My Catalan language professor once mentioned that the Eiffel Tower would have been built in Barcelona hadn’t Gustave Eiffel’s proposal been rejected by the local government for fears that the soil would not be able to support its weight and also for the reason that the people didn’t want it. The year later, the project was carried out for the world exposition in the city none other than Paris. It was a relief that the tower wasn’t constructed in Barcelona after all. Otherwise, Antoni Gaudí’s unfinished masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia, would have had another rival as the city’s most prominent landmark.
Despite carefully planning our itinerary for the Barcelona trip, some changes were completely inevitable. Instead of showing them the history of the city in chronological order, we simply jumped from the Gothic period to the 19th-century Modernism. It was simply difficult to save the best for last. So, what we did the first thing in the morning on our second day was to head off to the Sagrada Familia, the biggest tourist magnet of Barcelona. More than 600 years after the Gothic period, the influence of this “cathedral-building” era still persists in the 21st century as we witness the construction of what would be considered the greatest work of Antoni Gaudí’s artistic career: Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Familia, an eccentric mixture of Gothic, modernism and Gaudí’s architectural style.
While many people are led to think that this is actually the cathedral, Gaudí’s building is simply a temple dedicated to the Holy Family. When I first came to the city in 2007, it was hardly imaginable that a big part of the construction would have been finished in a short span of time. Finally stepping into its brightly-lit interiors, I felt like being in a place I had never been before. With all the natural light that flooded the stained-glass windows, I instantly felt connected with nature as the towering pillars resembled big trunks of trees sprawling along the aisle. I experienced yet another “Stendhal syndrome” moment.
While many churches suffered the anarchist attacks on Barcelona, Gaudí’s monumental temple (that even dwarfs the main cathedral) has survived and still continues to rise to this day. Of course, not everyone was pleased at the sight of this humongous construction whose facade somehow resembles a melted candle. In fact, some writers showed their disgust on the building by considering it as “one of the most hideous constructions ever built” and that “the anarchists showed such a bad taste by not blowing it up when they had the chance to”. But I personally like the Sagrada Familia, realizing how this pious architect poured his entire life to achieve what was yet to become the greatest work of his career.
Considering his architectural works scattered around the city, it is no wonder that Gaudí has become synonymous with Barcelona. As my mother and her friend were left fascinated by the Sagrada Familia, we continued walking around the barrio until we ended up along the grand boulevard of Passeig de Gràcia. While Gaudí has pretty much represented the Modernisme period, there were also other names that gave Barcelona a new architectural identity.
It was in the course of the mid-19th century, when the city, mostly confined within the walls of the old town, was in desperate need of expansion. A solution was made by tearing down the much hated 18th-century citadel that used to symbolize the repressive Bourbon power over Catalunya but at the same time, preserving the Roman and medieval fortifications that still stand today. Through the master plan carried out by Ildefons Cerdà, a new territory of the city was born on the outskirts of the Ciutat Vella at L’Eixample, which literally means “extension”. The newly acquired district was created in uniform grids to solve the sanitary problems and other conditions within the old city quarter. Right in this very part is where the Sagrada Familia stands along with other Modernisme masterpieces at Passeig de Gràcia.
We found yet another series of incoherent buildings that exhibited their peculiar beauty along the grand boulevard. Hence the name, Manzana de la Discordia or Block of Discord. These four extravagant-looking houses are what symbolizes the Modernism spirit of Barcelona. I could only think that these architects (Domènech i Montaner, Sagnier, Puig i Cadalfach and Gaudí) were trying to do a showdown of their artistic and eccentric imagination. Another Gaudí masterpiece stands on the same boulevard: the Casa Milà. It wouldn’t have been spared from the ruthless bombings had Gaudí left an image or a religious symbol on its facade.
The only memory I have of the building was when I got a glimpse of Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” during its filming and the time I had to throw up after waiting in a long queue due to my birthday hangover with my Russian roommate in 2007. Oh well, I was young and didn’t know what I was doing.
Nestled on top of a hill with a stunning 360° view of the entire city, we then proceeded to Parc Güell, a massive complex that was intended to be a housing project for a colony of workers of the industrialist Eusebi Güell i Bacigalupi, a community in which the residents would be able to provide for their own. There would be a market, a church, a school or even their own football team. Although a capitalistic idea was lurking behind this strategy, on the brighter side though, it would have been ideal for the people not to leave its premises to cater their needs.
The Catalan businessman also served as Gaudí’s greatest patron that he even commissioned the architect to design Palau Güell along Carrer Nou de la Rambla at El Raval as well as Pabellones Güell close to the Monastery of Pedralbes. After Güell’s death, the unfinished housing colony was donated to the city government and reopened as a public park. Unfortunately, due to the uncontrollable number of tourists that enter its premises, the city council has now tried to manage its visitors by charging fees.
We had a long day of walking and exploring the 19th century art nouveau architecture around Barcelona. Though I knew how tired they were after our excursion, it was a rewarding adventure to experience the colorful buildings and the spirit of Modernism. And of course, giving my mother and her friend my services as a tour guide was the least thing I could do for this sponsored trip. And the best way to conclude the exhausting day was to listen to the soothing guitar sounds in a concert at– well– the Gothic church of Santa María del Pi.