It is impossible to think of Barcelona and not think of Gaudi's creations. Ranging in style from Art Nouveau to Gothic, they include some of the city's most notable landmarks. Cathy Packe and Tom Templeton give a guided tour to the works of this Catalan architect

Why Gaudi now?

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Antoni Gaudi y Cornet, Barcelona's best-known and most visible architect, in whose honour the next 12 months have been dubbed "International Gaudi Year". It is already impossible to visit Barcelona and come away unaware of the existence of Gaudi, but if you visit in 2002 it will be difficult to avoid becoming an expert.

The anniversary is marked by exhibitions, lectures, and several new tourist routes around the city of Barcelona, and the other parts of Spain in which he worked. An inaugural festival will take place in the spring; more details are available from www.bcn.es/Gaudi2002.

Remind me what he's famous for

His best-known building is the Sagrada Familia or, to give it its full title, the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia. It was begun in 1882; Gaudi took over the project a year later, and worked on it for more than 40 years until his death in 1926, by which time it was still unfinished. Work resumed in 1940, and is still continuing, with no definite date set for its completion.

The church was designed in the shape of a Latin cross, with five aisles and three facades. Four spires represent the apostles, with a central spire representing Christ. The tall pillars in the main body of the building are like trees, creating the impression of a forest.

Anyone visiting the cathedral expecting to be able to attend mass is in for a shock as the whole place is still a building site. But being able to watch a cathedral in the making is part of the attraction, and the long climb up into the completed spires is well worth the effort for the spectacular views down into the building itself as well as over the city.

Visitors tend to love it or hate it: the German architect Hermann Finsterlin, who exchanged letters with Gaudi, described it as "one of the building-wonders of the world". George Orwell on the other hand, who described the Sagrada Familia in his book 'Homage to Catalonia', thought it was "one of the most hideous buildings in the world", and wished it had been blown up, like many others in Barcelona, during the revolution. The one certainty is that it dominates the city's skyline.

The Sagrada Familia is on Calle Mallorca 401 (00 34 93 207 3031), and is open daily from 9am to 6pm (later as the days get longer). Admission i€6 (£3.70). The crowds can be particularly bad on a Monday, as it's one of the few attractions in the city actually open.

So Gaudi spent his life in Barcelona?

Most of it, although he was born in Reus, about 60 miles south-west of Barcelona. Reus was a prosperous town, once the second city of Catalonia, and many new buildings went up during Gaudi's lifetime. All were built in the modernist style but none were by Gaudi himself. However, it is an interesting place to visit if you want to see the work of his contemporaries, among them Lluis Domenech i Montaner, who designed several elegant houses including Casa Navas and Casa Gasull, and the psychiatric hospital, the Pere Mata Institute. Other buildings of the period were designed by Pere Caselles, and Gaudi's pupil, Joan Rubio i Bellver.

Do i have to go to Barcelona to see Gaudi's work?

Not necessarily. He built a pavilion known as the Palace of the Marquis of Comillas, on a hilltop overlooking the Cantabrian coast at Comillas, near Santander. The whimsically-styled gardens are open to the public, and the pavilion itself has become a restaurant, El Capricho (00 34 94 272 0365). A couple of other modernist villas, designed by contemporaries of Gaudi, are nearby.

The Palacio Episcopal, commissioned by a Catalan bishop for the crumbling medieval town of Astorga, near Leon, is a mock-gothic creation with a modern twist that also raised eyebrows when it was first built. As a result of public hostility it was left empty for many years, but now houses the Museo de los Caminos, whose collection relates to the Pilgrims' Route to Santiago de Compostela, on which path the town of Astorga is located. For information, call 00 34 98 7 616882.

In the centre of Leon itself, Gaudi designed the house known as Los Botines (Placa de San Marcelo 5), for a wealthy local businessman who wanted his shop and warehouse on the ground floor, and accommodation for himself and his family on the upper floors.

As a result of the work he was doing on the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi was asked to make alterations to the interior of the magnificent gothic cathedral that dominates the city of Palma de Mallorca. He redesigned the central choir to let more light into the building, a change which proved controversial at the time.

How would you describe his style?

Gaudi was influenced by a variety of trends and people, taking elements from different sources as he developed his own unique style. Although he is associated with the modernistas – the Spanish branch of the Art Nouveau movement – some of his buildings were designed in the mudejar, or Moorish, style. Others showed the influence of Gothic art which had a revival in popularity during the 19th century, while some designs were baroque in appearance.

His education and architectural training were influenced by several writers, particularly Viollet-le-Duc, who wrote about French architecture from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries, William Morris, and John Ruskin, whose theory that ornament was the origin of architecture made a big impact on him.

The modernista movement, with which Gaudi was associated, became important from 1888, when the Barcelona World Fair was held. The exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Barcelona's Parc de la Ciutadella (00 34 93 319 5728; closed Monday and Sunday afternoon) puts this movement, and Gaudi's connection with it, into the wider context of artistic movements in Europe as a whole.

What's his most striking work?

By the time he designed the Casa Mila, usually known as La Pedrera (Passeig de Gracia 92; 00 34 93 484 59 00), Gaudi had perfected the style for which he is best known. This apartment building, constructed around two courtyards, was his last civic project, and his design seems intent on eliminating angular corners; instead he has put in curves wherever possible. This is apparent even from the outside, where none of the window frames or balconies is completely straight.

A visit to La Pedrera is in two parts. The Espai Gaudi, at the top of the building, includes the roof terrace where his imagination ran riot; it contains an exhibition of the work and significance of Antoni Gaudi. There are models and photographs of his buildings, and an audio-visual display which gives a comprehensive explanation of his influence on Barcelona. Below this is an apartment – really two apartments turned into one – furnished in the style of the early 20th century with furniture, dècor and appliances that would have been in use during the later part of Gaudi's own life. Part of the space is devoted to putting the events of the time into a cultural and social context.

His earliest work?

While he was a student in Barcelona, Gaudi assisted Josep Fontsere in designing the rocks for the fountain, or Cascada, near the lake in the Ciutadella Park; he may also have been involved in the design of the park's wrought iron gates. His first proper commission was a housing project for the factory workers at the Cooperativa Mataronense, but unfortunately his design was too avant-garde for the time, and very little of it was ever built. However, the project was displayed at the World Fair in Paris in 1878, and as a result he met Count Eusebi Guell, a banker and the head of a family of industrialists, who was to become one of his best friends and his most important patron.

What did he commission?

Eusebi Guell commissioned several major works from Gaudi, of which the earliest is the Palau Guell (Carrer Nou de la Rambla 5; 00 34 93 317 3974), a luxurious family home close to the Ramblas. At first sight much of the design seems traditional, probably because Gaudi was still trying to establish himself as an architect. Most of the experimentation is in the basement, where he showed an early enthusiasm for using natural shapes, with pillars in the form of mushrooms, and on the roof, strikingly different from those around it, with its ceramic shapes and many chimneys. The reason that the most innovative features were at the top and bottom of the house is generally assumed to be because the Guell family would be unlikely to visit these areas and take exception to the design.

Next, he designed the Parc Guell (Carrer Olot, close to Lesseps metro station, or reached by number 24 bus from the Placa de Catalunya). Gaudi's plan was to turn this wooded hillside, then outside the city itself, into a residential garden city based on the English model.

Only four of the 60 planned houses were ever built; Gaudi lived in one of them for the last 20 years of his life. It is now a museum, the Casa-Museu Gaudi (00 34 93 219 3811), containing an interesting collection of furniture designed by Gaudi.

The park itself is a tribute to the architect's imagination. Instead of a municipal park, he created a fantasy world, where mosaic dragons and frogs pop out of bushes, houses are shaped like mushrooms, and walkways are constructed to look as if they are built under real trees.

Other commissions from Gaudi's generous patron included the pavilions for Guell's summer residence at Avinguida de Pedralbes 7; the church in the industrial colony established by Guell on the Carrrer de Reixach in Santa Coloma de Cervello; and the pyramid-shaped wine cellars, possibly completed by one of Gaudi's assistants, at Garraf, on the main highway between Barcelona and Sitges.

I need a guided tour

The best way to see Gaudi's main works, as well as those of some of his contemporaries, is to follow the Ruta del Modernismo walking tour designed by the Centre de Modernisme (Passeig de Gracia 41; 00 34 93 488 0139).

Several of his finest buildings, including the Casa Battlo (Passeig de Gracia 43) and the Casa Vicens (Carrer de los Carolines 24-26), are privately owned, and it is only possible to view them from the outside. However, you may sometimes find that the main door is open and it is worth taking a peep as you pass.

The walk begins at the Palau Guell, and continues up the Ramblas, branching off to the right before heading north again up the Passeig de Gracia towards Parc Guell. A detour into the Placa Reial will enable you to see the streetlights designed in 1878 by the young Gaudi. Otherwise, the route takes you past all his main works, including the prize-winning Casa Calvet (Carrer de Casp 48; 00 34 93 412 40 12, which is now a restaurant.

As part of this year's celebrations, a Gaudi bus will tour the city, linking the main Gaudi buildings. Theservice is scheduled to run from March to September.

Did Barcelona appreciate its master-builder?

Surprisingly, yes. Despite the controversy that initially surrounded some of his buildings, Gaudi became very popular, so much so that when he died, half the city dressed in black to pay homage to him. He died at the age of 74 when he was run over by a tram. He was dressed shabbily, as was his wont, and the passing tram drivers refused to take what they thought was a poor vagabond to hospital; they were later fined by the municipal police for not assisting an injured man.

Gaudi was buried in the crypt of the building which had taken up so much of his energy, the Sagrada Familia. The church authorities in Barcelona, with the support of the Bishops of Catalonia, are promoting the case for Gaudi's beatification, and in March 2000 the Vatican began examining the case for canonising him. There have been claims that his contemporaries "knew he was God's architect"; however, it remains to be seen whether Gaudi will ever become a saint.

Three non-Gaudi modernist buildings in Barcelona

Although it is easy to walk around Barcelona and end up with the impression that Gaudi was responsible for redesigning, or at least modernising, the city single-handedly there were plenty of other architects working at the same time, many of whom produced some striking buildings.

Palau de la Musica Catalana. The Palace of Catalan Music (Carrer de Sant Pere Mes Alt; (00 34 93 295 72 00; www.palaumusica.org) is the best-known and most beautiful of the buildings designed by Lluis Domenech i Montaner. The mosaic façade is impressive, but the real highlight is the concert hall, with a magnificent colonnaded balcony and ceiling of gold and blue stained glass.

Casa Lleo Morera. This Domenech i Montaner house at Passeig de Gracia 35 is one of a group of buildings of the same period by different architects; the block is known as the Manzana de la Discordia. This corner building is richly decorated with mosaic, stained glass and elaborately carved stone, and the interior has some unusual semi-circular balconies.

Casa Amatller. This building (Passeig de Gracia 41; 00 34 93 488 01 39) by Josep Puig i Cadalfach, with its striking stepped façade, is the starting point for guided tours. It is also the place to buy a book of tickets which will allow access to all the main buildings on the Ruta del Modernismo.

A source of inspiration

Les 4 Gats (Carrer de Montsio 3bis; 00 34 93 302 41 40) was once the headquarters of the modernista movement and was where Gaudi and his contemporaries came to eat and drink; the menu cards were designed by Picasso. It is no longer the haunt of artists and writers, but it is still an extremely popular bar and restaurant.

Les 4 Gats fills up quickly with people stopping of for a drink and some tapas on their way home from work, and doesn't really empty out until closing time. If you want a meal, the menu is full of Catalan favourites, but it is essential to book.

Comments