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Liquid Modernism: The Power of Gaudi and Dali in Catalan, Spain

By Jack Skelley

The Catalan region of northeast Spain – with Barcelona its capital – is a hotbed of explosive culture, technology, architecture and design. In the modern 20th century two world figures were Catalans: architect Antoni Gaudi and artist Salvador Dali.

Gaudi’s supreme triumph is the still-unfinished cathedral, La Sagrada Familia. A monumental work of art, overpowering in scale and stylistic ingenuity. Upon completion in 2016, the tallest of its 18 towers will be 172 meters, the highest church in Europe. Visit it and you’re floored by verticality of the building. As you move closer and inside, the infinite variety of detail saturates and uplifts you.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona.

Gaudi began construction in 1882. The architect’s life’s work overlapped several 20th century trends: If you had to define its style of Sagrada Familia you might say Modern Gothic/Art Nouveau. It’s been termed Modernista, but its effusive decoration feels like the opposite of minimalist Modernism. In reality, its idiosyncrasies make it nothing less than Gaudian. 

Although the primary surfaces and forms are structural, there is elaborate decoration on every inch. Both pictorial and abstract. Barely a straight line to be found. Walls, staircases, the spiraling towers, the towers of the vast interior … all melt and reform. The biblical imagery is endless, and, on the “nativity” side of the exterior, erupts in a celebration of nature. Some of the tallest columns colorfully explode at their tips with fruit and wheat.

Surface detail, Sagrada Familia.

Surface detail, Sagrada Familia.

Gaudi inspired the younger Dali, who was born in the town of Figueres north of Barcelona. At the center this very up-to-date village is the Dali Theatre Museum. In maze-like galleries and around the exterior, are many of Dali’s surrealist images… and all of his bizarre personality. One gallery holds a tapestry version of “The Persistence of Memory,” with the famous melting time-pieces. Other masterpieces similarly change shape, including 3-D reproductions of paintings.

The Persistence of Memory wall tapestry, Dali museum.

The Persistence of Memory wall tapestry, Dali museum.

Dali and Gaudi share this playful plasticity of form. And both revered the Catalan landscape. Gaudi was said to be inspired by the soaring and soulful rock formations that surround the medieval monastery of Montserrat in the mountains west of Barcelona.

The rock pillars of Montserrat and its Benedictine monastery.

The rock pillars of Montserrat and its Benedictine monastery.

Dali said of Gaudi, "To raise towers of living flesh and living bones to the living sky par excellence of our Mediterranean, this was the architecture of Gaudi, inventor of the Mediterranean Gothic."

Both Modernists raised Catalan effusiveness to timeless levels.