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Antoni Gaudí: The Brilliant, Tragic Life of Spain’s Most Famous Architect

No visitor to Barcelona will have missed the stunning steeples of the Sagrada Familia, towering over any view of the city. Its vaulted ceilings — inspired by natural forms, held up by columns modeled after tree trunks — will steal your breath away.

Meanwhile, the stunning detail on the exterior remains partially hidden by the scaffolding: this basilica, designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, has been under construction for more than a century.

"My client is not in a hurry," Gaudí remarked when asked about the extremely long time frame for the construction of his master work.

Who was the man who dedicated the last years of his life to the construction of a cathedral he would never see through to completion? The story of Gaudí is as fascinating as the story behind one of Spain's most iconic landmarks.

The Early Life of Antoni Gaudí

Antoni Gaudí, Spain architect
Antoni Gaudí is pictured in 1878.
Antoni Gaudí i Cornet was born in 1852 in the province of Tarragona, part of the Catalonia region in northeast Spain. His exact birthplace is unknown, but the deep artistic inspiration he found in the Catalonian and Mediterranean landscape began at a young age.

"We own the image. Fantasy comes from the ghosts. Fantasy is what people in the North own," he said of the Catalonian region and its people.

As a young man, he would spend his days exploring the countryside and walking extensively — an activity he would continue until the last day of his life. Even so, the young Gaudí suffered health problems and followed a strict vegetarian regimen. As a deeply religious man, he would also undertake long fasts.

Gaudí graduated from the Barcelona Higher School of Architecture in 1878 after earning just average grades and even failing a few classes.

"We have given this academic title either to a fool or a genius. Time will show," said Elies Rogent, the school's director, as he handed Gaudí his degree.

Park Güell and a Growing Career

Park Güell in Barcelona, Antoni Gaudí
Park Güell in Barcelona was designed by Antoni Gaudí.

Despite Rogent's discouraging words, Gaudí's career as an architect took off that very same year. At the Paris World's Fair of 1878, a showcase put together by Gaudí showed his flair for modernist design. It also caught the attention of Eusebi Güell, an industrialist who commissioned Gaudí for a series of projects. 

Many of the designs produced through Gaudí's sponsorship by Güell would become his most iconic works, still visited by millions of travelers in Barcelona every year. The Palau Güell, in the El Raval neighborhood, features intricate ironwork inspired by horsewhip and seaweed — an early testament to how much inspiration Gaudí would draw from the natural world for the entirety of his career. 

Booking.com

If you're visiting the Cantabria region on Spain's north coast, stop by the little village of Comillas, where you can visit El Capricho, a private residence designed around the movements of the sun. The rooms most likely to be occupied during certain times of day receive the most natural lights during those times — the breakfast room, for instance, receives bright morning sun. 

Most famous of all, though, is Park Güell, a designed community with incredible vistas of the city. Gaudí was tasked with designing new types of house all around ideals of what the ideal future community should be. The project, though, never got off the ground. Millions of visitors every year flock to Park Güell to visit the marvelous veranda and two model homes that remain of the endeavor.

The Sagrada Familia

Just a few years later, in 1883, Antoni Gaudí was charged with the task of building a new church in Barcelona called the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família (Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family, or Sagrada Familia). This project would occupy the remainder of his career. 

In fact, beginning in 1915 until his death in 1926, Gaudí would dedicate all his efforts as an architect to the construction of this cathedral.

My greatest friends are dead, I have no family, nor clients, nor fortune, not anything — so I can dedicate myself completely to the temple.

—Antoni Gaudí, 1852–1926

Model Sagrada Familia Antoni Gaudí
The Sagrada Familia was designed in part as an inversion of this web of weighted sacks. Don't miss the museum below the basilica to learn more.

Still, early in his career, he was receiving a large number of commissions, so he had to rely on a team of architects to help him. Many of these individuals, including Josep Maria Jujol and Cèsar Martinell, would themselves become esteemed in their field later on.

Gaudí completely redesigned the Sagrada Familia from the moment he was charged with the project. The structure features elements of Spanish Late Gothic, Art Nouveau, and Catalan modernism. Gaudí was particularly known for his pioneering of the latter style. Its four façades, though, boast strikingly different styles owing to the different architects tasted with designing them. 

Construction of the church was declared 70 percent complete in 2015. 

Antoni Gaudí and Modernism

Meanwhile, the 1888 World Fair in Barcelona featured key modernist works, including a showcase of a building by Gaudí.

However, during the first decade of the twentieth century, a shift in Gaudí's style became evident. His designs drew even more inspiration from nature, and between 1904 and 1910, the iconic Casa Milà and Casa Batlló were constructed. These remain popular — and very worthwhile — destinations for travelers to Barcelona.  

Gaudí also designed the furniture in many of his buildings, and these are on prominent display at the Casa Batlló. The house, like the furniture designed for it, contains not a single right angle, and forms from nature can be recognized throughout. 

Difficult Last Years

Antoni Gaudí never married, and is known to have been truly interested in only one woman, Josefa Moreu, in 1884, but this interest was not returned. 

He dedicated himself instead to his Catholic faith, and was seen sometimes as gruff or unpleasant, though his closest friends insisted he was friendly and pleasant. 

The decade beginning in 1910 was particularly difficult for Gaudí. His primary collaborator, Francesc Berenguer, as well as his niece, Rosa, died during this time. Two other close friends and collaborators, including Eusebi Güell, would also pass away. Meanwhile, economic troubles temporarily slowed work on the Sagrada Familia.

In his later years, Gaudí neglected his appearance and lived frugally to such a degree that many mistook him for a beggar. In fact, on June 7, 1926, Gaudí was on his daily walk to church when he was struck by a tram and knocked unconscious. Those around him believed he was a beggar, so did not help him right away. 

Gaudí died three days later at the age of 73. He was buried in a crypt under the Sagrada Familia. His gravestone reads: 

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 Gaudí remains one of Catalonia's most famous and distinctive architects. His buildings are one of a kind and well worth the long lines —though with a little pre-planning, you can buy tickets online and skip those lines. (Get Casa Batlló fast-track entry tickets here.)

Gaudí's influence has been profound and far-reaching, and has made a lasting and visible impact on the streets of Barcelona.

Tags : Antoni GaudíarchitectureBarcelonafeaturedGaudíSagrada Familia
Erin L. McCoy

The author Erin L. McCoy

Erin L. McCoy is an award-winning photojournalist who holds an MA in Hispanic studies from the University of Washington. She's traveled to 20+ countries, five continents, and 45 U.S. states, but she's starting to lose count of how many times she's visited Spain.

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