Ayesha Khan’s essay on the Spanish Catalan Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926) in the Wall Street Journal, “How a Gaudi Building Won Over a Strict Minimalist,” doesn’t quite live up to the headline. It is not clear that she really likes Gaudí much, let alone understands him. She is a modernist designer and writer, no doubt eager to put her open-mindedness on display. Laudable? Perhaps. But she could have done a much better job of pretending to like Gaudí.
I like Gaudí very much. He shows that whimsy need not undermine beauty. His work in the early 20th century is far closer to Art Nouveau than anything on the modernist runway since. It is not altogether surprising that Khan spends most of her article dissing Gaudí’s architecture. She begins by introducing readers to her real feelings:
My architect hero was Norman Foster, whose steel-and-glass towers were rising all over the globe. So it’s no wonder my eyelids drooped when we covered Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926) in my second-year history of architecture class. Curlicues here, wrought-iron nonsense there, no straight walls, obscure sculptures and adornments—in my modernist mind, it did not compute.
That was before she saw his work. And then? Well, visiting his showplace, Barcelona, she decided to spurn his Sagrada Familia and instead visited his Casa Milà apartment building, my favorite of his works:
Casa Milà’s exterior, whose wrought-iron balcony railings evoked mangled dead leaves to me, would have left the modernist in me cold had I not been sweltering in the summer sun, waiting to go inside to humor my sister.
Many advocates of modernism who like Gaudí seem to believe that the “blobbish” forms of his Casa Milà place him in the “precursor to modernism” camp. In trying to kidnap Gaudí’s reputation, much as they did that of Louis Sullivan, modernist architectural historians must turn a blind eye to his fanciful embellishments. Classical they are not but traditional they quite surely are – in maintaining a conventional sense of ornamentation’s vital role in the creation of beauty, which modernists firmly reject. Earlier modernists criticized his style as Baroque and “excessively imaginative.”
Toward the end of her piece, Khan quotes Foster’s admiration for Gaudí. His remarks are typical modernist flapdoodle. No doubt he joins her either in his failure to understand Gaudí – or in his willingness to feign an appreciation that contravenes every jot and tittle of his stylistic principles. Complexity and contradiction live on!
Hats off to John Landry, of Providence, for sending me the story.