Tuesday, July 13, 2010

On the Road (Europe 2010): Barcelona--Sagrada Familia, Palau Música Catalana, Picasso Museum, Park Güell

Spent most of the day yesterday visiting Gaudí's grand temple, the Sagrada Familia. Despite knowing that the church is unfinished, nothing quite prepares you for the shock of entering an active construction site as you step into the building. Sagrada Familia is recognizably a church, but it is very much a work in progress. Forklifts carry in palettes of mortar, workmen in hardhats direct loads suspended from cranes, teams of architects and engineers can be seen consulting high above the church floor on platforms built for access to the work under way. Everywhere the space reverberates with the sound of jackhammers, the clanging of pipes, the engines of work vehicles. Heavy dust floats in the air—sometimes very prettily in the shafts of light created by still unfilled openings for windows—but leaving one’s throat sore by the end of the visit.

Some of the stained glass windows have been installed, but mostly the glass is unfinished. The main columns that support the weight of the towers are in place and these branch from nodes high above the floor into three, four, sometimes five thinner columns that support palm frond-like structures above. From below, Gaudi’s design gives the impression that you’re looking up into a forest canopy.  Below the palm canopy is enough seating for a choir of 1,200 voices. I wonder what the place will sound like. The use of branching supports is not only interesting to look at, but it allowed Gaudí to abandon the flying buttresses that have been a staple of cathedral architecture for centuries, giving the exterior a somewhat sleek look, despite the heavy ornamentation, especially on the Nativity Façade. I much preferred the more traditional sculpture on this side of the church to the stark, angular, modern sculptures that adorn the opposite side of the church, the Passion Façade, although they were interesting too.

I enjoyed seeing the school building next door, which was originally intended to be a temporary structure to house a school for the children of men working on the church. This is another Gaudí design. It has a wave-form roof that reminded me of a surface of rippled mud—yet another example of Gaudí drawing on natural forms for inspiration.

Had an interesting lunch afterward at La Muscleria, a restaurant that specializes in mussels and claims to be the best mussel specialty restaurant in Barcelona—a claim I have no inclination to dispute. Nearly everything on the menu is mussels steamed or sautéed in various styles—from the traditional (such as steamed mussels with onions and white wine) to the more exotic (steamed mussels in a curry sauce). The steamed mussels are served in big, domed metal pots. Delicious, and highly recommended, unless you dislike shellfish, as some people do. If you're a fan of mussels and find yourself in Barcelona, don't miss this place.

The Palau Música Catalana is another architectural gem well worth visiting in Barcelona. We visited it on our last day in the city. It was not designed by Gaudí, but by Lluis Domènech i Montaner, who at the time was far better known than Gaudí. The Palau was built between 1906 and 1908 as the performance and administrative headquarters of the Orfeó Català, a choral group founded around 1891, one of many that were active at the time, singing mostly Catalan popular songs. The Palau still serves its original function, but now hosts performers of all kinds from all over the world. Everything—the façade, the original outdoor ticket windows (ticket sales have since moved to an addition), the stairways, and the concert hall itself—is decorated in tile, glass, and terracotta sculpture. Like the building that houses the Natural History Museum in London, there is an unseen steel framework that supports the structure. The steel is hidden by the exuberant terracotta decorations. In the concert hall proper, the organ is impressive, but the centerpiece is the terracotta and tile frieze of the 12 muses behind the stage (below the organ). This, too, is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Visited the Picasso Museum, which is an excellent introduction to Picasso's early work. I knew that his father had been a painter and was under the impression that Picasso had had his early training mostly from his father, but I see now that he went to art school, in Barcelona. The many examples of the early work are interesting because the tension between his academic training and his own instincts is palpable in some of the work. Picasso is not one of my favorite painters, but this museum was well worth the visit just for the perspective it gives by showing much of his earliest work and by showing the work of many painters he associated with in his earliest days. It was an appropriate end to a day with lunch at Els Quatre Gats, one of Picasso's Barcelona hangouts.

Also saw Park Güell, partly designed by Gaudî. The park was something of a disappointment because it's not an integrated whole. It gives the impression of having been an existing park that Gaudî embellished after the fact (which I think it was). That said, the mosaics are interesting--when you can see them through all the tourists and illegal street vendors. Watching the vendors disperse like scared roaches on the approach of policemen was amusing. 

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