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Parc Güell and La Sagrada Familia

Published Sat 12 June 2010 18:48 (+1200)
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Barcelona's a cool city to visit, but I think to many it's best known for the architectural works of Antonio Gaudí – and fair enough, they're awesome!

Parc Güell

Mosaic decorations on the seating around the plaza in Parque Güell
Mosaic decorations on the seating around the plaza in Parque Güell
In the Suessian Parque Güell
In the Suessian Parque Güell
Parque Guell entrance buildings
Parque Guell entrance buildings

Parc Güell is an unusual site because it's not so much a building as a collection of Gaudí-designed bits and bobs up the hill. The main space in the park is a big flat terrace, which is artificially built out from the hill. The space underneath the terrace is left hollow – it's a usable space – and is tiled with colorful tile mosaics. There's a cute 3d dragon tile mosaic at the start of the steps up to this space – some dickhead vandalised it in 2007 but it's been restored.

Ringing the front edge of that terrace Gaudí made a long bench seat with flowing curves, basically dividing it into booths, which are decorated on the back with more mosaic tile patterns, so the whole place has this style carrying through.

There's a walkway that leads up in a loop from the back ends of the terrace, which is honestly like something out of Dr Seuss – see the pillars I'm standing between in the photo. The little buildings at the entrance to the park, are done in the same kind of style – bubbly tile roofs and chimney and all, and the high-traffic areas around the entrance have it too.

Definitely a fun place.

Incidentally Güell was Gaudí's patron from a time when his work was ridiculed by his peers, and he actually lived at the site at one point – it was originally going to be a housing development. (It didn't take off despite having Güell as the tenant in the first house, and Gaudí later moved his family into the second house, which had been the show-home.)

Later the Güell family gave the land to the city, and so we can now visit the park, free.

La Sagrada Familia

About the only traditional bit of La Sagrada Familia
About the only traditional bit of La Sagrada Familia
Bunches of fruit on top of La Sagrada Familia
Bunches of fruit on top of La Sagrada Familia
Slanting pillars and clusters of sculptures at the entrance to La Sagrada Familia
Slanting pillars and clusters of sculptures at the entrance to La Sagrada Familia
Windows and light in La Sagrada Familia
Windows and light in La Sagrada Familia
Stained-glass windows in La Sagrada Familia
Stained-glass windows in La Sagrada Familia
Stairwell in a La Sagrada Familia spire
Stairwell in a La Sagrada Familia spire
Spires of La Sagrada Familia
Spires of La Sagrada Familia
Sketch of that La Sagrada Familia Cubist sculpture
Sketch of that La Sagrada Familia Cubist sculpture
Styley sketch of La Sagrada Familia Cubist sculpture
Styley sketch of La Sagrada Familia Cubist sculpture

Gaudí's famous cathedral is really only just getting started – unlike most stuff he worked on, he knew that this one would take much longer than his life and that a number of people would work on it over the years. He wanted it to be funded exclusively from private donations rather than by the city or bigwigs, and lack of funds has repeatedly stalled development. Still, even what's there is enough to make it one of the most distinctive cathedrals in the world.

‘La Sagrada Familia’ means The Holy Family, and the complete thing will have many, many more spires than those already built – 18 in theory, one for Jesus, a smaller one for the Virgin Mary, four for the evangelists a bit smaller, and then finally the 12 apostles smaller still.

You can walk right up one of the spires to see some of the statues (and more tile mosaic decorations), but it's a very long wait in the queue and then crowded up the top – guess having 18 towers should help a bit with that as long as people don't just go for the biggest ones.

(I have mixed feelings about whether it's worth going up – it was cool to look from up there, but it wasn't quite amazing, and when you factor in the cost and waiting time I think I'd fairly consider rolling on to any of the other many attractions in Barcelona.)

Still, it is interesting waiting in the interior of the church, despite the bulk of it being fenced off while they work on construction, the vaulting is very unusual and the windows make pretty patterns on it.

The lower parts of the church are even more unconventional – those are bunches of fruit on top of the triangular bits! The pillars down the bottom by the main entrance are all angled in, and there are very striking cubist sculptures above and around the door, whose sharp lines and angles are almost the polar opposite of Gaudí's own rounded architecture style, especially visible in Casa Batlló which we went to next.

There's a small museumy bit in the crypt below, which was interesting – and I loved the design sketches for the cubist sculptures, perhaps even more striking in black and white than in the stone-on-stone you see when you look at the real thing. I love the composition of the knight one!

Upside-down weights model to determine the pillars for the crypt of the Church of Colònia Güell
Upside-down weights model to determine the pillars for the crypt of the Church of Colònia Güell

There's also a display there of the pre-computer-era technique Gaudí used to determine the appropriate strengths and curves for such buildings. It's actually the model for the crypt a much smaller church which was to be the main place of worship for Colonia Güell – another planned suburb by the same patron above, near Barcelona.

(When Güell ran out of cash work on the crypt stopped, but you can visit it and now that some modern architects have gone and shored up the incomplete works a bit, you can walk on it – I'm keen to go out and check it out.)

So anyway, what he did was to hang on strings little bags of weight to represent the force exerted from the load he wants the structure to bear at that place – but here the whole thing is upside down. He then took the shape that the strings fell into as the shape for the structural elements of the building.

So I think the idea is that rather than trying to simulate the pillars and whatnot to see if they and their arrangement is strong enough to bear the load, he's finding out what shape would naturally distribute the forces completely evenly down the structural elements, which is therefore the most natural and safest arrangement for him to mimic.

He was a long, long way ahead of his time in trying to do this kind of modelling and feeding the results into his design.

Incidentally, I discovered that one of the main architects advising the stonemasons working on La Sagrada Familia is Mark Burry, a Kiwi research fellow at Victoria Uni here in Wellington. This article talks a bit about the history of the project and Gaudí's principles and how Burry got involved.