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Newsletter | Jan/Feb 2003


Notes From Barcelona


D'vora Treisman, former OWA Administrative Assistant and newsletter editor for many years is now living in Barcelona where she is writing a book about her move, at mid-life, to a new country. She has also started Barcelona Footprints, a business conducting private architecture and shopping walking tours of the city. Recently our members Pauline Chin and Tracey Bornstein visited her and had a wonderful time. D'vora invites you to visit her website.

Late one summer evening we went to an outdoor concert -- one of a series of city-sponsored concerts given in many of the public parks. Concerts here in Barcelona rarely start before nine: this one began at ten fifteen and let out at midnight. It was a classical guitar and piano recital, held in Antoni Gaudi's Parc Guell, a singularly unusual space and one of the city's many treasures.

Antoni Gaudi i Cornet, the most famous of Spanish architects, was a Catalan who came to Barcelona from nearby Reus to study architecture, and remained here to become one of the foremost architects of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He worked in the style called Modernisme, the Catalan version of art nouveau. Like art nouveau, modernista designs are sensuously curvaceous and abounding in floral motifs. But whereas the work of all the other modernista architects have something recognizably in common with each other, utilizing the floral motifs of the period as decorative elements, Gaudi's mature designs incorporate the forms of nature into the structure itself so that each stands out as a one-of-a-kind fantasy. They are almost surreal, but unlike the harsh surreal paintings of his countryman, the Catalan painter Salvador Dali, the designs of Gaudi are soft, lyrical, and often whimsical, and in the case of his unfinished church, the Sagrada Familia, the emblem of Barcelona, even ethereal. Even now, a hundred years after it was created, his work still looks modern.

Parc Guell was commissioned by Eusebi Guell, Gaudi's most frequent patron, and was meant to be a community of garden houses for the wealthy. The area was laid out, the park and two of the houses were built, but the rest of the project was never finished. What remains is one of the world's most unusual parks with arcades made from natural rock, a colorful, tiled, serpent fountain, and a large open plaza rimmed by a curvilinear bench dressed in a colorful mosaic of broken tiles called trencadis with a view overlooking Barcelona and the Mediterranean.

For the concert, we sat in the Sala Hipostile, a pavilion under the plaza that was intended to house the community market. It's a spacious, open structure that backs into the hillside and is supported by Doric columns, those at the outer edge leaning inward so that when you look across the space, the vertical lines are not parallel. If the effect upsets my equilibrium and even makes me feel slightly ill, it is nevertheless very grand and other-worldly, and reminds me of what Valhalla must look like.

Another day we went to see Gaudi's Casa Mila, a seven-storey apartment block, nicknamed La Pedrera (the Quarry). Made of white stone, it seems to me that Gaudi was thinking of the ocean when he designed it. It undulates like the waves of the sea with no straight lines anywhere -- not in the fašade, which rolls back and forth while it continuously curves all the way around a city corner, not in the hallways, not in the apartments, nor on the roof -- a moonscape of giant chimneys and ventilation towers dressed in the trencadis method of broken bits of tile, looking remarkably like characters from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Gaudi created this phantasm in 1905.

La Pedrera is owned now by one of the big banks, and they have made several parts of this private apartment building open to the public. One part is an art exhibition space that was redone with straight white walls for hanging pictures, but on the way in you pass through the courtyard and up the stairs where no surface is plain -- it's all a coalescence of curves and textures and colors. I've seen exhibits of Goya and Chagall there. Another part is an apartment that is furnished in the style typical of the period. It is interesting to see the rigid Victorian pieces mixed in with the soft curvilinear designs of Gaudi and other modernista designers.

The attic, which was once used for storage, has been opened up and now serves as a museum. It is a fascinating place to study the form of the building, as all the brick arches are exposed there. From the extraordinary roof you can again see all of Barcelona and the Mediterranean beyond.

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