Thursday, 24 June 2010

Being There

I first heard of Gaudi in a drafty art room in a boarding school for girls just outside Mittagong in New South Wales. I was 12 and the black and white photographs of undulating apartment facades and knobble-surfaced spires seemed unusual and mysterious, unlike anything I'd ever seen before - and very unlike the Sydney building causing sensations among my schoolfriends at the time: Australia Square (ugh) by Harry Seidler (ugh) (it was already some years old by then, but it still seemed to excite them [no, I don't know why either]).

Gaudi was inspired by nature, our teacher told us, his style was sensuous and curving and entirely original. His buildings were not revealed properly by mere photography; only by seeing them in situ could you get a full understanding of what he had achieved.

When she said that, I thought, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah.' I didn't think, 'Whatever', because I wasn't (in this or anything else) extremely ahead of my time. Instead, I thought whatever we used to think before we were given the great 'Whatever' to think (what was it? How hard it is to remember things, once they've been superseded.)

So it is only now, decades later, having finally come to Barcelona and been given the opportunity to visit those buildings of Gaudi's, that I at last understand the truth of what my teacher said. Standing in front of the Sagrada Famiglia, wandering through the Park Guell, gazing up at both Gaudi buildings on the Passeig de Gracia (and the one on Caller des Carolines as well) I remember her words and realise that all those years ago she was completely right.

You see, you really can't imagine these buildings unless you see them. No picture prepares you for the sight of them looming above you against a bright blue Spanish sky. Photography is such an odd medium anyway, transforming extremely beautiful people (oh yes, me, of course) into puddings and producing from people who are plain as pikestaffs images of beings who look like gods. And in just the same manner it's worked its alchemy on Gaudi's buildings, distorting them, changing the way they seem. It is only when they are there before you that their impact really hits you. It is only then that you appreciate the spectacular intensity of their ugliness and really comprehend exactly how hideous and vile they truly are.

If I told you that the people who love Gaudi probably also adore cacti, would that give you a sense of the problem at all? If I mentioned that most of his vertical lines seem to have been inspired directly by that most ghastly of all Victorian artefacts, the elephant's leg umbrella stand, would that be helpful? If I said that the horrible spectacle that is the facade of the Sagrada Famiglia includes: stone that's made to look as if it is dripping, (forming in the process shapes like dreadful rotting teeth); twee little conical tiled roof towers; chimneys tortured into twisted shapes; angry fish faces poking out at odd points; carved scenes from the Bible that could have emerged from a cardboard box containing the cheapest trashiest Chinese-made nativity scene available at Mad Barry's (does he still exist?) while simultaneously looking vaguely as if they'd been conceived by Murillo and El Greco in an as yet unknown collaboration (combining saccharine with distortion); and little red and yellow fans (mosaic or ceramic?) at the top of the towers, which remind me of these (all very well in their place, but on top of a Catholic cathedral?) would that convey some idea of the horror (Mr Kurtz, the horror [excuse me, that just slipped out])? If I mentioned that, when I heard a tour guide explain that 'Everything on that front, Gaudi did entirely himself, with his own hands,' I thought, 'Well now we know who to blame,' does that make any of it more understandable? If I add that Park Guell reminded me of Canberra, because, like that fine city, it is the landscape architecture and not the actual architecture that make it reasonably pleasant (apart from my house and neighbourhood, which are lovely), will that add any insight into the whole thing?

Possibly not. Possibly my teacher hit the nail completely on the head. You do have to be there. You do have to undergo the frightful business of seeing these things in all their dreadful splendour. Only then will you be able to accept the likelihood that Gaudi had some kind of early trauma involving a large and undulant intestinal worm (yes, I guess that's 'nature', just like my teacher said) - a trauma he spent the rest of his life trying to work through via every horizontal line in the buildings he made (and sensuous is surely quite the wrong word - there is something really irksomely ungrown-up about Gaudi's buildings, a retreat into baby talk rather than a bold step towards anything adult). Only by standing on the pavement looking at them can you grope towards an understanding that at some point he may also have had such a fierce geometry teacher (possibly the terrifying Miss Cowie, who I encountered in my alarming years at the frighteningly high-powered school I attended in Hammersmith before my escape to sun and freedom in Australia) that ever afterwards any kind of line approaching any form of straightness triggered panic attacks.

And, to be honest, if you do make the journey, it will be worth it, for there will be hard won lessons you will learn from the adventure. Here are some of mine:
1)Whimsy and elegance never go together
2) Originality alone can be over-prized
3) Orwell (who it turns out didn't like Gaudi at all) was always right

And, best of all, if you take the metro to the Sagrada Famiglia, you will make the discovery that two stops further down the line is a station called Clot - home, I presume, to many former inmates of St Custard's. That alone is worth the journey surely - the tantalising possibility that Peason and Grabber are just a ten minute ride away.


  1. Stupendous. I just have to go to Barcelona now.

  2. Barcelona was the first hol I had with my girlfriend, now wife, so naturally it's my favourite European city. We had no money and turned up with nowhere to stay, which meant a huge queue with other studenty types at the tourist info, then the two cheapest hotels in Barcelona.

    I utterly disagree with your Gaudi bashing. Sagrada Familia is a glorious freak of human nature.

  3. Gaudi's buildings make me feel faintly nauseous. I'm not overly fond of the rest of the city either, having had my bag snatched and suffered from a violent dose of food poisoning (or possibly a strange reaction to the local architecture) all in the space of 24 hours. On the plus side, however, I did buy a couple of very reasonably priced cashmere jumpers from El Corte Ingles and bumped into an old school friend.

  4. You make it all sound so fascinating. And not one word about eating! Glad you're having such a great time.

  5. Gaw - To see Peason or Grabber?
    Brit - I met my husband in Cheremyetchevo airport, Moscow, the day before Brezhnev died and our first date was Brezhnev's funeral: as a result I think Soviet Russia was the loveliest place in the world. It's the delusion that love causes. So Sophie and I are right and you were wearing rose-coloured glasses. And, Sophie, on your recommendation I went into El Corte Ingles and I found there the swimmers I've been searching everywhere for, so thank you v much.
    Madame - I thought I'd save the snacking for a separate post (I do find food very fascinating - it's a modern obsession, I'm told [or just greed in my case])