Seven architectural properties by Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) are classified as works of “Outstanding Universal Value” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
It’s easy to see why; Gaudi’s organic, free-flowing shapes and vibrant colours are remarkable across a sea of muted buildings, and any of his distinctive works can be spotted a mile away.
Breaking away from tradition, Gaudi’s works were largely shaped by the Art Nouveau movement, or the regional variation referred to as Catalan modernism.
Read on to learn more about the Catalan architect’s life, career, and to discover some of Gaudi’s greatest works.
IS ANTONI GAUDI A MADMAN OR GENIUS?
Gaudi was born in 1852 in Reus, a town in the Tarragona province that is about sixty miles from Barcelona (or about a 1.5-hour drive away, today).
His ancestors originated from the Auvergne region in France and moved to Catalonia in the 17th century.
In school, he excelled in geometry and subjects that involved three-dimensional modelling.
In 1868, when he was 16, he moved to Barcelona to study architecture – studies that were interrupted by obligatory military service but that he was able to resume with frequent sick leave due to his poor health.
He also helped with foundation work at Parc Ciutadella as a draftsperson.
“I do not know if we have awarded this degree to a madman or to a genius; only time will tell,” famously said the director of the programme, when Gaudi graduated.
Unlike many great architects and artists who made it late in their careers, Gaudi’s success took off rather quickly – locally, that is.
His first commission was from the Barcelona City Council, which asked the young architect, a fresh graduate, to design candelabras (in this instance, meaning lamp posts) for the bustling Placa Reial square in the Gothic Quarter.
Shortly after that, a chance encounter manifested into a turning point for his career.
In 1878, Gaudi had designed a window display for the Comella glove factory that was showcased at the Spanish Pavillion at the Paris World’s Fair.
It was here that the affluent Catalan industrialist (and later Count) Eusebi Guell discovered his work and asked to be put in touch.
Guell would come to commission many of Gaudi’s most famous works in a tight-knit friendship that spanned over 40 years, and projects commissioned by the entrepreneur and loyal patron include Park Guell, the Guell Palace and the Guell Pavilions.
HOW ANTONI GAUDI BECAME ‘GOD’S ARCHITECT’
A devout Catholic, Gaudi is frequently referred to as “God’s architect” for his magnum opus, the La Sagrada Família church in Barcelona.
“My client can wait,” he would say in reference to God as he consistently made changes in design.
Starting in 1910, he abandoned all other work and focused on it almost exclusively.
Though still incomplete and under construction 140 years later, La Sagrada Família continues to be Barcelona’s ultimate icon and its most-visited landmark with over three million visitors each year.
When Art Nouveau – the international stylistic movement of the 1890s that focused on ornamentalism and rejected the classical styles of the 19th century – arrived in Catalonia, it took on regional Mediterranean influences and morphed into Modernisme (or Catalan modernism).
Gaudi heralded the movement and has since become the defining figure of Modernisme. His Casa Vicens building is considered to be sort of a Catalan launch of the movement.
Among his many other hallmark stylistic features, Gaudi is celebrated for his Trencadis (a term that translates into “broken”) technique – a multi-coloured jigsaw, or mosaic, of broken shards, whether glass, ceramic, or stone.
He used this method to flexibly shape colour across his rounded and organic shapes, which would not have been possible otherwise.
Frequently relying on discarded or waste resources, Trencadis also distinguishes Gaudi as a pioneer of sustainability in architecture.
Gaudi died in 1926, aged 73, in a run-in with a tram on Barcelona’s Gran Via de les Corts Catalane.
A TIMELINE OF ANTONI GAUDI’S LIFE
1852: Gaudi is born in Reus, a town in the Tarragona province of Catalonia.
1868: He moves to Barcelona to study architecture, a city that he is patriotic to and that he remains in until his death.
1876: Gaudi’s mother and brother pass away.
1878: Gaudi graduates from university. He also presents his plans for the lamp posts designed for the Barcelona City Council. He meets the entrepreneur Eusebi Guell, who would come to commission many of his most famous works.
1883: Gaudi begins work on his first building commission, the private residence Casa Vicens. He also begins his life-long work on his greatest project, La Sagrada Família, taking over work by the architect Francisco de Paula del Villar.
1900: Gaudi starts work on Eusebi Guell’s English-style luxury housing project, Park Guell.
1904: The textile industrialist Josep Batllo Casanovas commissions Gaudi with the renovation of Casa Batllo, which comes to be nicknamed “the house of the dragon”.
1906: Gaudi moves into Casa Rosada, one of the two show homes in Park Guell. His father dies the same year. He begins work on Casa Mila.
1912: He abandons all work to focus exclusively on La Sagrada Família.
1926: Gaudi dies after a collision with a tram at the age of 73.
View of Gaudi’s famed Trencadis technique. Photo: Raimond Klavins/Unsplash
5 OF ANTONI GAUDI’S MOST FAMOUS WORKS
Gaudi’s most famous works, including the La Sagrada Família, Casa Batllo and Park Guell, are all in Barcelona, a city he was deeply devoted to and his ultimate playground.
CASA VICENS (1883-1885)
Before the trendy Gracia district in Barcelona was a neighbourhood, it was a separate village of its own.
The wealthy Catalan stockbroker Manuel Vicens Montaner commissioned Gaudi to build his second home as the architect’s very first architectural project after graduating.
Gaudi built the four-storey Casa Vicens with Neo-Moorish influences, a revival style of the 13-16th century Mudejar architecture by Al-Andalus, or the Arab-Muslim presence in the Iberian Peninsula.
One of the most popular highlights of Casa Vicens is its smoking room, a vibrant space that was built for men to relax which features an ornate, palm-tree-like, bright blue plasterwork ceiling and papier-mache-tiled walls.
In 2014, the Andorran bank MoraBanc purchased Casa Vicens and restored it, later opening it in 2017 to the public as a museum.
The smoking room in Casa Vicens, Barcelona. Photo: Pol Viladoms, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
LA SAGRADA FAMILIA (1882-IN PROGRESS)
La Sagrada Família is a Roman Catholic church located in the Eixample neighbourhood in Barcelona, considered by many to be Gaudi’s greatest works in terms of scale.
It’s also the city’s most-visited landmark with over three million visitors each year. There’s one amusing characteristic that differentiates it from the churches of Europe: it’s still incomplete.
The ambitious project was initially commissioned by Josep Maria Bocabella Verdaguer, the owner of a religious bookstore, to the architect Francisco de Paula del Villar.
Bocabella wanted the church to be modelled after the Sanctuary of the Holy House in Loreto, Italy after seeing it on a visit to the Vatican.
Del Villar proposed a neo-Gothic design and work began in 1882. But, Del Villar didn’t see eye-to-eye with Bocabella’s team and the architect resigned. That turned out to be for the best because the project (already in progress) was handed to a young Gaudi.
Gaudi was only 31 at the time and had come face-to-face with his largest, most ambitious project. A faithful Catholic himself, he devoted himself entirely to the design of La Sagrada Família.
Unfortunately, Gaudi never got the chance to see the completion of his greatest work and even provided instructions to the architects that would later take over the project.
Both he and Bocabella were buried in the crypt of the church when they died.
La Sagrada Família has been under construction for over 140 years now and has witnessed multiple political controversies over time, including vandalism during the Spanish Civil War.
Its completion date, which mainly awaits work on the tallest spire and the main facade, remains uncertain and was recently delayed from the previously announced 2026 due to the pandemic.
Exterior view of La Sagrada Fami lia in Barcelona. Photo: Mohammad Edris Afzali/Unsplash
PARK GUELL (1900-1914)
Located on Carmel Hill in the La Salut neighbourhood in Barcelona, Park Guell is one of the largest parks in the city.
It’s a sight to behold attested by the fact that around 12 million tourists visit it each year.
Spread across five acres, the project was commissioned by the entrepreneur Eusebi Guell who, inspired by English-style projects, was looking to build a luxury residential housing network with 60 homes, pavilions and gardens.
Other highlights of Park Guell include the Hypostyle Hall – a marketplace with 80 columns – and the Greek Theatre – a large space for open-air shows.
Works started in 1900, but only two of the planned houses were built and there was little buyer interest in the project. In 1906, and after it failed to sell, Gaudi moved into the Casa Rosada, a show home inside Park Guell where he lived with his father and niece.
The residential project eventually turned into a large private space leased for special events, and following Guell’s death, into a large public park for the city of Barcelona.
Park Guell was Gaudi’s last residence until he passed away in 1926. In 1984, UNESCO granted Park Guell World Heritage Site status.
Park Guell in Barcelona. Photo: Daniel Corneschi/Unsplash
CASA BATLLO (1904-1906)
Welcome to “the house of the dragon”. Located on Barcelona’s most bustling and trendiest avenue, Passeig de Gracia, Casa Batllo is a private residence project commissioned by the textile industrialist Josep Batllo Casanovas.
Casanovas tasked Gaudi with the entire transformation of the building, and even gave him the green light to demolish the previous structure (built by Gaudi’s previous professor, no less).
Gaudi refused and chose to work with alterations and additions instead, changing the internal distribution of the home and completely uplifting the exterior facade with fantastical imagery and symbolism.
Inspired by marine life, Gaudi embedded vibrant, natural coral colours on the exterior facade and once again worked with his famed Trencadis mosaic technique using glass, stone, iron and ceramics.
His scaled, arched design for the roof which looks like a reptile’s skin gave it its nickname “house of the dragon”.
Casa Batllo is currently privately owned by the Bernat family who operates it as a museum.
Casa Batllo in Barcelona. Photo: Ruggiero Calabrese/Unsplash
CASA MILA (1906-1910)
When it was unveiled to the public, Casa Mila was mockingly referred to as La Pedrera, or “the stone quarry”, for its resemblance to a cliff-like quarry.
Casa Mila was commissioned by the extravagant couple Pere Mila Camps and Rosario Segimon and is located on the same street as Casa Batllo, on the busy Passeig de Gracia in Barcelona.
Nine stories high with two apartment blocks, the building features a signature curvy facade, wrought iron balconies, and uneven roofs.
The couple intended to live on the main floor and lease out the remaining apartments, and residents would later include the Egyptian prince Ibrahim Hassan.
The Casa Mila project was controversial in its entirety and the owners even filed a lawsuit against Gaudi due to issues with Barcelona City Council’s building codes (Gaudi eventually won the case).
Public opinion has since changed and Casa Mila has grown to be loved by local residents. The La Pedrera nickname, however, is still in use.
Casa Mila in Barcelona. Photo: Alessandra Easterthere/Unsplash
INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT ANTONI GAUDI
Much like his architecture, Gaudi is full of surprises. Here are some of them.
ANTONI GAUDI’S FIRST COMISSION WAS FOR BARCELONA LAMP POSTS IN 1879
Upon graduating from university, the Barcelona City Council invited Gaudi to design gas-powered public candelabras, or lamp posts, in Placa Reial.
In an introductory essay, he described each lamp to be “of noble simplicity, without weakness, giving each part the importance it requires”.
A decade later, the City Council invited him once again to design those in Pla del Palau. The lamp posts are still standing in Placa Reial and Pla del Palau in Barcelona, like secret Easter eggs around the city.
ANTONI GAUDI WAS ABOUT TO BUILD NEW YORK’S HIGHEST BUILDING
In 1908 at the invitation of two American businessmen, Gaudi designed the “Hotel attraction” (or Hotel Atraccion), a building over 1000 feet high with a star-shaped spheric top.
Planned to be erected in Lower Manhattan, it would have been the highest building in the city. Eventually it was not built, for reasons that are still debated and unknown.
MOST OF ANTONI GAUDI’S BUILDINGS WERE IN CATALONIA
While “starchitects” in this time and day like Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel would have their fame reach all continents, Gaudi never got the chance to see his work outside of Spain and his work largely came to be celebrated in the 20th century. He developed architectural concepts for New York and Tangiers, Morocco – both of which were never brought into fruition.
ANTONI GAUDI WAS 31 WHEN HE STARTED WORK ON LA SAGRADA FAMILIA
When the architect Francisco de Paula del Villar resigned from his work on the massive church, someone had to take over. Gaudi did.
ANTONI GAUDI DIED IN A COLLISION WITH A TRAM
While walking across the Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes in 1926, he was dressed so messily that bystanders thought he was a beggar.
He was 73, weeks shy of his 74th birthday.
“Antoni Gaudi Cornet. Native of Reus. Born 74 years ago, an exemplary man, an exalted craftsman, author of the admirable work of this temple, died in Barcelona on June 10, 1926, here the ashes of such a great man await the resurrection of the dead,” reads his tombstone in Latin, located in the crypt of the Sagrada Família.
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Cover Credit: Dimitry B/Unsplash
Writer | Bana Bissat
Bana Bissat is a Milan-based writer who reports on sound art for Sound of Life. She has written for Flash Art, Lampoon, and Cultured. @banabissat