Hubert Burda Media

VAULTING AMBITION

We travel to Barcelona to marvel at the organic, sinuous and sinewy constructions of Catalonian architect Antoni Gaudí, and finds a work in progress.

VAULTING AMBITION

STYLISH BARCELONA BOASTS what is, arguably, the world's greatest football team – an average of more than 80,000 passionate fans attend each FC Barcelona game. The flamboyant Catalan city's favourite son, however, is not lightning-footed Lionel Messi (albeit adopted, having been born in Argentina), Barca's model-dating, multimillionaire captain and all-time top goal scorer. The man who represents Barcelona more than any other was a frugal, celibate and God-fearing architect who was knocked down and killed by a dawdling tram in 1926. Many believe Antoni Gaudí may have been just a tad bonkers.

Today, Barcelona's Camp Nou stadium is the monumental city landmark where Messi and teammates reveal their fluid yet disciplined playing style, made all the more thrilling by explosive bursts of exuberant individualism. If the timing of your visit to football-mad Barcelona doesn't line up with a game, however, take a tour of Gaudí's wonders instead. The late architect's city landmarks reveal…well, they reveal Gaudí's fluid yet disciplined style, made all the more thrilling by explosive bursts of exuberant individualism.

Repetition, in fact, was crucial to Gaudí's Modernista vision (modernism being a Barcelona-centred cultural movement that flourished in the final and first decades of the 19th and 20th centuries respectively). In believing that “originality is returning to the origin”, and that the origin of all things is nature, which was created by God, then, the eccentric architect extrapolated, the surest way of finding beauty, of achieving structural efficiency, and ultimately of honouring the creator, was by mimicking the natural world. “Nothing is art if it does not come from nature,” the pious Gaudí decreed.

An oddball synthesis of neo-Gothic, art nouveau and Middle-Eastern elements, nonconformist Gaudí's style was characterised by the recurring use of organic forms suggesting muscles, sinew and bones, of flowers, trees, seashells and the Catalonian countryside. Straight lines were so yesterday for the devout Catholic. Sinuous and sensuous curves, as well as vivid colour palettes, were definitely on-trend.

Seven of Gaudí's creations located in or near Barcelona are Unesco World Heritage sites. Two of those are offbeat apartment buildings on the tree-lined avenue Passeig de Gràcia in the Eixample district – historically, and still, the most chic and prosperous part of town. Passeig de Gràcia, in fact, with its Prada, Loewe, Gucci and Adolfo Dominguez boutiques, is regarded as the most exclusive street in all of Spain.

Pop a champagne cork at Passeig de Gràcia's Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona and it might shatter the stained-glass panels in an egg or apple-shaped window of Gaudí's Casa Batlló, which sits across the street from the hotel on the Mançana de la Discòrdia (“Block of Discord”), so tagged for its kooky and clashing buildings that were created by a quartet of Barcelona's most celebrated Modernista architects).

Gaudí was commissioned by affluent textile industrialist Josep Batlló i Casanovas to reimagine his existing property in 1904, and though the architect chose a life of acute austerity for himself, he clearly wasn't averse to blowing as much of rich folks' cash as he could. Showy, surreal and charged with symbolism, Casa Batlló has been called “a decadent and deranged fantasy writ large”.

Colour plays a major role in the Casa Batlló drama, and the building's extravagant facade is decorated with a mosaic of smashed ceramic and glass tiles in shades of blue, green and orange. It's believed that Gaudí was influenced by the legend of dragonslaying St George (patron saint of Catalonia, and known locally as Sant Jordi), and the Casa Batlló's rooftop undulates and arches, and is covered in overlapping tiles like a great reptile's back.

The Casa Batlló's balconies resemble carnival masks, but could also be interpreted as creepy representations of sun-bleached ribcages. The skeletal stonework of the lower floors features columns shaped like human femurs, perhaps the remains of the dragon's victims. The nickname for the building is, after all, Casa dels Ossos, or “House of Bones”.

Gaudí frequently insisted, when accepting assignments, that he took the design helm for the entire project. He would personally conceive of everything from door handles, banisters and skylights to fireplaces, doors, furniture, even the script used for apartment numbers; and the Casa Batlló's interior, with its erosion-inspired curves, muted hues and marine allusions, suggests a dream-like undersea realm imagined, perhaps, by Jules Verne.

A short stroll north of the Casa Batlló – passing Burberry, Bulgari and Armand Basi stores – and the Barcelona visitor will stumble upon Gaudí's Casa Milà, which the architect designed and built between 1905 and 1910. Gaudí's client on this occasion was a married couple: rich developer Pere Milà i Camps and his even wealthier wife Rosario Segimon, the widow of businessman José Guardiola, who had amassed a substantial fortune in Spain's American colonies. It's said that Barcelonans, when they ridiculed Milà's ostentatious manner, wondered aloud whether he was in love with “Guardiola's widow” or “the widow's guardiola” (piggy, in Catalan, and referring to her piggy bank).

Larger and more monolithic than fanciful Casa Batlló, imposing Casa Milà's eight floors appear as a rising and rippling exterior arrangement of stone waves with “seaweed” balconies, forged in wrought iron, floating on their crests. Gaudí's increasing boldness aroused a negative reaction, however, and the building became known as La Pedrera, or “the Stone Quarry”, for its brutal and rough-hewn finish.

Today, the Casa Milà is recognised not only as an artistic masterpiece but also for architectural advances such as its selfsupporting facade, underground car park, and segregated lifts and stairs for residents and servants. Hundreds of visitors converge on the structure every day, most agreeing that the high point is the Casa Milà's undulating rooftop that features massive ventilation ducts and chimney stacks, many sculpted to resemble gangs of fearsome Roman centurions.

From this vantage point, looking northeastward over low-rise Barcelona, one can easily see a towering place of worship even more impressive than Barca's Camp Nou stadium. The size of Gaudí's awe-inspiring magnum opus – La Sagrada Família, or “the Sacred Family Church” – makes it unmissable.

The obsessive Gaudí, in fact, began working on La Sagrada Família in 1883, when he was just 31 years old. The solitary but fearless architect didn't think big, he thought gargantuan, envisioning curvilinear spires looming hundreds of feet towards the heavens and effortlessly dominating the Catalan city that reveres him to this day.

Gaudí fully understood that the massive undertaking could never be completed in his lifetime, and funding was often a problem, hence his need for patronage from the cashed-up likes of Batlló and Milà (the latter's apartment building on fashionable Passeig de Gràcia, in fact, was Gaudí's last secular assignment before he devoted the remainder of his life to La Sagrada Família). Whenever he was asked why progress was so plodding, Gaudí would refer to his God. “My client,” he would say, “is not in a hurry.”

Now, 130 years after Gaudí's acceptance of his life-defining task, La Sagrada Família is still far from complete and remains a work in progress; its ongoing construction is financed by the millions of tourists who drop by each year to marvel at Gaudí's unique artistic sensibility and single-minded audacity.

While La Sagrada Família's exterior features elaborate stone facades presenting a detailed visual narrative of Christ's life, the interior – with its tangled forest of tree-like stone columns, each splitting into multiple branches to support Gaudí's most ambitious of designs – is the ultimate expression of one man's pathological desire to fuse the natural with the divine through architecture. The year of La Sagrada Família's projected completion is 2026, by the way, exactly 100 years since Gaudí's demise under the wheels of that Barcelona tram. If they make it in time, it will surely be a miracle.