Search for the man beneath the robes of the priest-artist

August 23, 2002

Falling in love with Gaudí is a breathtaking experience - especially at the age of 17, as I was, on my first visit to Barcelona. The feast of bright colours, the sensuality of the curved forms and the way the light plays off his buildings and sculptures powerfully captivated my imagination.

Yet Antoni Gaudí, the man, remains an enigma, given the lack of personal or other archives that exist in the form of correspondence, a diary or notes. Virtually all of these were destroyed in 1936 at the beginning of the Spanish civil war.

Gijs van Hensbergen, a lecturer in architecture and author of a book on art deco, has nevertheless bravely taken on the challenge of trying to find out more.

His choice of title shows the extent of his ambition. Unlike previous studies on the architect, which focused mainly on his work, van Hensbergen has put Gaudí into the social, political and historical context of his time. He believes that the disturbing events of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Barcelona, when industrialisation caused workers to riot on the streets, played a central role in shaping Gaudí's concept of his work. Gaudí became renowned for his abrupt manner, stubbornness and arrogance, coupled with a generosity, passion and enthusiasm that drove the megalomaniac ambition of what he produced.

Early disappointments in love caused him to turn to work and God. A strict vegetarian, dedicated Catholic and proud Catalan, he devoted his energy to his buildings, which were designed to enhance the glory of the Creator. This was something quickly spotted by the church, one of the architect's main patrons, at a time when there was a revival both of the nationalistic spirit and the importance of Catholicism in Catalonia.

One advantage of the lack of material about Gaudí is that it has given van Hensbergen the opportunity to depict interesting supporting characters such as Eusebi Guell, Gaudí's lifelong patron. Guell's money and desire to gain moral authority allowed the creation of some of Gaudí's most astonishing works, such as the Park Guell, one of Barcelona's landmarks.

The book has been written with enthusiasm and a willingness to understand the intricacies of such a complex mind as Gaudí's. It is likely to have as wide a popular appeal as the work of the "priest-artist" himself. But it is also a valuable source of reference for those who study the legacy of "arguably the most famous architect in the world".

Yet it is somewhat lacking in criticism. Exposing some of the theoretical arguments that explain why architects all over the world refuse to identify themselves with Gaud! would have been helpful in giving a better understanding of the man and his work. Van Hensbergen does refer to criticism of his eccentricity, but just says that "this view ignores the reactive nature of his methodology".

The fact that many of Gaudí's buildings were not finished leads van Hensbergen to state: "Gaudí's legacy in terms of the strict canon of architecture is still far from clear. He had some followers but created no global style.

If Gaudí's ambition was to rethink the whole language of architecture, it was an impossible one. What Gaudí strove for - in vain - was universality."

Susana Fernández Caro is a Spanish journalist.

Gaudí: The biography

Author - Gijs van Hensbergen
ISBN - 000 25556243
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £24.99
Pages - 322

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