Can One Man Resist the Lure of Gaudí in Barcelona?

By William Powers
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 26, 2009

When the waiter placed a steaming pot of paella in front of me, my hair was still damp from a Mediterranean swim. As I savored lemony forkfuls of rice and prawn at a Barceloneta Beach area sidewalk table, Barcelona's ocher beauty simmered decadently all around me. Equally delicious: daydreams of the midday siesta to come.

Barcelona offers so much that I figured I didn't need Antoni Gaudí to make my week-long vacation complete. Yes, I know what they say. When in "Barthelona," you absolutely must visit the Catalan super-architect's Sagrada Familia cathedral and his six other UNESCO-anointed masterworks. You, that is, and several million other visitors in lines snaked around corners, relentlessly pestered by Gaudí widget-hawkers.

No, I hadn't come to the Catalan capital for Gaudí, but rather for the seductive mix of languor and classy urbanism that has led Barcelona to be dubbed the southernmost city of northern Europe. No hammock-strewn Costa Brava hamlet, this. Taxis and buses whizzed by my table, high capitalism woven right into Spanish insouciance. Barcelona possesses everything from a thriving port to a top fashion and art culture; it's Spain with a pulse.

After my paella lunch, the city's energy buoyed my spirits so much that I didn't require that siesta. Instead, I strolled up one of the city's ramblas, or elegant pedestrian-only streets, through the majestic Placa de Catalunya and then -- unable to resist a peek -- took the back streets to Gaudí's Casa Mila, a large office building that wraps itself around a corner.

One look at Mila was enough to surface deep wells of ambivalence. I have, it seems, a love-hate relationship with Gaudí. Despite how touristy the place was, I couldn't help admiring how he ingeniously weaves nature's curves and angles into his designs. Nobody but Gaudí would have thought to give a building's rigid verticals a subtle lilt by mimicking the way people stand upright. I stood there adoring the Mila's cacophonous balconies and the way the entire building waved and rolled around the corner, as if a Mediterranean tsunami were flooding the city.

Not a man of small vision, Gaudí called another of his buildings -- the famous Sagrada Familia -- "the last great sanctuary of Christendom." Its design calls for 18 spindle-shaped towers to represent the 12 apostles, four evangelists, the Virgin Mary and, tallest of all, Jesus Christ. Time did not affect Gaudí the way it does most people. Based on methods available in his era (Gaudí died in 1926), the cavernous Sagrada was to take not several years, but rather several hundred to complete. When criticized once for his long-term approach, Gaudí is said to have gazed slightly heavenward and replied: "My client is not in a rush." (Today, with computer-aided design and manufacturing technology, the projected completion date for the Sagrada Familia is 2026, the centennial of Gaudí's death.)

But just as I was falling under the spell of the Casa Mila, a shrill scream ripped into my eardrums. "Gaudí T-shirts!" a vendor cried. Tourists pressed in around me, snapping photos, and I was forced to ask the inevitable question: Was Gaudí now gaudy, so iconic as to cross the fine line of cliche?

I wondered how I would have felt about Casa Mila about a century back when it was mocked as La Pedrera ("the quarry"), or when George Orwell, who spent time in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, publicly announced a loathing for Gaudí's architecture. Quite ironically, I certainly would have adored it when it was so bitterly criticized. Something in me insists that everything popular must be wrong and prefers art that's out of favor, that shocks and even rebels. Alas, as the crowds oohed and ahhed, and bought Gaudí T-shirts and key chains, I turned and fled. I was after a Barcelona with a minimum of Antoni Gaudí.

A Loft in Bohemian Raval

To that end I rented a small loft in the working-class and bohemian Raval district, far from the Sagrada Familia hordes. The owner, an anti-globalization activist and Irish expatriate with a shaved head and nipple rings, handed me the keys before disappearing into his adjoining loft with his Venezuelan boyfriend.

The New Yorker magazine recently noted that "a kind of restaurant-and-studio bohemia" is "still a possible way of life in Barcelona, perhaps," and I was curious about that. So I took the obvious first step: I bought some clothes.

I'm normally allergic to shopping, but I decided to indulge my inner metrosexual by buying a pair of hip leather shoes and two vaguely vintage-1970s button-down shirts. Feeling stylish enough for Barcelona, I hit the Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso museums, and then I strolled the halls of the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art and some private galleries to see what today's Catalan and Spanish artists were building on the foundation of Miró and Picasso. Not much, sadly. Both in the galleries and the patio-cafes where I eavesdropped as los artistas chatted about their work and their therapists, I sensed that the nihilistic work I kept seeing was linked to medium-size cases of ego absorption.

And it was difficult not to hold these artists up against the yardstick of Gaudí. In addition to being a devout Catholic, Gaudí championed Catalan sovereignty by subversively blending local culture into his designs and supporting the Catalan political party, the Regionalist League. He was even arrested by Spanish authorities in Barcelona in 1924 for answering them in Catalan.

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