How Antoni Gaudí’s Eccentric Style Changed the Face of Modernist Architecture

With his extravagant, shapeshifting structures that drew on a variety of sources, from the Arts and Crafts movement of the 19th century to Islamic and Asian architecture to traditional Catalan forms and beyond, Antoni Gaudí became one of the most famous architects of the first half of the 20th-century. He remains a pioneering figure of Art Nouveau and modernisme, or Catalan Modernism. Gaudí is best known for his intricate structures throughout Barcelona, with the storied Basílica de la Sagrada Família having become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe in the last century. The following guide traces Gaudí’s rise to prominence in the Spanish city, highlighting some of his most famous contributions to its landscape.

Gaudí early interest in nature influenced his architecture.
Born in 1852 in the Catalonian city of Reus, Gaudí drew inspiration early on from his family’s boiler-making business. As a working architect, Gaudí later said that he had “that ability to feel, to see the space because I am the son of a boilermaker. The boilermaker is a man who makes a volume out of a surface; he sees the space before he begins working.” Suffering from health problems as a child, Gaudí spent extended periods at a summer home in the Spanish town of Riudoms, where he spent much of his time observing and studying the natural world. Experiences of this kind are believed to have shaped his architectural style, potentially laying the groundwork for his structures’ biomorphic forms.

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Gaudí’s career in Barcelona began when he was a young adult.
The architect graduated from Barcelona’s School of Architecture in 1878. At the time, the institution’s director, Elies Rogent, famously said, “I do not know if we have awarded this degree to a madman or to a genius; only time will tell.” That same year, he designed a display case for a Barcelona glove shop owned by Esteve Comella, and the piece was subsequently shown at the World’s Fair in Paris. Gaudí’s first commission from the Barcelona City Council came in 1879, when he designed public lampposts that remain installed in the city’s Plaça Reial and Pla del Palau today.

Antoni Gaudí's Casa Vicens in Barcelona

Antoni Gaudí’s Casa Vicens in Barcelona.

His mark on the city grew in the 1880s as he refined his distinctive style.
Gaudí’s first residential project was the construction of Casa Vicens, which was built between 1883 and 1885. The structure was commissioned by the financier Manuel Vicens i Montaner and meant to serve as a summer home for his family. Situated in Barcelona’s Gràcia neighborhood on Carrer de les Carolines, Casa Vicens features bright red accents, mesmerizing arrangements of checkered tiles, and slender minarets extending above its roof. During this period, Gaudí designed another summer home in the northern town of Comillas for Máximo Díaz de Quijano, who was the brother-in-law of the marquis of Comillas. The villa, called El Capricho, features a striking red and green tower, an ornate portico, and rounded walls. In this decade, Gaudí also received his first commission from the Barcelona entrepreneur Eusebi Güell, who would become a noted patron of the architect’s work.

Inside the Sagrada Família in Barcelona

Inside the Sagrada Família in Barcelona.

Gaudí started working on the Basílica de la Sagrada Família in 1883.
Gaudí took on his most famous project, the Basílica de la Sagrada Família in Barcelona, in 1883, one year after the architect Francisco de Paula del Villar had made an initial proposal for the structure. Gaudí strayed from that neo-Gothic plan for the cathedral, which was scrapped due to financial concerns relating to materials and production, and opted for a more unconventional design. When Gaudi died, just one part of the cathedral—the church’s bell tower dedicated to the apostle Barnabas—was completed. Now one of Spain’s most-visited attractions, the Sagrada Família’s construction remains incomplete, and officials announced in 2020 that it is expected to be finished in 2026, which will be the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s death. The Sagrada Família, whose iconic exterior is marked by a cluster of intricate spires and highly detailed sculptural depictions of the life of Jesus Christ, features 56 columns branching into a ceiling full of kaleidoscopic shapes and stained glass windows in electric blue, green, red, and orange hues. These otherworldly, phantasmagoric elements stand in stark contrast to the subtler and less showy look of many cathedrals in Europe.

The main entrance to Park Güell in Barcelona

The main entrance to Park Güell in Barcelona.

In the early 1900s, Gaudí executed some of his best-known structures around Barcelona.
Most of Gaudí’s most famous structures were built in the early 20th-century. Among the projects from those years are the sprawling Park Güell, which was completed between 1900 and 1914 and contains sculptures, architectural elements, and gardens; the Casa Batlló, a building that was once residential and now features skeletal-like details on its facade; and the undulating apartment building Casa Milà, also known as La Pedrera, which was the last residence designed by Gaudí and still houses tenants today. Central to all three of those structures are elements situated on different levels. In the cases of Casa Batlló and La Pedrera, walkable roofs offer visitors entirely new experiences of the structures, while at Park Güell, features peaks and outlooks that provide viewers with new perspectives of the public park and city beyond. In 1910, an exhibition dedicated to Gaudi’s work was presented by the Société des Beaux-Arts in Paris, with photographs, models, and plans of his structures on view. A year later he showed many of the same pieces at the First National Architecture Salon in Madrid.

The facade of Casa Milà (La Pedrera) in Barcelona

The facade of Casa Milà (La Pedrera) in Barcelona.

Gaudí met an untimely death, but his mark on art history and modern architecture has become indelible.
The architect was killed after being hit by a tram in 1926, and he was buried in the crypt of the Sagrada Família following a funeral that drew huge crowds in Barcelona. Seven of his structures—Park Güell, Palacio Güell, Casa Mila, Casa Vicens, the Nativity façade and crypt of La Sagrada Família, Casa Batlló, and the crypt in Colonia Güell—are designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites, and his idiosyncratic, madcap style pushed the boundaries of 20th-century architectural conventions.


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