My trip to Spain: June and July, 2012.
It does happen.
Someone—a queen, a king, or a so-called Captain of Industry, our version—finds inspiration bursting out in bright colors in an unexpected corner: a peasant, an explorer, an architectural genius, and brings the essential power of money, wealth and prestige to force the bloom.
In the palace garden at Cordoba, I saw this in the plain granite statue of Columbus facing King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, whose somber faces I see every day on the street; his support is not assured, although he is dressed in this representation in court clothes and holds out his arms, winningly, to solicit their approval for his bold plan to sail to India.
It was the Queen who decided to favor him; after her death, Ferdinand refused to grant Columbus an audience, derailing whatever future explorations he had in mind after the New World.
(And it was the queen who decreed that under the marble effigies in the cathedral, plain iron coffins should hold the monarchs’ actual remains in a dismal crypt; at the head, the crown and scepter have been laid aside, and the legend on the queen’s coffin reads, simply, Servant of God.)
It was not humility, however, that led her to fund Columbus’ voyage, but a strong sense of her place in history, if not to make history, herself, impossible at that time, to insure that it would be made by a man whose genius she recognized.
Here in Barcelona, the astonishing example appears in the city-wide work of the great late nineteenth century visionary, Gaudi, who made a cathedral that dispels all the dark shadows I thought essential to the Catholic religion if not to all brands of the same: his cathedral, whimsical as a child’s sand castle, is still being worked on decades after his death, through civil and world wars, since he was somehow able to persuade the city and its builders that his work was not of the kind to be finished in one generation.
And how splendid the cathedral is, its vast interior bathed with vibrant greens, yellows, blues and reds from the stained glass windows whose colors he decided while leaving the actual design, in abstract shapes, to the workers. It is only a slight disappointment to find that the crucified Christ over the alter wears the face of a pretty boy in an underwear ad—no darkness and suffering there—and that the conventional carved figures on the façade of the Last Supper, the Disciples and so on, are as dull as they usually are in contemporary representations.
But these failures really don’t matter; the extraordinary airy mass of colors that seems to build a new future for religious faith is grounded in a satisfactory way by the dark carved wood confessionals; even in a universe of light, there must be room for sin and absolution.
Equally or perhaps even more astounding are Gaudi’s private houses, the park he designed to contain them, and the great apartment building, La Pedrera, all of which both acknowledged the needs and expectations of his bourgeois clients and relentlessly press them out of their comfort zones.
Here are back stairs for the maids (the owners descend and ascend in art nouveau elevators), an underground garage, the first in Barcelona, for both cars and horses, a rooftop of extraordinary curving forms where the maids were to hang wet laundry, an attic vaulted like a crypt for the storage of broken furniture, and tiled bathrooms complete with a tub and enema hose for misbehaving children.
He reckoned on a monied class that perhaps appreciated his attention to basic necessities—the maids, the enemas—but could not endure balconies as twisted as nests of snakes, curiously-shaped windows, columns designed to fill with rainwater, walls enlivened with bits of broken crockery in violent colors, furniture that might be comfortable but has an odd, animalistic look—all the emblems of a great imagination trying to tether the middle-class to its high-flying chariot.
It worked, for a few patrons who bought his private houses, but the big development on the hill around the park never took place, the apartment building was condemned as an atrocity. Gaudi was working on the edge of the Spanish Civil War; the videos in La Pedrera remind us tourists of a newly empowered working class, marching along the streets beside factories where forgotten women labored humped over Singer sewing machines.
Of course, as George Orwell knew, the class that might have bought Gaudi’s apartments would rise again and live in neoclassical splendor on broad new boulevards, not in grotesqueries decorated with bits of broken pottery.
But Gaudi’s daring remains. Whether anyone ultimately lived in his buildings hardly matters compared to their effect on the army of tourists shuffling through; and when the banks take over La Pedrera, after the last two inhabitants leave, they will hardly dare to cover or tone down his immensely daring facades and interiors. They will remain to astonish as we insist more and more on living in and among the bland conveniences of the twenty-first century.
An example of which confronts me every time I visit Kentucky: a vast “planned community” where the houses copy examples in an old city neighborhood and a bar, market and boutique pretend that the matched white inhabitants will never have to venture into the terrifying city nearby—that is, if they are satisfied with houses that mimic their forebears’ and a life made up of neighborhood get-togethers and trips to the ice cream store.
Gaudi must have known that the past was a graveyard for design; his only mistake, if it can be called one, was to build on an assumption the prejudices of the well-off were certain to change when he showed them something startlingly new. That seldom, or perhaps never, happens.