Antoni Gaudí’s contribution to architecture was great. He was the first to demonstrate the problems with flat roofs (which thanks to him stopped being used in Catalan architecture), he was the first to use reinforced concrete beams, he invented new architectural forms, imitated nature, was eco-friendly and an ecologist. Plus, he incorporated innovations from other fields into architecture, like the stereographic cage, multiple exposure photography and large-scale moulds in sculpture.
Gaudí was an architectural scientist and his method was revolutionary. He was very demanding, rigorous and daring; the fact that something hadn’t been done before didn’t stop him from trying and, often, achieving it. He has been compared with geniuses of painting like Van Gogh for his expression of colour, with Johann Sebastian Bach for his technical perfection and with revolutionary figures like Leonardo da Vinci for his constant inventiveness.
We know that Gaudí associated art with beauty. But don’t be fooled, his forms weren’t created on a whim. They play a structural and mechanical function: to help keep the building standing. That, at the same time, he was able to use geometry to achieve a specific form that set the structure apart while also serving a mechanical function puts him head and shoulders above the other Modernisme architects of the time. Gaudí believed that decorative elements should be subordinate to decorative ones but, in spite of this, his buildings are often a wealth of ornamentation.
Once clear example of this in the Schools of the Sagrada Familia
These schools were designed as a provisional structure, so the budget was very modest. Both the quality and quantity of materials were very limited (wooden beams, white-washed walls, ceramic tiles). The outer wall is made of only two layers of roman brick and each one is 4-cm thick. Even so, the wall is 5.6 metres high. It wasn’t easy to work this wonder and Gaudí decided to build an undulating wall to do so. The wavy form made it more resistant to the wind –such a thin wall would be incredibly unstable. The result is a unique structure but not due to whim, it is a lesson in mechanics and geometry. The same is true of the beams. As they would have had to be excessively long in order to reach from one end to the other, Gaudí designed an inner portico to serve as a central support for the beams. He chose ceramic tiles, cheap and easy to get, and put them on either end so that the walls could be thinner and he would need fewer bricks. His use of geometry allowed him to optimise building efficiency in the structure. Even Le Corbusier took notes and sketched these schools (which at first glance seem like a much less noteworthy work) and not the adjacent building, the Sagrada Familia!
But what’s going on today? Are there any exceptional architects around now whose buildings share his mark of genius?
The answer is Yes.
Frank Gehry is one of them. He believes that architecture is art and, therefore, a finished building must also be a work of art. He uses innovative materials and peculiar shapes that are irregular and volumetric, off-balance and expressive.
Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid is another example of ground-breaking architecture. Zaha works on intermingling design, landscape and topography to integrate each building into its surroundings. Her use of glass, steel and composite materials in totally new structural forms requires unique processes and special methods. The functional, environmental and sustainable aspects of her buildings are equally complex and her designs fit the practical and planning needs of each situation.
For Richard Meier, clean lines, harmony, space and light are all equally important. He organises his buildings around geometric grids that are conditioned by their surrounding and help him lay out interior and exterior spaces. Most of his buildings are white and change colour throughout the day. The ceramic tiles covering the façade of Casa Batlló have a similarly hypnotic optical effect that changes depending on the sun’s position in the sky.
Norman Foster is the greatest example of high-tech architecture and minimalism. He seeks simplicity by using light materials and industrialised components and controlling schedules, costs and quality with models used in industrial manufacturing. He values technology and installations and firmly believes that formal components should disappear.
Can you imagine what Gaudí would have created if he had had all of the technology available to contemporary architects?