Antoni Gaudi: "God's Architect" who Brought Buildings to Life

Antoni Gaudi, aka God's Architect, combined his love of buildings and nature to create some of the unique and awe-inspiring buildings of all time.

Antoni Gaudi,  a Spanish architect, is best known for his organic and free-flowing architecture. His work is easily identified by its distinctive mixture of form, color, texture, and organic aesthetics. Born into a poor family in Catalonia on the June 25th, 1852 he quickly showed a great interest in architecture – a passion that would consume him for the rest of his life.

Antoni did his schooling in Barcelona, which is a city that houses most of his great works. He was also a part of the Catalan Modernista movement that eventually morphed his nature-inspired style.

His works were primarily influenced by his passions in life. These included architecture, nature, and religion. Gaudi's attention to detail was unsurpassed, and his integration of materials like ceramics, stained glass, wrought iron, and even carpentry mesmerized many. Antoni also introduced some new techniques in the treatment of materials such as using waste ceramic pieces (trencadis). 

God's Architect Antoni Gaudi

Although, he was involved in many great works around Barcelona, but most of his time was consumed with the construction of the Sagrada Familia (Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family) in Barcelona. Despite his investment of time and energy into the project, it remained unfinished at the time of his death. 

Antoni died in Barcelona on the 10th June 1926 which was just 15 days short of his 74th birthday. 

After his death, his work fell out of fashion to be re-discovered in the 1960's. Since then, his works have received much praise from critics around the world. Many of his buildings have also since been awarded  UNESCO World Heritage status.

Antoni's Roman Catholic faith grew in strength throughout his life with religious imagery appearing in many of his works. His faith finally earned him the nickname "Gods Architect" that finally led to his beatification by the Pope. 

Let's explore the life of the man who changed architectural design forever. 

Antoni Gaudi: "God's Architect" who Brought Buildings to Life
Antoni Gaudi, circa 1878. Source: Canaan/Wikimedia Commons

Antoni Gaudi's early years

Antoni Gaudi, Antoni Gaudi i Cornet in Catalan or Antoni Gaudi y Cornet in Spanish, was born in provincial Catalonia on the 25th June 1852. He was of humble origins and his father, Francesc Gaudi i Serra, worked as a coppersmith. Gaudi was the youngest of five children to his father and mother Antònia Cornet i Bertran. 

Of the five children, only three survived to adulthood. Gaudi's family originated in the average region of Southern France but his ancestor Joan Gauid moved to Catalonia in the 17th Century. 

Owing to a lack of official documentation, his exact birthplace is lost to history. Despite this, it is often claimed that he was born in Reus or Riudoms which are neighboring municipalities of the Baix camp district. Later in life, Gaudi's official documentation from his student and professional years did list 'Reus' as his place of birth.

Antoni developed a deep love for his "native land" and "great pride" in his Mediterranean heritage. He believed Mediterranean people to be "endowed with creativity, originality, and an innate sense of art and design." 

He spent a lot of time outdoors, especially during summer months when they stayed at the Gaudi family home Mas de la Calderera. This gave him plenty of opportunities to immerse himself in studying nature.

Antoni Gaudi: "God's Architect" who Brought Buildings to Life
Gaudí (in the background) with his father (center), his niece Rosa and doctor Santaló during a visit to Montserrat, 1904. Source: Jbarta/Wikimedia Commons

Gaudi was not a healthy child, however. He often suffered from rheumatism which is thought to have contributed to his reticent and often reserved character. This led him to eventually embrace vegetarianism.

Antoni showed a  great interest in architecture from a very young age. He studied in Barcelona which was Spain's most modern city at the time in the 1870's. Barcelona was the intellectual and political center of Catalonia at the time.

His studies were temporarily interrupted by compulsory military service after which he finally graduated from the Provincial School of Architecture in 1878. He spent this time in an infantry regiment in Barcelona as a Military Administrator. 

Most of his service was spent on sick leave which enabled him to continue his studies. His poor health also saved him from having to fight the Third Carlist War between 1872 and 1876. 

Antoni Gaudi: "God's Architect" who Brought Buildings to Life
Gaudi's childhood home. Source: Montserrat Gili/Wikimedia Commons

Tragedy strikes

Antoni Gaudi lost his mother in 1876; she was only 57. The very same year also saw his 25-year-old brother Fransesc die. He had just graduated as a physician.

Despite this Gaudi continued to study architecture at the School and the Barcelona Higher School of Architecture, graduating in 1878. Antoni needed to finance his studies by working as a draughtsman for various architects and construction firms. 

He also studied French, history, economics, philosophy, and aesthetics. His grades were average, and he occasionally failed courses.

At his graduation, Elies Rogent (the Director of Barcelona Architecture School) said: "We have given this academic title either to a fool or a genius. Time will show." Gaudí, when receiving his degree, reportedly told his friend, the sculptor Llorenç Matamala, with his ironical sense of humor, "Llorenç, they're saying I'm an architect now."

Gaudi's first projects after graduation were far from the grandeur of his later works. Some of his first commissions were lampost for Placa Reial in Barcelona. He was also tasked with designing the unfinished Girossi newsstands, and the Cooperativa Obrera Mataronense (Workers' Cooperative of Mataró) building. 

Gaudi's profile was raised with his first significant commission, the Casa Vicens. This would lead to many more important commissions, but first, he had a small fair to attend.

Antoni Gaudi: "God's Architect" who Brought Buildings to Life
The Roof of Casa Battlo epitomizes Gaudi's unique style. Source: Chongming76/Wikimedia Commons

Gaudi develops his architectural muscle

Antoni's architectural style developed through several phases in his life. After graduating in 1878, Antoni Gaudi's style was initially heavily inspired by his Victorian predecessors.

This was evident in his school projects at the time. He soon developed his style that composed of mixing geometry with animated surfaces of brick or stone, ceramic tiles as well as floral or reptilian like metalwork. 

Gaudi's work at this time was reminiscent of Moorish (or Mudejar) style of architecture which are a unique mixture of Muslim and Christian design in Spain. Excellent examples of this style would be Casa Vicens (1878–80) and El Capricho (1883–85) and the Güell Estate and Güell Palace of the later 1880s.

Antoni Gaudi decided to showcase his work at the Paris World Fair in 1878. His work impressed one patron enough that he was asked to work on the Güell Estate and Güell Palace, amongst others. 

Antoni Gaudi: "God's Architect" who Brought Buildings to Life
Antoni Gaudi's Salamander, Park Guell is a perfect example of his unique style. Source: Danel solabarrieta/Wikimedia Commons

Gaudi was tasked with the construction of the Basilica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia (Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family) in Barcelona. Despite the fact that plans had already been drawn up, he, true to form, completely overhauled the design and added his own distinctive style into the mix.

Guadi soon found himself experimenting with other older styles to produce some of his most famous works. These included the Episcopal Palace (1887–'93) and the Casa de los Botines (1892–'94), both Gothic, and the Casa Calvet (1898–1904), which was done in the Baroque style. A lot of his commission during this period were thanks to his 1888 World's Fair showcase.

Gaudi's personal life and views on Catalan autonomy

Antoni Gaudi was devoted to his work and remained single for his entire life. He was known to have been attracted to only a single woman, Josefa Moreu, who was a teacher at the Mataro Cooperative. Sadly, his feelings were not reciprocated.

Gaudi took refuge within his profound and growing Catholic faith. To acquaintances, he was often remembered as being socially awkward, unpleasant and generally bad-tempered. For those close to him, their memories were quite different. 

Friends and family often described him as friendly and polite, good company and incredibly loyal.

In his youth, he would often dress "like a dandy" wearing costly suits and taking good care of his general appearance. In later life, this would change completely. He would often eat frugally, neglect his general appearance and often wore worn out suits. This, ultimately,  turned out to be fatal for Gaudi.

Gaudi was always incredibly proud of his Catalonian origin and was deeply in favor of its culture. He was, however, generally reluctant to become politically active regarding the region's autonomy from Spain. 

Politicians, such as Francesc Cambó and Enric Prat de la Riba, suggested that he run for deputy but he refused. Despite this, he would often find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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In 1920, while celebrating the Floral Games Celebrations he was beaten up by Spanish police during a riot. He was attacked once again on the 11 September 1924 during the National Day of Catalonia demonstration against the banning of the Catalan language. 

He was later arrested by the Civil Guard under Primo de Riviera's dictatorship and spent some time in prison. Gaudi was later released after paying the 50 pesetas bail.

Antoni Gaudi: "God's Architect" who Brought Buildings to Life
Gaudí shows the Sagrada Família to the Papal nuncioCardinal Francesco Ragonesi, 1915. Source: Canaan/Wikimedia Commons

Antoni's equilibrated system

Post-1902, Antoni Gaudi's designs departed dramatically from what had become agreed as conventional. At this time, he had created his own type of structure that would come to be known as equilibrated.

These types of buildings could stand on their own without the need for internal or external structural support like internal columns or external buttresses, for example. Primary functional elements of this system were piers or columns that tilted diagonally while making use of lightweight tile vaults. In effect, as Gaudi would put it himself, much like a tree stands.

This style of construction is best represented by two Barcelona apartment buildings: the Casa Batlló (1904–06) and the Casa Milà (1905–10). Both of these consists of floors that have been structured like the clusters of tile lily pads and these are considered to be typical of Gaudi's style. 

Antoni Gaudi: "God's Architect" who Brought Buildings to Life
Casa Milà in Barcelona is typical of Antoni Gaudi's style. Source: Misdianto/Wikimedia Commons

These two buildings were designed, as he often did, to be metaphors of the mountainous and maritime character of Catalonia.

Gaudi, admired somewhat eccentric architect as it was an important participant in the Renaixensa. This was an artistic revival of the arts and crafts movement combined with a political revival and the form of fervent anti-Castilian “Catalanism.” 

Both of these movements intended to reinvigorate the way of life in Catalonia that had long since been suppressed by the Castilian-dominated and Madrid-centred government in Spain. 

The Church of the Holy Family or Sagrada Familia quickly became the religious symbol of the Renaixensa movement. This became a project that wholly consumed Antoni Gaudi as time progressed.

Gaudi and the Sagrada Familia

Antoni Gaudi was commissioned to build the church in 1883. As he began to work on it, he noticeably became more and more pious. 

Antoni Gaudi became increasingly closer to god in his later years. After 1910, he would begin to turn away from his other work and focus, instead, on the Sagrada Familia which he had begun in 1883. He spent longer and longer hours cloistering himself on site and living out of his workshop. 

This church would incorporate both Gaudi's equilibrated system as well as elements of more traditional styles. The final building of the church was borrowed from the cathedral-Gothic and Art Nouveau styles but was presented in a form beyond recognition.

Antoni Gaudi: "God's Architect" who Brought Buildings to Life
The Sagrada Familia, Barcelona circa 2009. Source: Bernard Gagnon/Wikimedia Commons

From his original drawings and models for the church, Gaudi equilibrated the cathedral-Gothic style far beyond recognition. It had become a noticeably complex forest of helicoidal piers, hyperboloid vaults and sidewalls, and a hyperbolic paraboloid roof.

In 2010 the uncompleted Church was consecrated as a basilica by Pope Benedict XVI. 

The church would remain unfinished at the time of his death in 1926 with one transept and one of the planned four towers completed. To mark the 100th year of his death, it is now intended to complete his vision by 2026

Some of his works are UNESCO protected

A few of Antoni Gaudi's works have been granted World Heritage status under UNESCO. On the whole, his work is recognized as some of the most outstanding buildings of the 20th Century. These cover his residential, public buildings, and his more creative pieces.

Of his works, the following have been granted UNESCO status:

  • Casa Mila - 1984
  • The Park Güell - 1984
  • The Palau Güell - 1984
  • Casa Batllo - 2005
  • Casa Vicens - 2005
  • Nativity Facade - 2005
  • Crypt and Apse of Sagrada Familia - 2005
  • Crypt of the Colònia Güell in Santa Coloma de Cervelló - 2005

Gaudi's UNESCO statuses officially recognized his "exceptional and outstanding creative contribution to the development of architecture and building technology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries."

They also recognize that "Gaudí's work exhibits an important interchange of values closely associated with the cultural and artistic currents of his time, as represented in el Modernisme [sic] of Catalonia. It anticipated and influenced many of the forms and techniques that were relevant to the development of modern construction in the 20th century".

Antoni Gaudi: "God's Architect" who Brought Buildings to Life
Parc Güell. Source: Script/Wikimedia Commons

The tragic death of a legend

On the 7th June 1926, Antoni Gaudi was taking his usual daily walk to the Sant Felip Neri Church for his usual daily prayer and confession. Enroute between Girona and Bailen streets, he was struck by a passing Number 20 tram and was rendered unconscious. 

Gaudi had no identification documents and his disheveled appearance on him at the time was assumed to be an unfortunate beggar by people on the scene. He did not receive any immediate medical attention. 

He was eventually taken to the Santa Creu Hospital where he received some rudimentary care. Gaudi was eventually recognized by the chaplain of Sagrada Familia the following day but his condition had deteriorated significantly. 

Gaudi succumbed to his wounds on the 10th June 1926 aged 73, just weeks away from his 74th birthday. He was buried a few days later. A large crowd gathered to bid a fond farewell to this visionary artist.

He was interned in the Chapel of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the crypt of, fittingly, Sagrada Familia. The grave bear the following inscription:-

"Antoni Gaudí Cornet. From Reus. At the age of 74, a man of exemplary life, and an extraordinary craftsman, the author of this marvelous work, the church, died piously in Barcelona on the tenth day of June 1926; henceforward the ashes of so great a man await the resurrection of the dead. May he rest in peace."

Antoni Gaudi: "God's Architect" who Brought Buildings to Life
Gaudi's funeral in 1926. Source: Canaan/Wikimedia Commons

Gaudi was forgotten and remembered once again

Gaudi's style was admired, often without any criticism, by Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist painters and sculptors throughout his life. Such is the fickle nature of fashion that after his death his works suffered a period of neglect and became largely unpopular amongst critics.

It was often disregarded as being baroque and excessively over expressive. Leading to his work largely being ignored throughout the 1920s and 30s

At home in Catalonia, he was viewed with both disdain by Noucentisme, the new movement which took the place of Modernisme. During the turmoil and devastation of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, his great work, the Sagrada Familia, was sacked. A great number of documents, models, and plans for its completed form were lost to history.

By the 1950s his work was once again championed by critics and artists like the one and only Salvador Dali. Dali's sentiments were also shared by the architect Joseph Lluis Sert. On the centenary of his birth, the Asociación de Amigos de Gaudí (Friends of Gaudí Association) was founded with the aim of disseminating and conserving his legacy. 

Four years later in 1956, a retrospective was organized at the Saló del Tinell in Barcelona, and the Gaudí Chair at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia was created with the purpose of deepening the study of the Gaudí's works and participating in their conservation.

Antoni Gaudi: "God's Architect" who Brought Buildings to Life
Casa Battlo, Barcelona. Source: Rapomon/Wikimedia Commons

Gaudi's legacy

From 1950 to 1960 critics like George R. Collins and Roberto Pane began to spread a renewed awareness for Gaudi's work. At home in Catalonia, his work was rediscovered by y Alexandre Cirici, Juan Eduardo Cirlot, and Oriol Bohigas

Gaudi has since gained international appreciation, once again, especially in Japan where notable studies have been published. His style has since influenced architects like Santiago Calatrava and Norman Foster.

Antoni's religious and ascetic lifestyle would ultimately inspire the archbishop of Barcelona, Ricard Maria Carles, to propose Gaudi for beautification in 1998.

On the 150th anniversary of his birth many official ceremonies, concerts, shows, and conferences were held, and several books were published. In September of the same year a musical, simply titled Gaudi, premiered in the Palau dels Esports de Barcelona.

In 2008, the Gaudi Awards were launched in his honor. These were organized by the Catalan Film Academy and are awarded to the best Catalan films of the current year. 

His work currently enjoys massive popularity around the world from members of the public and architects alike. His, as yet incomplete, masterpiece the Sagrada Familia is currently the most visited monument in Spain. 

Antoni Gaudi's work has been officially recognized by UNESCO for its importance to world heritage but to anyone who has seen his works, this is self-evident.