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Controversy Endures Over Gaudi's Puzzling Barcelona Architecture : Gaudi's Puzzling Architecture Gaining New Fame Beyond Barcelona

May 23, 1986|STANLEY MEISLER | Times Staff Writer

BARCELONA, Spain — Few of the world's great architects are identified with a single city the way Antonio Gaudi is identified with Barcelona. The works of Gaudi, who died 60 years ago, can still startle any visitor, and the towers of his unfinished temple known as the Sagrada Familia have become a symbol of Catalonia's capital much as Paris has the Eiffel Tower and New York the Statue of Liberty.

Gaudi, a puzzling figure in the history of architecture, has become almost a cult figure now. Speaking carefully but robustly from the Barcelona apartment where he is now confined by age, 95-year-old Isidre Puig Boada, an architect who worked with Gaudi early in this century and directed construction of the Sagrada Familia many years after Gaudi's death, said recently, "Next to all other architects, Gaudi is the sun."

For much of this century, Gaudi was regarded by critics outside Barcelona as an eccentric architect of wild if wonderful imagination, constructing his buildings almost the way children play with mud castles. But that view has changed.

"When I was young," said Eric Dentan, a French architect who is a professor at the Institute of Visual Arts of Orleans, France, "I used to think that Gaudi was someone apart from the mainstream of architecture, a special case. Now I understand him better.

'A Gothic Artist'

"He is a Gothic artist," Dentan went on, "not in the sense that he imitates Gothic architecture, but in the sense that he uses the material around him to create. He is also a modern. If you examine his work closely, you see not only that he has followed the logic of his material but that he has created something to fit the needs of those who are going to use it."

Gaudi still generates controversy. Many young Catalans, in an epoch when Spaniards are reacting against the strong Catholicism of the late dictator Francisco Franco, do not like the plans by religious groups to complete the Sagrada Familia and turn it into to what the Roman Catholic Church calls "an expiatory temple."

Other critics say construction should stop and the unfinished temple left as a monument to the architecture of Gaudi. In 1965, the Catalan painter Joan Miro and the Swiss architect Le Corbusier signed a petition demanding a halt. In 1971, 123 architects wrote an ope1847618661the construction.

But, whether they favor completing the temple or not, Catalans seem to agree about the genius of Gaudi. He is looked on as one of the giants of Catalan culture, on the same level as Miro. It is impossible to ignore him in Barcelona. Residents insist that visitors spend a good deal of time taking in the detail of some of his masterwork1931504745apartment building known as the Pedrera (Quarry).

More outsiders may get to know Gaudi well if, as the city hopes, Barcelona is selected to host the 1992 Olympics.

Art Nouveau Movement

Gaudi, who was born in 1852 in the Catalan town of Reus, worked at a time when artists throughout Europe were attracted by the ideas of the Art Nouveau movement that began in England. Followers of Art Nouveau, influenced by their studies of the Middle Ages, fashioned a highly decorative style that emphasized curving, entwined lines and exotic, sometimes erotic symbols. The movement, which had different names in different countries, was known as modernism in Spain. Gaudi was modernism's most reknowned artist.

In 1883, Gaudi was commissioned to construct the Sagrada Familia (Holy Family), a church that had been started under another architect's plans. He chose to begin anew, working intermittently on the grand project. While doing so, he took on many other projects and became famous as the favored architect of rich, bourgeois industrial families of Barcelona, who sponsored and paid for his curving buildings decorated by sculpted forms and colored ceramic.

At the height of his reputation in 1918, Gaudi stopped accepting private commissions and devoted himself entirely to the Sagrada Familia. Work on the temple was still not finished in 1926 when he was struck down by a trolley in Barcelona. Unrecognized, Gaudi was taken unconscious to a hospital where he died several days later.

Gaudi's Finest Work

Barcelona admirers of Gaudi rank the Pedrera apartment building on Paseo de Gracia as his finest work. It looks like a mountain of stone with undulating stories sprouting wrought iron bush, all topped by a roof of strange sculpted forms. Yet the building somehow fits into the fashionable neighborhood.

La Pedrera, completed in 1910, is not an empty monument to Gaudi but a building in constant use both by private residents and commercial enterprises. A neon sign in front of the abstract door makes this clear, advertising a popular pastime inside by flashing the word "bingo" outside.

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