what personal papers existed got destroyed during the Spanish Civil War. That left the author to write a biography in which buildings play a role nearly as large as the book's namesake. He had to describe them in some detail, one after the other, without putting the reader to sleep.

But van Hensbergen pulls it off, and it's a good thing, because the book's one shortcoming is its unsatisfying selection of photographs. "Gaudm" should have been a coffee-table book, lavishly illustrated with large color photos. There are several picture sections, but all photos are small and only a handful are in color. While reading, you constantly want to see what van Hensbergen does such a good job of describing, and the photos provided just don't give an adequate degree of detail or variety of views. But that's quibbling, because what "Gaudm" conveys so well is the architect's astonishing inventiveness and singular aesthetics coupled with his virtuoso engineering skills and an utter mastery over materials and space. ("Looking at Gehry's Guggenheim [in Bilbao, Spain] -- heavily influenced by Gaudm's use of space -- we see just how far ahead of his time Gaudm was.")

Here, van Hensbergen describes the first "act" of Gaudm's Park G|ell, built for his most loyal (and deep-pocketed) patron, Eusebi G|ell: "The Park was planned like an opera, unfolding in three separate acts. The show would have opened on arrival at the gates flanked by a pair of mechanical gazelles that retreated into their cages as the iron gates creaked slowly open ... At the bottom of the steps, a small rock pool is fed water through the mouth of a serpent that wears a collar of the Catalan flag. Further up the stairs there is another mythical beast, a dragon straight out of Revelation."

Or here, describing Gaudm's mountainous apartment building, Casa Mila, van Hensbergen chooses to rely on those who saw it when it first "positively exploded onto the Barcelona architecture scene" and "its forms reverberated through the art world": "Like rising dough it filled out towards its perimeters," van Hensbergen writes. "Perucho described it as a 'kind of stone lung, breathing gently.' The bohemian, Francis Carco, likened it to 'a fantastic banner of concrete where only the flag-pole is missing.'" And van Hensbergen gives equal time to the building's detractors, who were legion. Love it or hate it, now, nearly a century old, Casa Mila still appears to spend every day melting under the Spanish sun -- Gaudm's own persistence of memory.

That both Freud and the surrealists were on the rise as Gaudm's career flourished is an intriguing coincidence. Gaudm, as conservative as he was, drew heavily from dreams, religion, mythology and his own obviously intense but stifled emotional life, though it's highly unlikely he was sympathetic to the ideas of either the surrealists or Freud. But in their time ideas become airborne and everyone breathes them in to some degree. Van Hensbergen contends that Gaudm simply wrote his autobiography in sculpture that happened to be buildings; he transformed his elaborate interior life into habitable monuments drenched in symbolism. "The real subject of the Casa Mila was more than a mountain -- it was a volcano," van Hensbergen says. "What the loose folds of the building's skin really alluded to was the slow relentless movement of lava. The same 'avenging lava' that had swept over Pompeii and buried that city famed for its sexual perversity. Gaudm had set out on his one-man crusade against materialism. The desire to punish bourgeois vanity was the building's unconscious meaning."

The book ends, naturally, with the work that consumed the last dozen years of Gaudm's life: the spectacular Sagrada Fammlia church. The Casa Mila was his last secular project, and as the earthquake called Picasso began to shake the art world, Gaudm's architecture was increasingly irrelevant in the eyes of younger architects. As he became an anachronism, he immersed himself in the creation of the Sagrada Fammlia, which is still under construction. He died in 1926 at age 74 after being hit by a streetcar. The last six months of his life were spent living in a small room in the Sagrada Fammlia.

One of the contradictions of Gaudm's life is that as he grew ever more conservative in his personal philosophy and more fanatical in his Catholicism, his architecture became more eccentric and flamboyant, not less. His "unfinished magnum opus," van Hensbergen says, "employed a wild stylistic kleptomania that pulled together the language of the waxworks, the diorama, the carnival, the landscape, the grotto, the fairground and the religious shrine into an elaborate whole."

"Gaudm's architecture was, despite its superficially fantastical appearance," van Hensbergen writes, "profoundly literal in a way that had not been seen in Europe for hundreds of years. Gaudm did what Goya and El Greco had done before him -- illustrated precisely the plastic reality of the spiritual world." And he did it in a way that even those who may be immersed in the sexy, whimsical material world still find fascinating.

Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

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