New York provides an architectural feast, especially if you do not mind straining your neck. Not least among the city’s treasures are its many churches. I have already discussed Saint Patrick’s, the city’s Catholic cathedral, easily one of the grandest buildings in the city. But Saint Patrick’s is not the only cathedral in New York.
Further uptown is a cathedral of even grander proportions: Saint John’s. This is a behemoth of a building, certainly the largest church building in New York City and arguably in the entire country. (The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, in Washington D.C., covers more area but contains far less volume.) And the building as it exists now falls far short of the original plan. Neither of the cathedral’s front towers has been completed, nor has the enormous tower that was to stand over the midpoint of the building. Indeed, after a fire destroyed the north transept in 2001, the cathedral has even lacked a crucifix floorplan. This has led it to be informally dubbed St. John the Unfinished.
Even with all of these parts missing, however, it is a giant church. Not to be outdone by the Catholics, the Epicopalians conceived the project as a way to rival or even surpass St. Patrick’s. This cathedral, too, is built in an elaborate neo-gothic style that mimics the great cathedrals of France and Spain. Its hulking façade, with its three enormous doors sitting underneath pointed arches, beckons the visitor from the streets of modern Manhattan to a seemingly medieval world. All of the decorations carefully maintain this illusion, from the frilly spires, to the ornamental carvings, to the friezes of Biblical scenes above the doors. Even the monumental brass doors are covered in art, showing scenes from the life of Christ and representations of the four evangelists. Aside from the cathedral’s manifestly incomplete state, the only thing that breaks the illusion is the appearance of grey discoloration from car exhaust.
The inside is fully in keeping with this aesthetic. Enormous pillars hold up a vaulted ceiling, while stained glass windows allow colored light to drift inside. The visitor is greeted by a beautifully carved wooden choirstall, holding an image of Christ against a golden background. (This is a real 15th century German work, on loan from the Metropolitan.) The cathedral even has a sort of poor man’s version of the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. As far as I know, there are no actual poets buried in this section of the church; instead, small tablets bearing the names and brief quotes of famous American authors cover the floor. According to the plaque, the idea was inspired by a rector in the church of Washington Irving in my hometown, Tarrytown.
All this is true to the style of highfalutin European cathedrals. Closer inspection, however, reveals a church very unlike those it imitates, even St. Patrick’s downtown. Saint John the Divine was conceived as a different sort of institution, a “Democratic Church,” as it dubs itself, open to any and all who would like to come. True to form, the rainbow colors of LGBT pride were displayed prominently near one altar. And this is not a pose. To pick just two examples of the church’s progressive tendency, the cathedral hosted a performance by Diamanda Galás meant to raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic, and displayed Edwina Sandys’ statue, Christa, a portrayal of Christ as a woman (unsurprisingly, a very controversial work).
All of this is world’s apart from the staid, traditional activity of St. Patrick’s. On the other hand, it is free to walk into the Catholic cathedral, while visitors of Saint John’s have to pay.
Adjacent to the building is an attractive little green space, known as the West 111th Street People’s Garden. Here is located the building of the Cathedral School, a K–8 school for children of any faith; and during the summer it is common to see flocks of children in summer camp parading by. Nearby is the Peace Fountain, a sculpture by Greg Wyatt supposedly portraying the battle between the Archangel Michael and Satan, and the triumph of good over evil. Yet to me the statue looks like an angel strangling a curious giraffe. In any case, the odd sculpture provides a nice illustration of the cathedral’s less orthodox attitude towards traditional themes.
To get to our next church, we must walk a good twenty minutes or so. The pleasantest route takes us directly through the main campus of Columbia University. Founded in 1754 as King’s College, Columbia is the oldest university in New York, and one of the best in the world. Suffice to say that everyone from Alexander Hamilton to Barack Obama have studied there. The campus leaves no doubt as to the honor, splendor, and pretensions of the institution. The grandiose Butler Library, for example, is adorned with the names of great thinkers and writers: Herodotus, Plato, Shakespeare, Tacitus, Voltaire… Directly opposite is the Low Memorial Library, another stately neoclassical edifice; and on the steps leading up to its entrance is the statue of Alma Mater, a symbol of the university, made by the same sculpture who designed the Lincoln Memorial, Daniel Chester French.
The thirsty or hungry traveler may also take a small detour to stop at Tom’s Restaurant, a diner used in the exterior shots of Seinfeld. (Though the outside looks exactly like it does in the show, the inside looks nothing like the fictional Monk’s Cafe.) It is a nice place to have a coffee.
The walk further uptown takes us alongside Riverside Park, and through some quite swanky neighborhoods, with upscale apartments attended by liveried doormen. It is an appropriate setting for a church intimately connected with wealth: Riverside Church.
Riverside Church was the idea of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Curiously, this was not the first Rockefeller church that I visited. Much closer to my home, Rockefeller helped to establish the Union Church in Pocantico Hills, a lovely stone building with beautiful stained-glass windows by Marc Chagal and Henri Mattise. Riverside Church is much grander in scale, with an enormous bell tower that rises high up above the rest of the building, and which makes Riverside the tallest church building in the United States.
So big is the tower, in fact, that the actual church seems insignificant by comparison, though it is by no means small. The interior consists of a single nave, again neo-gothic in design, filled with pointed arches and stained glass. Architecturally, it is more perfectly composed, more pure of form than Saint John’s, which lends it a rare tranquility and grace. It is simple and beautiful. John D. Rockefeller was motivated to found the church partly out of a dissatisfaction with the Baptism of his youth. He wanted a more modern church, which is why Riverside is nondenominational, and also why great figures of science are carved into the decorations, including Galileo, Newton, and even Darwin.
Riverside Church is like Saint John’s in its history of progressive activism. Indeed, the church arguably has an even stronger connection to social reform. Most famously, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a major speech against the Vietnam War here, in 1967; and there are still photographs of him on the bulletin board. A far more humble mark of the church’s ethos is the bathroom sign, which declares “Anyone can use this restroom regardless of gender identity or expression.” The church is still an epicenter for advocacy on many fronts, from anti-torture, to immigrants’ rights, to support for the HIV-positive. It is a model for a humanitarian church.
It is hardly sensible to visit Riverside Church without visiting the monument next door. Within a few hundred feet of the church doors is the tomb of Ulysses S. Grant, hero of the Civil War and 18th President of the United States. It is the largest and grandest tomb of an American President, an enormous neoclassical structure complete with Greek columns and domed ceiling. Even though his presidency has been widely regarded as a failure, he was an immensely popular figure at the time of his death; his funeral drew one and a half million spectators. This explains the grandiose design of his final resting place, which is highly reminiscent of Napoleon’s tomb in Les Invalides.
Nowadays, the tomb is a quiet and largely ignored corner of New York, with a handful of tourists respectfully poking about at any one time. Yet it is well worth a visit. Grant is interred in a massive granite coffin, alongside his wife in an identical sarcophagus. The coffins are below the floor level, visible through a hole in the floor, where they rise up from the lower level on a platform—again, much like Napoleon’s tomb. The visitor can descend and walk around the coffins, pausing to admire the busts of other Civil War generals, such as William Tecumseh Sherman. On the upper level, flanking the staircase, are two side chapels with historical flags from the war. And up above a mosaic depicts the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Grant. One could be forgiven for thinking that Grant was a general alone, and not a president, from the evidence of his tomb.
Here is where I will end my little tour, which can take as little as a couple hours. Separated by only a few blocks are the largest and the tallest churches in the United States—not to mention a historic university and an enormous tomb. But Saint John the Divine and Riverside Church are, for me, far more than architectural delights. They are living institutions, still engaged in the proper work of religion: to improve the lives of their congregations.
Many people, capable of quickly sympathizing with any excellence, when once pointed out to them, easily deceive themselves into the supposition that they are judges of art.
I recently went on a short trip to Venice, for which I chose an abridged version of this work to accompany me. Ruskin is an eccentric guide, to say the least. To call him ‘opinionated’ is to risk absurd understatement. For Ruskin uses his survey of Venetian architecture, not merely to instruct, but as evidence for his grand theses of art and society. Few writers could turn descriptions of vaults, capitals, and statues into impassioned social criticism; but Ruskin was no ordinary man.
Ruskin’s primary contention is that gothic art was in every way superior to that of the Renaissance, and this was so because gothic art embodied positive social virtues. The workmen had considerable creative freedom, and did not simply execute the instructions of the master architect; not just nobles and popes, but ordinary citizens and guilds contributed to building projects; and the religious architecture was not done in a special style, but was an elaboration of the normal civic architecture of the town. In short, gothic art was communal, while the art and architecture of the Renaissance and later was individualistic, and suffered accordingly.
It is difficult to even critically engage with this thesis, since it rests on Ruskin’s unconvincing conviction that aesthetic and ethical virtues spring from the same root. Like Tolstoy and Orwell, Ruskin was a man possessed of both keen artistic sensitivity and a burning moral conscience; and like those two Ruskin struggled to reconcile these proclivities. To an extent this issue is troubling for us all. We are disturbed to find that our favorite singer beat his wife, or that our favorite writer is a white supremacist. Can we enjoy the art of such disreputable people? Many opt to boycott the works of artists they deem unacceptable. But Ruskin went further, and asserted that truly immoral people cannot make fine art. In this, Ruskin becomes a proper Platonist, equating beauty and goodness—and throwing truth into the bargain as well—thus cutting the uncomfortable gordian knot.
This position has the intellectual convenience of uniting all the goods on one side. This is very appealing for the social reformer. But this comes with the inconvenience of having to argue palpable absurdities. Ruskin is forced, for example, to make statements such as: “It is very possible that the reader may at first like fig. 14 best. I shall endeavor, in the next chapter, to show why he should not”—vainly trying to argue somebody out of an aesthetic preference. Contrariwise, when great art is made by figures whom history has shown to be immoral, Ruskin must commit the opposite absurdity—opposing his own aesthetic sense to documented fact:
I do not believe, of the majority of the leading Venetians of this period whose portraits have come down to us, that they were deliberately and everlastingly hypocrites. I see no hypocrisy in their countenances. Much capacity of it, much subtlety, much natural and acquired reserve; but no meanness. On the contrary, infinite grandeur, repose, courage, and the peculiar unity and tranquility of expression which come of sinciety or wholeness of heart, and which it would take much demonstration to believe could be any possibility be seen on the countenance of an insincere man.
Few people will be converted to this way of thinking, which submits reality to the whims of Ruskin’s moral and artistic senses. It is, however, refreshing to see a man so passionately convinced of the social importance of art. Ruskin scours to the city of Venice—sketchbook and notepad in one hand, step ladder under the other arm—making detailed studies of statues, capitals, friezes, cornices, and whatever other stone monuments he could find. The original edition of this book includes descriptions of eighty churches. Even in my heavily abridged edition, Ruskin goes through every capital of the Ducal Palace, comparing the representations of the virtues to Giotto’s and to Spenser’s—a tedious yet extraordinary feat. Idle fancy could hardly spur such devotion. He operated with the zeal of a reformer and the conviction of a crusader—ready to show all the world that these stones held the key to social welfare.
Personally I wish there were more people like Ruskin in the world, even if they can be insufferable at times. He wanted to live in a beautiful world, and he wanted that beauty to both reflect and encourage the health of its society. We may be inclined to laugh at Ruskin’s arguments; yet we are willing to pay thousands of dollars to go to these beautiful places and see them for ourselves—which, like Venice, consequently become hollowed out shells of their former selves from the influx of tourism—without stopping to wonder why we don’t spare ourselves the trouble and make our own cities beautiful. While I suspect the rise of urban ugliness is far more complex than Ruskin is apt to think, I agree with him in seeing a moral and social dimension to this aesthetic problem.
In any case, it is a pleasure to read Ruskin if only for his rococo prose, whose sentences twist, curl, and spiral into little infinities. One can see why Proust was a fan (and, indeed, his Narrator’s visit to Venice owes much to the Victorian critic). Ruskin was true to his principles, and strove to unite literary elegance, moral fervor, and insightful argument into every one of his paragraphs—and most of the time he achieves at least two out of three, which is not bad at all. Even if you disagree with Ruskin from first to last, it is scarcely possible to dive in his book and come out the other side without a few of his cobwebs sticking to your coat.
Taste is not only a part and an index of morality;—it is the ONLY morality.
John Ruskin can be said to be the John the Baptist of the religion of art, a herald of things to come. He was shortly followed by the great aesthetes, Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, and Marcel Proust—who all read and were deeply influenced by his work. But Ruskin himself cannot be called an aesthete—at least, not in the sense that he considered aesthetic appreciate the central goal of life. For Ruskin, art provided not only aesthetic pleasure but genuine moral instruction; great paintings could be read like psalms, and great buildings were sermons in stone.
In this, as in so many other ways, Ruskin can be jarring for the modern reader. Indeed, his ideas were jarring even back then. He made a profession of insistently, dogmatically, and unequivocally asserting opinions that, to most people, seem manifestly untrue. The most notorious of these opinions is thus summed up by him: “You can have noble art only from noble persons, associated under laws fitted to their time and circumstances.” Unethical people, therefore, could produce only base art. And if an entire age habitually produced shoddy paintings and buildings—as Ruskin believed of his own age—then there must obviously be something deeply wrong with that society.
Art and society were thus, for Ruskin, deeply intertwined. This is the bridge that connects his art and his social criticism. Art is never just for art’s sake; it has a didactic and a moral purpose. A work of art is great in proportion to the greatness of its ideas; and these ideas are not the products of an eccentric individual, but of a whole culture, evolving and refining itself through generations. Every great work that results from this evolution “is the embodiment of the Polity, Life, History, and Religious Faith of nations.” As such, these works have a vital social purpose; and it is the job of the art critic to explicate their moral significance. We see this most clearly in Ruskin’s major works on architecture, The Stones of Venice and The Seven Lamps of Architecture, which are concerned, above all, with the ethical lessons inherent in gothic architecture.
For Ruskin, however, art was not only moral, but truthful. From this conviction came his youthful defense of J.W. Turner in his five-volume Modern Painters. Turner’s works, he thought, revealed a deep insight into the workings of nature; and since Ruskin was himself keenly sensitive to natural beauty, especially mountains, he became Turner’s champion. The job of the landscape painter, like that of the poet, is to record nature as faithfully as possible. Inferior painters and poets allow themselves to be overpowered by emotions, which lead them to personify or to distort nature: Ruskin called this the “pathetic fallacy.” But the truly great painter or poet, the Turners and Dantes, are always in complete control of themselves.
One can see why this was jarring. Most of us naturally distinguish whether something is good, beautiful, or true; but Ruskin insisted that these qualities were inextricable. Art could not be great if it was immoral or if it was untrue. Indeed, for Ruskin, you might say that these qualities were not separable at all; having any of them without having all three was inconceivable. But their existence was not dependent on solitary, virtuous geniuses. To the contrary: the ability to understand nature only exists in developed cultures; moral systems are the products of peoples; and great art can only exist within a school and a tradition. Society was therefore deeply important for Ruskin, being the wellspring of everything he admired and sought.
The later half of his life was, as a result, spent in social reform. Specifically, Ruskin set himself up as the enemy of industrial capitalism. Gothic art was great because each workman was an artist; but in mass-production the workers are reduced to machines. The division of labor is, as he said, really the division of souls, allowing for efficiency but stunting human growth. The ethic of enlightened selfishness could never inspire any great works, since the highest ethical value is selflessness. The environmental destruction wrought by industrialism was not only a crime against future generations but a crime against ourselves, since we were destroying the truth and beauty of nature, which is one of the vital sources of happiness.
This is the quickest summary I can give this selection of Ruskin’s work, whose volumes fill many shells and touch on many different disciplines. There are many reasons to dismiss Ruskin’s ideas. The relationship of beauty to truth and to goodness is obviously more complicated than he insisted. Murderers, rapists, and thieves have been great painters. Honorable men have built ugly houses. And what is the truth of a symphony? But for me it is a relief to find someone who finds beauty so socially vital.
I have spent far too long in concrete landscapes, surrounded by endless rows of identical houses, each one ugly in itself and uglier en masse. The effect that such thoughtless dreariness has on my mood—in contrast with the great enlivening freshness I feel when in a lovely city—has convinced me that architectural beauty is not merely an added frill or an extra perk, but is a positive social good. And it is difficult to dismiss Ruskin’s ideas on architecture, society, and the economy when one goes from a modern suburb to a well-preserved medieval town. How is it that finer houses were built by peasants? How is it that the most wealthy society in history can produce only the most mindless repetition, vast labyrinths of stupidity, destroying whole landscapes in the process?
Ruskin is the prophet of this phenomenon, and thus valuable now more than ever. But apart from this, Ruskin is worth reading just for the quality of his writing. His early style, flowery and involuted, gave way to a clearer strain later in life. But throughout his career his prose is rich with observation and abounding in memorable phrases. Even if one disagrees with all of his conclusions, it is impossible to read him without some stimulating thought.
Few cities can compare with Barcelona for the variety and depth of architectural pleasure on display. In my posts I have already had occasion to mention some of Barcelona’s wonderful gothic buildings, such as its cathedral and its basilicas. Even quite functional buildings are intriguing, such as the Fundació Miró, the Palau Nacional, as well as Barcelona’s former bullring, Las Arenas, and even its latest one, Monumental. Indeed, Barcelona is so full of fine buildings that many are barely noticed by the tourists. As an example of this I would offer the Casa Comalat, a bulging apartment building designed by Salvador Valeri i Pupurull, whose form would be eye-catching if it weren’t in the same city as Gaudi’s works.
Though Barcelona dates back to Roman times, its most fertile architecture period occured at the turn of the 20th century. This was the epoch of Modernisme, the Catalan version of Art Nouveau. The most overpowering quality of this trend was its emphasis on ostentatious decoration. There is nothing light or understated; the architecture bursts forth like a flower into curves and colors. Modernisme also coincided with a resurchange of Catalan nationalism, and as a result many buildings from this fruitful period are explicitly or implicitly involved in the Catalan identity. This movement had many excellent practitioners; but two architects stand out above the rest: Lluís Domènech i Montaner and Antoni Gaudí.
Lluís Domènech i Montaner
I cannot say why Lluis Domènech i Montaner (1850 – 1923), an architect nearly as original as Gaudí, is not even one-tenth as well-known. Certainly he was a less Byronic figure. Far from the typical brooding, solitary genius, Domènech was a man of the world. A brilliant polymath, he was a writer, scholar, teacher, and politician in addition to his work as an architect. But his central concern, in all of these endeavors, was to create a Catalan nationalism that was forward-looking and unprovincial—a Catalan nationalism that celebrated the region without rejecting the rest of the world.
One of his best-known buildings stands in the Parc de la Ciutadella (discussed in a previous post), beyond the Arc de Triomf. It is the Castell dels Tres Dragons, which was made for the same 1888 World’s Fair as the arc and the park’s fountain. Originally it was meant to be the Café-Restaurant adjoining a nearby hotel, which Domènech also designed but which was subsequently torn down. Nowadays the fortress is home to the zoological museum. It is notable for its use of brick as a decorative material—looked down upon at the time, though Domènech liked it because it contained Catalan soil—as well as nakedly visible cast-iron supports.
Far more showy is Domènech’s Palau de la Música Catalana (Palace of Catalan Music). This is a concert hall built between 1905-8 for the Orfeó choral society. Though unfortunately I have not yet gone inside—one of my biggest regrets of my visits to Barcelona—Robert Hughes considered this building to be Domènech’s masterpiece, and I have no reason to doubt him.
The concert hall stands amid the cramped streets of the old city center, hemmed in closely on all sides; so it is difficult to get a good look at its impressive façade. Nevertheless you can certainly appreciate the sculptural group exploding from its front corner, bursting forth like the prow of a ship. This is an allegorical representation of Catalan folk song, designed by Miguel Blay. Sitting on columns, high up above, are the busts of Palestrina, Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner. (According to Hughes, Wagner was deeply loved in Catalonia at this time, since his own project of creating nationalistic art by combining different mediums—Gesamtkunstwerk—was obviously parallel to Domènech’s own aims, as well as those of his compatriots.) Colored mosaic enliven the building’s flaming brick-red exterior, giving the whole a playful, festive air.
Judging from the photos, and from Robert Hughes’s descriptions, the inside is even more impressive than the exterior. The roof of the concert hall is dominated by a glowing stained-glass skylight that droops down into the space. On either side of the stage are elaborate sculptural friezes. On the right, Beethoven’s bust swells into the smoke of inspiration, which then bursts forth into flying valkyries. Opposite Beethoven is the Catalan poet Josep Anselm Clavé, whose thoughts spring into a tree that blooms across from the winged warriors. Curiously, for a performance space, the concert hall is extremely open—both sides dominated by large windows. This means that, ironically enough, the acoustics are not great; and also that the space is poorly insulated from street noise. This hasn’t stopped many famous performers from adoring the space, including the famous Catalan cellist, Pau Casals (whose recordings of Bach’s cello suites, the first ever recorded, are still my favorite).
The building I have visited is Domènech’s Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau (Hospital of the Holy Cross and Saint Paul), begun in 1905 and not completed until 1930, after Domènech’s death, by his son Pere Domènech i Roura. This building complex is listed—along with the Palau de la Música Catalana—as one of Spain’s many UNESCO World Heritage sites, and deservedly so.
The Hospital de Sant Pau replaced Barcelona’s far older and obsolescent Hospital of the Holy Cross, a gothic structure that had been in use since the middle ages. This hospital was overcrowded and wholly unsuited to the new technologies and techniques of modern medicine. Luckily, a hefty donation from Pau Gil, a wealthy banker, allowed the city to begin work on a replacement. (This is why the new hospital is named Sant Pau, to honor Pau Gil’s contribution.) The new hospital was to be situated in the recently constructed Eixample, away from the overcrowded old city, almost next to Gaudí’s Sagrada Família (which begun construction about twenty years earlier). You can still see some of the buildings that formed the old gothic hospital, by the way, since they have been refurbished—most notably as the Library of Catalonia.
The hospital that Domènech designed could not be further removed than the dreary gothic interior of its predecessor. Indeed, it is unlike any hospital I have ever seen or heard of. Far from the white, sterile, and crowded places I know as hospitals, Domènech designed a place open, colorful, and tranquil—a place of pleasure and peace. For me his design is so convincing that I wonder why every hospital does not emulate it. For if healing is not just a matter of treatment and cures, but of will and mindset—as I think is the case—then Domènech’s work is a model: catering to the mind as well as the body.
The entrance to the hospital is a sweeping, winged building that seems to embrace the visitor as she walks inside (see photo above). It is crowned by a magnificent clock tower and adorned with angels. These angels were designed by the neoclassical sculptor Eusebi Arnau and his more famous pupil, Pau Gargallo (who has a museum dedicated to him in Zaragoza), whose own angels reveal the growing influence of cubism in his work. Running across the outside of this central structure is a mosaic showing scenes from the development of medicine in Catalonia, ending with the creation of the hospital itself.
Once the visitor walks through this main building, she will find herself surrounded by several separate pavilions, arranged in two neat rows with their entrances facing one another. Domènech wanted a place open and green; and to do that he split up the hospital into these individual buildings, leaving a garden in the center. This decision had medical as well as aesthetic motives; for it allowed patients with different ailments to be separated and quarantined from each other, reducing infection and improving organization.
The central garden is filled with benches, where patients could sit and rest. But of course the entire effect would be spoiled if doctors, nurses, and orderlies were constantly rushing in-between the pavilions and through the gardens. To prevent this, Domènech built a network of tunnels under the hospital, which directly connect each structure in the compound.
Each one of the pavilions is a delight, with a glowing, multicolored dome crowning one side of its entrance, and a narrow circular tower on the other. This fairly narrow façade conceals the buildings’ lengths, their main bulk leading away from the central courtyard. Each of their slanting roofs is decorated with bright tiles in delightful swirling patterns, different for each building. The insides are equally inviting. A vaulted nave leads down to the back of the building, its walls and ceiling covered in shining tiles, making the visitor feel that she is walking inside a luminescent seashell. Windows run along the top of each side, providing enough natural light to render artificial lighting unnecessary during the day. Beside the entrance, beneath the frontal dome, is the sun room, whose large windows flood the space with light. This room was used for relaxation and also for receiving visitors.
The Hospital de Sant Pau stopped receiving patients in 2009, when a new hospital was opened up nearby. Nowadays it survives as a museum and a monument. Judging from the informational video on display in the building complex, the hospital which replaced it is yet another modern care center—devoid of color and empty of air. This is a shame, I think, for Domènech’s building has much to teach us that we have yet to learn. Indeed, the Hospital de Sant Pau teaches the lessons of all great architecture: that beauty can be functional; that daily life need not be drab; that art and science can be merged. The building complex is not just a work of art, but a vision of what a cultured society can be: catering to and caring for the whole human being—not just the body’s obvious physical necessities but the mind’s subtler needs.
From the front steps of the administration building, the visitor can see the masterpiece of Barcelona’s next great architect—the Sagrada Família—whose work, albeit differently, illustrates the same lessons as Domènech’s.
The life of Antoni Gaudí (1852 – 1926) fits our Romantic mold of the eccentric artist far better than does Domènech’s. Neither a man of the world nor a public intellectual, but an austere man of deep spiritual convictions, Gaudí was every inch an artist. Uncompromising in his style, he accepted no projects unless he was given a free hand—complete creative control. Unyielding in his religion, he stood against the secularizing and cosmopolitan currents of his day. Fully obsessed with his work, he lived a monkish life, never marrying or even having any significant partners. He was killed by a tram on daily walk to confession—too deaf, apparently, to hear the oncoming train or the shouted warnings of bystanders. He was 73. His appearance was so shabby, and his pockets so empty, that he was originally mistaken as a beggar and sent to a public hospital to receive basic care. When his identity was finally ascertained it was too late to save him.
Gaudí came from a long line of artisans. At a young age he observed his father bending and molding metal into shapes. His profound understanding of structure and form, therefore, was anything but mathematical; he did not like drawings and hardly made any. He performed poorly in school. He thought with his hands, and thus preferred making models. Nowadays we have computers to aide architects in the difficult problems of support and weight distribution. Lacking (but not missing) these resources, Gaudí invented his own solutions. His most memorable one was to suspend little bags of birdshot from strings, showing how the weight naturally fell. When he photographed these models, and then turned the pictures over, he had perfectly sound structure. Unfortunately for history, many of his models for the Sagrada Família were destroyed in 1936, during the outburst of anti-clerical violence that followed the onset of the Spanish Civil War. Thus much of the work done on that building is little more than a guess at his intentions.
Perhaps the most perplexing thing about Gaudí, at least for us in the modern world, is his simultaneously radical style and ultra-conservative worldview. This is only a paradox if you blandly assume that avant-garde art comes with a left-wing perspective. Very often this is the case, of course, especially in the past one hundred years. But not necessarily. Now, Gaudí’s radicalism had many components. Most obviously it was religious. Gaudí was living in a time of growing secularism; anti-clericalism was a strong cultural force in Spain, occasionally leading to outbreaks of violence and destruction of church property. The famed Poblet Monastery of Gaudí’s native Tarragona, for example, was burned to the ground in the 1830s in one such outbreak. Gaudí thought that the only proper response to this was unconditional submission to the church and extreme acts of penance. He himself fasted intensely, sometimes endangering his health.
Gaudí was also an intense regionalist. He thought that Catalonia was ideally situated between the passionate south and the over-intellectual north. To this religious regionalism one must add his love of nature. The movement of Modernisme itself emphasized natural forms, particularly the colors and curves of flowers. But Gaudí took this love of nature to an extreme. In his works, for example, one can find scarcely a single straight line—since perfectly straight lines are rarely seen in natural objects. To make some of the decorative friezes on the Sagrada Família, Gaudí made casts of plants and dead animals, even asking nuns for stillborn babies to use for the little angels (and the nuns agreed). To make the crucifix for the Sagrada Família’s main altar, he had a workman tied to a cross in order to see how a body naturally hangs from such a pose (the body droops down far more than in conventional representation). In short, Gaudí saw nature as God’s creation and strove to incorporate its order into his works.
The majority of Gaudí’s works are found in Barcelona. I have only managed to visit three, but these were enough to fill me with awe and to give me enough imaginative food for a lifetime.
The first was the Casa Batlló. This building is located on the Passeig de Gracia, in the famous Illa de la Discòrdia (Isle of Discord), a block so-called because it is home to four famous houses by four architects with jarringly different styles. One of these was by designed by the aforementioned Domènech: the Casa Lleó Morera. Next door is the Casa Ramon Mulleras, by Enric Sagier, the architect who designed the expiatory temple atop Tibidabo. But the most attractive house, after Gaudí’s, is the Casa Amattler by Josep Puig y Cadafalch. Topped with a Dutch-style crow-stepped gabble, the house brims with color and charm—very appropriate for the home of a chocolatier, which it was. Barcelona has no lack of brilliant architects.
Yet even such showy houses look absolutely tame next to Gaudí’s construction. This home was built (actually renovated, from 1904-1906), like all the other fine apartments on the block, at the behest of a rich patron—in this case, Josep Batlló i Casanovas. Seen from the outside the building has three distinct levels. The lowest consists of the cavernous windows covering the first floor, with spindly stalactites for supports. The windows above are discontinuous; and each is fronted with a skeletal, even skull-like railing. The roof bursts from the building’s body like the frilled back of some tremendous reptile. Indeed, this is the most popular interpretation of the building’s form: that the apartment is meant to be the dragon vanquished by St. George—the bottom layer its cave, the windows its victims’ skulls, the top its back, and the turret on the left St. George’s deadly spear. This interpretation ties into both Gaudí’s religiosity and his regional pride, since St. George is Catalonia’s patron saint.
The inside of the building is just as spectacular. In the dining room, which overlooks the Passeig de Gracia through the cave-like window, the ceiling swirls like a hurricane, its undulations closing in on the central light—molded to look like a glowing iron sun. Above the windows and doors circular panels of stained glass shed colored light throughout the space. Every surface swells and shifts like a windswept pond. On the far side of the room is the fireplace seat—two seats situated in a mushroom-shaped nook around the fireplace.
The central lightwell is one of the most impressive sights. Each surface is covered in shiny blue tiles, darker near the light source at the top and brighter near the bottom in order to equalize the brightness. Ascending upwards the visitor reaches the loft, where white catenary arches (similar to parabolic arches) enclose a narrow passageway (supposedly representing the dragon’s ribcage). On the roof one can see Gaudí’s whimsically bent chimneys, covered in colored tiles, as well as his trademark blooming cross, whose flower-like shape allows it to appear cruciform from any angle. Like so many of Gaudí’s buildings, the whole thing has an Alice-in-Wonderland quality.
Undeniably, one of the Casa Batlló’s finest features are the tilework that adorns the surface, making them shimmer with color like a Monet painting. This technique is called trencadís, and is done by plastering together smashed up china. The credit for this fine work actually belongs, not to Gaudí himself, but to Josep Maria Jujol, who also collaborated with Gaudí to create the fantastic mosaics in our next site: the Park Güell (1900 – 1914).
The park takes its name from Eusebi Güell, a wealthy entrepreneur who became one of Gaudí’s greatest patrons. The original idea was not to create a simply a park but a garden housing development, following the English garden city movement initiated by Sir Ebenezer Howard (which is why its real name is the English word “Park”). The goal was to create a green neighborhood for the wealthy who wanted to escape Barcelona’s insalubrious city air. But the idea was a flop, since nobody wanted to move so far away from the center; indeed, most people with money preferred to build fancy apartments on the Passeig de Gracia, such as the Casa Batlló. In the end only two houses were sold, one to Gaudí himself, where he lived from 1906 until his death in 1926, and which is now the Gaudi House Museum.
Describing the whole park would be an exercise in futility, but there are some highlights that cannot be missed. The first is the statue (in Jujol’s brilliant trencadís) of a salamander, nicknamed the dragon, which seems to guard the water in the fountain below. This is found on the staircase leading up to a forest of columns—the “hypostyle room”—modelled after a Greek temple, whose pillars hold up the terrace above. This terrance is one of the most famous spots in Barcelona, partly for its view of the city, but also for its undulating, ceramic bench that slithers around the exterior. Below, one can see the two pavilions that flank the original entrance, with rough brown walls and black and white roofs, one of them sporting a large tower topped with Gaudí’s signature budding crucifix.
The park itself is full of structures dun-colored stone—walls holding up terraces, elevated roadways and viaducts, balconies and covered footpaths proceeding through columns. The aesthetic effect produced by all this stonework is unique—for me at least—being somehow both natural and unnatural, which was undoubtedly intended by Gaudí.
If you leave the park and head towards the shore, you will replicate a journey taken by Gaudí himself many times during his life, ending up with his greatest and most iconic work of all: the Sagrada Família.
The full name of this building is the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, which translates to the Basilica and Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family. To repeat an earlier post, it is not and never has been a cathedral. By the time construction on the Sagrada Família began, in 1882, Barcelona had possessed a cathedral for several hundreds years already and was in no need of a replacement. Indeed, it is only recently, in 2010, that the building was designated a basilica (which essentially means it is an especially grand church). Before this consecration it could not even be used for mass.
The history of the building is an epic in itself. Never an official church project, the idea was conceived by an independent religious organization and funded by private donations. Gaudí used himself to go visit wealthy families on the Passeig de Gracia, asking for “a sacrifice.” Even today the building’s continuing construction is funded by entrance fees. Construction began in 1882; and by the time Gaudí died, in 1926, not even a quarter had been built. Since his models were destroyed during the Civil War, we cannot even be sure if the final result will be true to his vision. The builders hope to have the main towers completed by 2026 for the anniversary of Gaudí’s death—but these things are hard to plan.
The building has grown from its controversial origins—many feared that it would outshine Barcelona’s cathedral, and arguably it has—into being the inescapable symbol of Barcelona, as thoroughly identified with the city as the Eiffel Tower is with Paris or the Empire State Building is with New York. Indeed, the Sagrada Familia is the most visited monument in all of Spain—surpassing even the Alhambra in its more than 3 million visitors per year. Even so, not everyone likes it. George Orwell infamously remarked that the anarchists showed poor taste in not blowing it up; and Gerald Brenan cited the building as evidence of Catalonia’s low cultural level. I admit that when I first saw it I was put off by the hugely exaggerated goliath that greeted my eyes. The bulging form struck me as garishly Disneyesque, all cheap flare with little thought.
But I was badly mistaken. For close inspection cannot but reveal the Sagrada Família to be one of the great edifices of the world. Like all of Gaudí’s work, the Sagrada Família does not conform to any particular style. But if forced to put a label on it, you might call it a mixture of neo-gothic and Modernisme—though it goes far beyond the bounds of both.
As you approach you can see the basilica’s famous towers that curve up like rockets waiting for takeoff. Its dusty brown color gives it an earthy appearance, almost like a giant sandcastle, which belies its bizarre and otherworldly form. The continuing construction is evident. The newer sections are visibly more mathematically precise and their material is fresh and clean, unstained by the years. And if that wasn’t enough, the towering cranes overhead let you know immediately that the building is still very much a work in progress.
The visitor enters through the Nativity Façade, the only one completed during Gaudí’s life. It was for this façade that Gaudí made all those casts of plants, animals, and babies—to emphasize the divinity in nature and the nature of divinity. The holy family stands on the central doorjamb, surrounded by smiling angels and onlookers, heralded by four musicians who celebrate the coming of the Lord. These figure are suspended in a quasi-natural space, much like that of the Park Güell, the rough and bulging stone looking like a cave or a cliffside. Animals can be seen, too, such as the two turtles—one aquatic and the other terrestrial, representing the stability of the sea and the land—as well as plants, such as the palm leaves that grow out of the two pillars. Crowning the whole façade is what looks like a Christmas tree: the tree of life. You might even be tempted to call such nature-worship “pagan,” if it weren’t tinged with such a strong dose of repentance.
Impressive as all this was, I was prepared for it. Like nearly everyone I had seen photos of the Sagrada Família beforehand and so knew roughly what it looks like. But I was not prepared for what awaited me inside.
Gaudí has created a space utterly unlike any I have ever seen. The effect was so strange that I felt as though I had been transported onto another planet or was exploring an alien temple. Several factors combine to produce this effect. Most obvious is the lighting. Radiantly colorful light pours in through the exquisite stained glass. There are lighted panels on the columns, too, as well as on the roof, and so color comes from every direction. The columns are designed to maximize this effect. They subtly change in shape throughout their lengths, going from eight-sided to circular to six-sided, and so on, which affects how the light hits their surface. Gaudí’s columns are special in another way. They do not sit perpendicular to the ground, but at a slight angle; and as they approach the ceiling these columns branch off like the trunks of trees. The visitor feels that she is walking through a petrified forest illuminated by the light of distant suns.
I found the interior of the building so stunning that, when I exited on the other side, I was somewhat exhausted. What greeted me here was the Passion Façade. This side was expressly conceived by Gaudí to contrast with the Nativity Façade. Where that side of the building bursts with curves and figures and thus brims with life, the façade dedicated to the Passion is bare, linear, and austere—a monument to death. The sculptures depicting the crucifixion were designed by Josep Maria Subirachs, who also designed the monument to Francesc Macià (discussed in a previous post). The harsh and almost cubist sculptures that Subirachs designed have proven somewhat divisive. Some, like Robert Hughes, think that the sculptures are not consonant with Gaudí’s aesthetic. Others were offended for religious reasons, since this façade has one of the few extant representations of Christ completely nude. In any case I liked the heavy, blocky statues, since they provided a nice contrast with the previous side. They are also, arguably, not very distant from Gaudí’s own work, since they are highly reminiscent of the sculptures atop another of Gaudí’s famous works, the Casa Milà (which I have yet to visit).
This exhausts my experience and knowledge of Gaudí’s work in Barcelona. Indeed, with this post I come to the limit of my knowledge of Barcelona. Yet despite my tour of Barcelona’s museums and architecture, one iconic Catalan artist has yet to be discussed: Salvador Dalí.
Beauty is the mirror of truth, and since art is beauty, without truth there is no art.
Gaudí has the distinction of being among the few genuinely famous and popular architects in history. Along with Frank Gehry and Frank Lloyd Wright, he is among the handful of architects that decently educated people can be expected to know of. More tourists flock to the Sagrada Familia every year than to the Alhambra—even if many of these gapers mistakenly believe that it is a cathedral (it is an expiatory temple).
And he wasn’t just some popular hack. Gaudí’s stature in the history of art is equally monumental. This wasn’t always the case, however. Both George Orwell and Gerald Brenan, two cultured men, thought that his work was pretentious rubbish. (Orwell regretted that it wasn’t blown up during the Spanish Civil War, and Brenan evinced his work as evidence that Catalonia was culturally behind Spain.) I admit that I had misgivings upon first seeing some of Gaudí’s work. It struck me as exaggerated and theatrical, too mindlessly showy.
But this impression disappears as soon as one begins to inspect Gaudi’s work with any circumspection: for the man was undeniably a genius of the highest order. And it is especially enthralling to encounter a genius architect. For, unlike a painter or a novelist, you can literally step into a world created by Gaudí. You can immerse yourself in his work—see it, hear it, touch it, even smell it.
And Gaudí’s world is incredibly rich. He was the capstone modernisme, the Catalan version of Art Nouveau, an art movement that was preoccupied with rich decoration. Gaudí’s art developed this preoccupation into an explosion; his works burst with ornament. To achieve his typically overwhelming effect, he combined several crafts: sculpture, landscaping, stained glass, ceramics, mosaics, carpentry, blacksmithing, among others. And underlying this passionate drive to beautify was a keen sense of space—the architect’s fundamental aptitude—making his works remarkable on both the macro and micro scale.
His method of working was famously unconventional. He seemed to operate by instinct rather than calculation, even when dealing with complex problems of structure. Gaudí thought spatially: instead of drawing plans he preferred to build models (many of which were burned during the Civil War). Most famously he hung weights from strings to study the optimal angles for weight-bearing arcs. Thus he was a kind of unconscious geometrician, and underneath the seemingly heavy ornaments are beautifully elegant forms.
One of Gaudí’s central passions was nature. A deeply religious man, he considered the natural world to be the work of God; thus he thought that architects should strive to emulate the original creation. Consequently you will look in vain for any straight lines in his works, since perfectly straight lines are seldom found in the natural world. This also helps to explain his use of color: how often are natural landscapes black and white?
A severe and passionate Catholic (not to mention a fervent Catalan nationalist), at first glance it is perplexing that a man so avant-garde in art could be so conservative in every other sphere of life. This is no paradox, of course, and only seems strange because we have come to associate cutting-edge art with the left—a historical and not a logical connection. In any case, Gaudí is yet another example of the truism that great artists manage to be both traditional and innovative in the same moment.
This little book is a nice companion and introduction to the man’s work. For my taste, the text consists too much of dense descriptions of buildings and not enough of biography or history; but any book of this length is bound to leave a lot out. The photos are excellent to have; and the final section, which includes several different interpretations of Gaudí’s work (including Dalí’s Surrealist-Freudian take on it), was very welcome.
I’ve just returned from visiting the new special exhibition in the Prado: Treasures of the Hispanic Society of America. It is fantastic. I had no idea that the Hispanic Society—a relatively unknown and ignored museum in uptown Manhattan—had such a vast and beautiful collection. The special exhibit adds a completely new dimension to the Prado; it is like having an entire additional museum inside the original one. It opened on April 4th and will continue until the 10th of September, and so I recommend you go see it while you can.
The Hispanic Society of America is a museum and library dedicated to Spanish and Latin American culture. It is housed in an impressive Beaux-Arts building in Audubon Terrace, situated in uptown Manhattan. (I’ve never visited or even seen the museum; and since it will be closed until 2019 for renovations, it seems as if I won’t be seeing it anytime soon.)
The museum was founded in 1904 by the exceedingly wealthy and Spain-obsessed Archer Milton Huntington, heir to the Huntington railroad fortune, who commissioned the Audubon Terrace three years later. This building complex (so named because it was built on land formerly owned by the famous naturalist), although beautiful, was not the ideal location for a museum. Being so far uptown, inconveniently distant from the tourist center of Manhattan, the Hispanic Society has attracted relatively few visitors over the years—and this, despite having the finest collection of Spanish art outside of Spain, and despite being free to visit.
The new exhibition in Madrid’s Prado has recently changed this. The Hispanic Society lent its collection to the Prado as part of a mutually beneficial exchange. The Society’s building in New York is in need of repair. Its lack of air conditioning makes it a poor environment to preserve cherished works of art; and there is not enough space to display the Society’s huge collection. The Hispanic Society also lacks the funds necessary to restore some of its priceless paintings. The Prado, in exchange for being allowed to borrow the collection, agreed to undertake these renovations at their own expense. Along with the help of the bank BBVA, the museum is even paying the transportation and exhibition costs. When interested are aligned, cooperation can accomplish marvels.
Even more important than the restoration and renovation work, the Prado’s special exhibit has already helped to make the Hispanic Society more well-known. By the end of the exhibit, 400,000 visitors are expected—and this is incredible, considering that the museum was getting only 25,000 visitors per year in New York. (I am getting most of this information from the excellent article recently published in the New York Times about the exhibit.) Considering what I’ve seen today, it is a shame that the museum languished in obscurity for so long; it certainly deserves a more ample reputation.
It is impossible to talk about the Hispanic Society without discussing its founder. Archer Milton Huntington’s fondness for all things Spanish is particularly peculiar, considering that he was active immediately after the United States fought and won the Spanish-American War in 1898. This was a period of scant respect for Spanish culture, and a period of cultural anguish in Spain (which eventually culminated in an artistic and intellectual revival by those known as the Generation of ‘98; more below).
Huntington used his vast fortune to purchase archaeological artifacts and old manuscript collections, along with works of art in nearly every medium, including several by Spanish masters. (I wonder what I would do if I were born into such a wealthy family; probably not anything nearly so admirable.) But he was careful to extend his activities to the present day as well. Huntington formed close ties with the contemporary Spanish painters Zuloaga and Sorolla, and commissioned the latter to paint several works for the Society. Indeed, what is sometimes regarded as Sorolla’s masterpiece, The Provinces of Spain—14 giant murals depicting Spanish life—was commissioned by, and remains in, the Hispanic Society.
The exhibit in the Prado is organized chronologically, from prehistoric Iberia to the early 20th century. Every object on display is fascinating. The visitor is greeted by copper-age pottery, from around 2,000 BCE, decorated with fine geometrical patterns. We then swiftly move into Roman times: a mosaic, the torso of a goddess, delicately decorated bracelets. There is an exquisite belt-buckle from the Visigothic period, and a pyxis (a small ceramic vessel) from the Ummayad caliphate period of Moorish Spain—covered in vegetable motifs of stupefying beauty. Even more stunning is the so-called Alhambra Silk, from a later period of Moorish Spain, woven with the same intricate, mathematical patterns as the tiles in that famous palace in Granada. Reliquaries, funerary statues, and, most memorably, gothic door-knockers with fantastic beasts—iron dogs, lions, and dragons snarling in wait for the visitor—give yet another intimate look into the Spanish past.
One of the Hispanic Society’s prized possessions is its extensive collection of rare books and manuscripts. There is a private letter from Carlos V to his son, the eventual Philip II, advising the young man how to govern in Carlos’s absence. Illuminated bibles and even a copy of the Torah, every inch of every page decorated with care and skill, along with official grants and royal decrees, bearing both elaborate ornamentation and the original leaden seals—all this is collected for the visitor’s pleasure. I cannot fathom how much time it would have taken to create even one of those books. Everything had to be done by hand; and since every page was beautified with elaborate drawings and designs—even documents of state, which presumably needed to be produced in some haste—I am led to imagine scores upon scores of scribes and artists in the service of the king and the church.
I was especially gratified to find the historic maps on display. It is always fascinating to see old maps; they capture so much about the worldview of the time. There is one map of Teocaltiche—a province of Mexico—drawn up, if memory serves, either by the missionary or the colonial governor stationed there. It is an extraordinary thing: instead of a useful tool for navigation, it is a cartoon featuring naked natives practicing human sacrifice, battling the Spanish invaders with bows and arrows, and in general causing all sorts of chaos. The thing is clearly the work of a European mind, horrified by the “savages” he encountered. More beautiful is the map of the world by Giovanni Vespucci, nephew of the more famous Amerigo Vespucci. This map is impressively accurate, for the most part, in addition to being attractively made. The shape of the American continents is left vague and undefined, mostly because Europeans hadn’t gotten around them yet.
The most prized items of the collection are the three paintings by Velazquez. There is one portrait of a little girl—unnamed, but perhaps a relative of the painter—which showcases Velazquez’s talent for capturing charming young faces. Even better is Velazquez’s full-length portrait of the Conde Duque, Gaspar de Guzmán, Philip IV’s most powerful minister, a kind of Spanish counterpart to Cardinal Richelieu. He stands proudly, dressed in velvety black, looking every inch the ruler. The Hispanic Society also boasts an excellent portrait by Goya of the Duchess of Alba. She is dressed as a Maja (a lower-class resident of Madrid who tended to dress splendidly; there was apparently a fashion for adopting lower-class dress at the time) and pointing proudly down at her feet, perhaps to signify that she owns the land. It is a wonderful picture; there is so much energy in the Duchess’s feature and pose.
I thought that the exhibit would end with Goya, but the Prado has dedicated another floor to the collection. After an escalator ride I found myself surrounded by even more excellent paintings. Of these, the most important and impressive is a series of portraits by Sorolla—an excellent and perhaps underrated portraitist—of notable Spanish intellectuals and artists from the time, including most of the prominent members of the Generation of ’98. This includes the novelist Pío Baroja, the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, and the poet Antonio Machado, along with Azorín himself, the essayist who coined the name “Generation of ‘98” (the generation of artists and intellectuals whose lives were shaped by Spain’s defeat in the Spanish-American War in 1898). All of the portraits are remarkable examples of the portraitist’s ability to capture a complex personality in a gesture, a posture, and an expression.
Along with these works by Sorolla—which also includes two of his enchanting beach scenes—the collection also includes some notable works by Zuloaga. My favorite of these was his The Family of the Gypsy Bullfighter, which manages to combined startling realism of feature (I was immediately reminded of Ribera) with more modernist touches of color and shading. This blending of traditional and modernist seems to have been a persistent feature of his paintings, and allowed him to please both parties. He was particularly praised—both by Huntington and by Unamuno, at least—for his ability to capture the ‘essence’ of Spain. (This was a time when many countries were preoccupied with their ‘essences’.)
This little essay has been hastily dashed out, with enthusiasm and love, for a heretofore underappreciated cultural institution. I naturally feel a particular attachment to the Hispanic Society, since it is from New York and connected to Spain. After visiting this exhibit, it is impossible not to share, at least in part, Huntington’s passion for all things Spanish. What a wonderful breadth and depth of history is collected here.