|A Landscape All of Its
copyright © 2007
in The Guardian
1 December 2007
I had the luck, the other day, to go up on
the roof of Gaudí's famous apartment building in Barcelona,
La Pedrera, and to have the place all to myself, save for a
single warder. It was nine in the morning, and I sat up there
very happily for half an hour while the other early visitors
were still occupied with the museum on the floor below. This
turned out to be the best way to view Gaudí's unearthly
and unprecedented landscape of chimneys and ventilation towers.
La Pedrera is that undulating structure on
the intersection between Barcelona's great shopping boulevard,
the Passeig de Gràcia, and the Carrer de Provença.
In some photographs it looks as if it must have been made out
of plaster or concrete, having so few straight lines. But, as
the nickname La Pedrera (the quarry) implies, it was executed
in carved, somewhat rough-hewn, stone, using a plaster scale
model for reference.
There was, we are told, "absolutely no
recourse to improvisation: the façade was chiselled point
by point ... When the stone blocks had been put in place, Gaudí
personally monitored the final adjustments carried out by the
masons to make sure that the undulations, the concave and convex
surfaces, fitted in perfectly with his notion of unity."
It was this large number of huge stone blocks, waiting to be
installed, that prompted the nickname.
On the roof, by contrast, the surfaces are
modelled in a lime and chalk mortar, or covered with marble
fragments or, in one case, broken bottle-glass - just as the
surfaces of other Gaudí structures were encrusted with
tile fragments. The dominant colour is an ochre wash, which
gives the strange undulating surfaces a North African appearance.
One could be in Timbuktu.
The chimneys have Darth Vader helmets. And
then there are ventilation towers and badalots, which are the
casings of the stairwells leading from the attic to the roof.
Those that are visible from below in the Passeig de Gràcia
have the decorated surfaces. The plain ochre structures, no
less beautiful, are the surprise. One thinks of chess pieces,
before rejecting the comparison. No game of chess, one reasons,
was ever played on such a surface - undulating and irregular.
As originally conceived, and as one can see
in old photographs, this stepped roof-terrace had nothing to
prevent one falling off, down into one of the two courtyards,
or into the street. And the only drawback to the present state
of the building (restored and much of it opened to the public
10 years ago) is that there has to be a chain-link fence, which
detracts from the undulating lines of the structure. One mustn't
complain. A million people visit La Pedrera every year, and
have to be protected from the impulse to leap. The irregular
height of the roof-terrace reflects the irregular floorplan
of the building - not a single room is a conventional shape
- and the varying height of the arches of the attic floor below.
This attic, now entirely given over to museum
space, was once used for lumber rooms and even converted into
apartments. Today it provides a second, pressing reason for
a visit to La Pedrera: not only for its contents, but also for
the extraordinary structure of its roof - a long rib cage consisting
of 270 arches. Catenary arches, they are called, as they resemble
the curve formed by a chain suspended from two points. If you
took such a chain and inverted it optically, you would get this
kind of balanced arch, which, the guidebook informs us, has
no point of tension and "makes the bricks work by compression,
transforming the arch into a self-supporting structure".
The principle is demonstrated in the museum by means of a model
below which a mirror is placed. The upside down chain-arches
immediately put you in mind of Gaudí.
Below the attic floor there is an apartment
that has been restored to its original appearance and refurnished
in the modernist style. Modernist in this context means something
that looks to our eyes rather like art nouveau. The previous
owner of this apartment couldn't bear Barcelona modernism, and
as soon as her husband died she threw out all the furniture
and redid the whole suite of rooms in the Louis Quinze style.
It is very interesting, both on this floor and on the mezzanine,
where I spent some time in the offices of the Caixa Catalunya
foundation (which bought and restored the whole edifice), to
go through a sequence of irregularly shaped rooms, with their
original doorways and windows. It felt entirely natural and
not remotely willed or awkward.
I don't say I have always entirely liked Gaudi's
work. The other notable building on the Passeig de Gràcia
which he remodelled, the Casa Batlló, while it remains
a remarkable sight, is rather too winsome or cute for my taste,
too much like an illustration in a children's book. One almost
begins to wish Gaudí would grow up. On the other hand,
when play is part of the whole idea, as in the Park Güell
in the hills above the city, the result is immediately and abidingly
pleasing. And overall it must be conceded that one would not
have got as far as building in this way - securing commissions,
dealing with builders and engineers, fighting city authorities
- without really meaning it.
From La Pedrera I walked to the Sagrada Familia,
where I queued to go up a spire and rather came to wish I hadn't.
At the top we were asked to walk across a narrow bridge to the
adjacent spire, and from there to descend on foot. Many tourists,
faces betraying barely suppressed alarm, were trying to get
past in the wrong direction, and the descent, when it became
possible, turned into an ordeal. Gaudí, or someone, had
contrived a spiral staircase with no central pillar to hold
In these spires, at a giddy-making height,
one had good reason to wonder just how brilliant an architect
Gaudí was, and how sound his engineering. Then the mind
wandered towards the thought that Barcelona might lie on a seismic
fault. Finally, getting out, one thought: well, I've done the
Sagrada Familia, and need never go near it again. But La Pedrera
- that roof was something else, a kind of vision, a complete