Gaudí and the Spirit of Architecture

How the Catalan architect and designer shows us the way forward

It was 2018, and I knew nothing of the Catalan architect Gaudí except that he was famous for designing a building, the Sagrada Familia, that took forever to construct. Freshly arrived from San Francisco, I stepped off the train from the airport turned a corner and was struck by the design of Gaudí’s Casa Batlló. The apartment’s exterior was colorful, with flowers, honeycomb shapes, wavy lines and balconies that looked like the jawbone of a shark. I immediately bought a ticket for a tour. 

The inside of the building felt like it was from a futuristic sci-fi novel with its twisting desert tan walls and sparkling windows. One could imagine Paul Atreides, the emperor from Dune, pacing its fractal interior. “This,” I thought, “is beautiful and powerful.” 

Casa Batlló had a seemingly incompatible essence that I later discovered in all of Gaudí’s work: majestic yet whimsical, alien yet comforting, global yet local. Enthralled, I visited more of Gaudí’s buildings. The Moorish-inspired Casa Vicens, the colorful lizard mosaics and castle park house of Park Guëll, the full-city-block powerful family home Casa Míla. Each building had a different style – Gaudí was a true artist and evolved constantly – but each one was equally fascinating. 

My original plan of eating tapas and reading at cafes during my week in Barcelona turned into a manic tour of Gaudí’s buildings. “Architecture isn’t stuck,” I remember thinking to myself, “there are worlds’ worth of new buildings to create!”

This was not the first time I had visited a city, been struck by the architecture, and embarked on a whirlwind tour of its buildings. I had the same feeling on a visit to Rome when I experienced St Peter’s Basilica and spent the following week wandering between the ruins of Roman Temples and pristine Renaissance architecture.  Standing on the roof of Casa Mila in Barcelona, a single star glittering through a twisted stone arch, I felt the same sense of awe which had struck me in Rome.

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Most architecture today does not look like the Sistine Chapel or one of Gaudí’s buildings. To understand why not, we need to go back to architecture’s classical foundations. “Good buildings have three conditions,” Roman architect Vitruvius clarified in his 20 BC magnum opus De Architectura, “Venustas (Beauty), Utilitas (Usefulness), and Firmitas (Structural Soundness).” Following the end of the classical world Vitruvius’s book was effectively lost, until 1414, when Florentine philosopher Poggio Bracciolini found the De Architectura manuscript in a Swiss monastery, and popularized the ten book series. With the help of the new invention of the printing press in 1436, De Architecturabegan began to be read across Europe and inspired the work of Renaissance architects and artists Filippo Brunelleschi, Leon Battisti Alberti, and Leonardo Da Vinci, with Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man’ drawing its thesis and name, from Vitruvius’s work on proportionality in architecture. 

Vitruvius’ formulation of the three mandates of architecture is closer to the discovery of a natural law than an opinionated directive. The need for buildings to fulfill all three mandates is deeply embedded in almost all civilizations and explains why almost every public building built before 1940 is beautiful and durable. The clay Kawara tile of the Japanese is waterproof and can withstand typhoons (Firmitas), allows people to enjoy time inside the house without getting wet from the rain (Utilitas), and is historically decorated with ornamentation to provide a pleasing aesthetic (Venustas). The same can be said for the Dutch Gable roof of the Netherlands, and the overhanging wooden roof of the Chinese.

If you go back to a cityscape painting or early daguerrotype, it is nearly impossible to find an ugly building. But this does not mean they were all the same. The Baroque was perfected in buildings like St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the Gothic in the cathedrals of Notre Dame, and Chartres. After a specific mode of building was perfected, a new style, forked from the original but with its own distinctives tended to emerge. 

These pre-World War I eras were not necessarily better or worse from one another, merely different expressions of the trinity of sound, beautiful, and useful – Utilitas, Venustas, and Firmitas. This remained the standard until roughly the 1920s, when a group of modernist architects bases at the Bauhaus in Germany began to argue that the historic art of architecture was outdates and must be destroyed. Led by Walter Gropious and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the Bauhaus promoted a style of clean, “rational ”, easily understood buildings, as ably documented by Tom Wolfe in From Bauhaus to Our House. This rationalist view of architecture spread across Europe and now is the dominant design philosophy at virtually every major school of architecture in the world today. The next time you see a glass office building or a house that resembles a box, thank the Bauhaus. 

Rationalism has been a disaster for architecture. Most post-World War I buildings fall into one of two categories: suburban, which tend to express a distorted classicism that emphasizes the wrong things and has no gestalt, or urban buildings downstream of the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus-lineage buildings may have one one or two of Vitrivius’ three characteristics but almost never all three. Tropical brutalism, for example, can sometimes be beautiful, but decays very rapidly. Or Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House looks very cool but has a flat roof that is prone to leaks. Because these buildings don’t utilize space or natural energy or airflows well, they are prone to mold, consume excessive energy, and require constant maintenance. 

Gaudí’s Casa Batlló, Barcelona

Humanity is not doomed to have bad architecture forever, and by looking back to the example of Antoni Gaudí’s life and work, we can again find our way. 

Like many geniuses, Gaudí’s ascent combined a fortuitous exposure to his future craft at a young age with a spark of revelation. As a young child, Antoni Gaudí studied crafting metal objects in his father’s coppersmithing workshop. As an adult he spent huge amounts of time studying natural forms – shells, leaves, flowers, honeycombs, the human skeleton, anthills… He remarked: “There are no straight lines or sharp corners in nature. Therefore, buildings must have no straight lines or sharp corners.” In Gaudí’s buildings, beams resemble trees, and his helicoidal designs are reminiscent of the double helix in DNA. The resulting structures are wildly different to many other visions of architecture but still familiar, beautiful, and resilient. 

Gaudí combined his study of nature with an intense study of classic Gothic cathedrals. In a rare trip outside of his native Catalonia, he attended the 1878 World’s Fair to exhibit a glove display he had made for a Catalonian manufacturer. While in Paris, Gaudí discovered the work of French restorationist and architect Viollet-Le-Duc, who had rebuilt decayed ancient towns and cathedrals, including the ancient city of Carcassonne and Notre Dame in Paris. Le-Duc never rebuilt buildings exactly as they were, but honored the spirit of the buildings while adding his own flourishes.  “Originality is a return to the origin,” Gaudi himself once said. Gaudí also studied the work of Englishmen John Ruskin and William Morris, and added elements from the Moorish architecture left behind in Spain after the Reconquista. 

Gaudí’s buildings sometimes seem divinely inspired. They manage to draw on biases coded into the morphology of the human brain to include and transcend the classical rules-based designs of symmetry, vertical lines, and ratios. Yet every single one of them meets Vitruvius’s three mandates while being completely unlike anything before or after. Photographs don’t do his work justice – it is necessary to experience it in person.

The more Gaudi studied, the more convinced he became about the superiority of natural patterns until eventually he entered his naturalist phase. “Those who look for the laws of Nature as a support for their new works collaborate with the Creator,” he said. Rather than work outwards from new theories, thereby missing embedded complexity, Gaudi worked from direct observation.

Gothic cathedrals are famed for their flying buttresses, which provide lateral stability to allow the cathedrals to reach heights of up to 380 feet. But there are no flying buttresses, which Gaudí called  “crutches” in the Sagrada Familia. Instead, Gaudi studied how gravity affected an inverted cathedral by hanging chains on the cathedral’s frame upside down. This model enabled Gaudí to determine where weight came to concentrate, and build a cathedral that transferred more force vertically through its columns. Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia climbs to 588 feet tall, 50% taller than Gothic walls that have twice as much material as the Sagradaand rely on external supports. 

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Two major global architectural movements paralleled Gaudí: Art Nouveau, and Art Deco. Art Nouveau was inspired by natural patterns, and Art Deco by ancient historical patterns from Egypt and Babylon. Both France and the US feature thousands of amazing buildings built during the Art Nouveau and Art Deco eras. Gaudí’s movement, sometimes classified as a regional variation of Art Nouveau, was originally known as the Modernista or Modernisme movement and meshed with the work of other architects in Catalonia including Lluís Domènech i Montaner and Josep Puig i Cadafalch, all of whom communicated in the local Catalan language and strove to stamp their work with the spirit of the Catalan region and people.

I love Gaudí, art deco, and art nouveau, but not everyone I know loves Gaudí’s work. Yet even my most skeptical friends find it impossible to deny his sheer creative genius. Gaudi created a place, just as Dante did in the Inferno or Goethe in Faust. The whole world shouldn’t look like Gaudí’s work but it should be equally inspired.

Gaudí didn’t build buildings for the glory of himself or even for the glory of mankind. A devout Christian, Gaudí was a snappy dresser in his early life, but in his later years was an ascetic, wearing simple clothing so he could focus only on how his gifts could glorify God. Building for a transcendent purpose granted him energy and inspiration, and kept him focused on constructing a building that would last for centuries. When pressured to speed up construction of the Cathedral, he is said to have replied, “My client is not in a hurry. God has all the time in the world.”

Antoni Gaudí died in 1926 after being struck by a car while walking in Barcelona. In 2026, 100 years after the death of Gaudí, the Sagrada Familia is slated to be finished. When the great cathedral is christened, the last original building designed by Gaudí will have been built. But to imagine that his genius is confined to only the works of architecture he designed is a mistake. Gaudí’s method of architecture points us towards a better way to approach designing new buildings and places. 

There will never be another Gaudí. New architecture doesn’t have to look like Gaudí’s work and we cannot return to the past. But we can return to building new apartments, cathedrals, and parks that obey Vitruvius’ three rules of Venustas, Utilitas, and Firmitas, anchored in their culture and place. Gaudì’s approach to architecture shows us the way forward.

Jon von Vitruvius is a student of architecture and aesthetics.


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