Didn’t quite get Gaudi

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Antoni Gaudi’s 1910 Casa Mila. (WSJ)

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.

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Detail of Casa Mila. (daniellaondesign.com)


About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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5 Responses to Didn’t quite get Gaudi

  1. Pingback: More architecture by Gaudi | Architecture Here and There

  2. shmields@aol.com says:

    David, I think it might be a no-no to refer to Gaudi as a “Spanish” Catalan. The people of Catalonia are somewhat crazed like the folks in Quebec, Canada. One time at work in Hamm during a beautiful early evening in Spring, I helped a truck driver navigate his rig to one of the loading docks. He had driven something like 22 hours straight with a huge load of potted palm trees from Spain and arrived looking bedraggled and spaced out. We were trying to determine who spoke what language and he pronounced something close to “Barcelona” and I said, “Ahh! Espana.” The man became agitated and then angry. He was not a fucking Spaniard, he was a Catalan, by God. He then calmed down, I apologized in sign language, and then he offered me his wine sack. After a long squirt, I smiled, he smiled, and we were friends for life.

    PS Ayesha Khan is not to be trusted. Is she one of those bright and annoying twenty-somethings?


    • Ayesha Khan says:

      I just happened upon this and will have you know that I am not a 20-something at all, I am a practicing interior architect in New York City and I will also have you know that much of my original text was over-simplified by the Journal perhaps to appeal to the 20-somethings? They found my analysis too technical and forever insisted that I distill it to the lowest common denominator. I’m happy my work spawned so much discussion though!


      • Ayesha, it is shameful that your piece suffered from shoddy editing, but I doubt that the WSJ, of all papers, was aiming for a youthful audience. Is there any particular point I made in my original piece that you think was misinterpreted by me because of changes in your piece that made it more difficult to understand?


  3. Tony Brussat says:

    I enjoy Gaudi too. However that photo triggers an unhappy thought. It looks like a modern(ish) building that has been out in the rain and shrunk like cardboard. I’ve seen that building from the street and it didnt look like that in real life, at least at the time.

    Sent from my iPhone



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