The architecture of Gaudi enthralls everyone from wide-eyed children to the most sophisticated scholars. Known as “God’s architect”, Gaudi’s distinctive organic style reflects his primary inspirations: nature and religion. With seven works designated as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, the work of the Catalan native and staunch nationalist is beloved around the world.
Luis Gueilburt is an expert on the architecture of Gaudi and a sculptor who has exhibited his works and monumental sculptures in individual and collective exhibitions. Many of his pieces are held in private and public collections in Spain, Japan, Argentina, Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador and Peru.
He was a visiting lecturer at the Technical University of Catalonia, Barcelona Polytechnic College, where he taught a monographic course on the life and work of Antoni Gaudí. Gueilburt was responsible for Research Line Gaudí and Catalan Modernisme, architectural and artistic style of 1900; The Technical University of Catalonia. He has participated in courses, conferences, seminars, workshops and conferences on the work of Gaudí in universities and forums in Spain, France, the United States, Mexico, Italy and Argentina.
He organized the International Conference of Gaudí Studies. From 1993 to 2003 he directed the Centre for Gaudí Studies. Gueilburt had a role in the creation in 2003 of the Gaudí Workshop and was the academic director and collaborator of The Heritage Archive.
I know you’ll enjoy Luis’ insights on the architecture of Gaudi and his connection to Barcelona.
Discovering the Architecture of Gaudi
Meg: When did you discover Gaudí?
Luis: It's impossible to come to Barcelona and not discover Gaudí; Gaudí's work pretty much falls right on top of you; his work has such potency that, although you may not be interested in the architecture, you become impressed by the details of the work. Then, I began to investigate, to look, to visit a few of the buildings - first as a tourist - and I began to discover his work.
I discovered Gaudí when I arrived in Barcelona. Gaudí and Barcelona are indivisible and I began to study the artist and his work from that moment on. I was horrified at that time at how physical contact with any part of his work left one absolutely filthy, and I wondered why no-one had removed that thick layer of soot and atmospheric contamination from these works of art. At the same time, this dust afforded them a patina that only time can achieve and which made these constructions even more interesting.
In little time, before 1980, I was giving classes at a sculpting school, and there was a Brazilian architecture student who was doing a doctorate class on Architecture in Barcelona and was studying in the "Cátedra Gaudí." Then he introduced me to Professor Bassegoda in a guided visit that he gave through the Barcelona cathedral. Bassegoda showed himself to be interested in my work, and after a few days had passed, I went and paid him a visit. After seeing some of my work, he asked me if I would dare to restore the grill of the dragon at Finca Güell. I was shocked, as I wasn't expecting a proposal like that; I excitedly accepted the job and dedicated myself to making a new tongue for the head of the dragon, fashioning some new weldings, and restoring another part of the door. This impressed me greatly.
Working in Gaudi’s House
Meg: What led you to your involvement with the Center of Gaudinist Studies?
Luis: Studying the work of Gaudí, I was entrusted to do a few other restorations and, above all, reproductions for an exhibition that was put on by La Caixa de Pensiones and spread to 18 different countries in 7 or 8 years. One of the places the exhibition traveled to was Buenos Aires, and being the only Argentinian that had worked on it, the Generalitat invited me to give a conference on the theme. This obligated me to study Gaudí's work even more, because I felt like I had to, not being able to understand much about architectural subjects that were not included in my specialty; and with the years, I began to internalize more and more the theme of Gaudí; I worked for nine years as a restorer at the museum in Park Güell, which was the house where Gaudí had lived.
Stemming from a few interventions and restorations that I didn't agree with in distinct buildings in the works of Gaudí, I did an exhibition with pieces of Gaudí's work removed in certain restorations which I had been collecting and incorporating into my sculptoral work. During the time of this exhibition, which was held at the College for Master Builders and Technical Architects of Barcelona, I called together a round-table to give the opportunity to speak to the different architects who had restored Gaudí's works in order to see what intervention line they were following, and if they were all following the same line of thought, or if there were varying lines of thought. At the end of the intervention, I spoke up about what I had feared would be - that each was feeling quite inspired by Gaudí's work as they restored, but that each was working in their own distinct way.
From then on, I asserted that there must be a center for Gaudí studies. During that round table, I was informed that such an entity already existed and had been founded by Cësar Martinell in 1956 but had been halted after his death. Moreover, I found, in the historical archive of the Society of Architects, letters written by César Martinell asking that someone continue his work. This invoked us to follow some guidelines which he (Martinell) had written which outlined how the Center was to be.
The Organic Allure of the Architecture of Gaudi
Meg: What drew you personally to Gaudi's work?
Luis: The feature that drew me most to Gaudi’s work was his approach to nature, namely the fact that he builds his creations from the inside of shapes, in the same way that organic beings grow. Gaudi does not copy or imitate nature, his buildings are felt to exist in it, as he sets colors, lines, curves, geometry and all his resources as a whole harmoniously and in absolute balance.
Iconic Four Towers of Sagrada Familia
Meg: If Gaudí had finished Sagrada Familia himself, how do you think the towers would look?
Luis: This is very difficult to know because Gaudí, in spite of the fact that he left behind a definitive model in Paris in the exposition of 1911, the four towers are similar, but only the Nativity facade is shown. Therefore, the 12 towers that WILL be when the work is complete will have to be similar as well. There will always be differences, however, because, for example, the bases of the towers on the Nativity façade are circular, which the bases of those on the Passion facade are eliptical.
There is another model of the work by Gaudí which serves to show what the pinnacle of the tower was to look like with stone; but he finishes with Armored Concrete. With the discovery of this material, the form is modified and capable of being more slender.
We don't know, because the grace of Gaudí's work lies in the fact that Gaudí modified everything he did while he was still constructing it. When Gaudí's presence is lacking, then the work loses something; but of course, it's evident that he took into consideration that the construction would last a few hundred years and that it would have to be finished by other architects and projectors, and therefore, although the figures we see today are not the ones which Gaudí himself produced, they are the ones which he left to be produced by others in the future.
Gaudi As Renaissance Man
Meg: What do you find most intriguing about Gaudi?
Luis: For me, the most interesting thing that he has is that he is not really just an architect, an artist, or an engineer… He got an architecture title, yes, he made buildings, too, but beyond that he was a complete man, like Leonardo Da Vinci. He became interested in art and all the science in the world. Recently I started to make a list of subjects of which he became quite a master. Only at the level of science, there are about fifteen chapters: he studied deeply geology, hydraulics, anatomy, zoology, astronomy, and more disciplines which he later applied in its architecture. He was very ambitious, in the best sense of the word: because of his knowledge cravings and the will to build everywhere.
Gaudi’s Impact on Barcelona
Meg: What was Gaudi’s impact on Barcelona?
Luis: Indeed, he achieved a huge presence that today remains more than ever. But look how he conceived his projects: with the Sagrada Família, he wanted to build the world’s largest church and placed it more or less in the center of which is the current Barcelona (between the sea, the Tibidabo, the Besòs river and Montjuïc). What we now call the Sagrada Familia neighborhood, in 1870 was Sant Martí de Provençals, a 600 inhabitants village on the outskirts of the city. This is one demonstration of how visionary Gaudí was, he had already imagined how the city was going to expand, the choir of the Holy family was designed to have 1500 people in it!
Gaudi the Father Figure
Meg: How do the people of Barcelona see Gaudi?
Luis: If you think of a father-figure; that is so important to the people; that you laugh with and cry with and have problems with -- that is Gaudi to Barcelona.
Oriental and Moorish Influences on the Architecture of Gaudi
Meg: Gaudi had a style all his own but his work seems to have Oriental and Moorish influences.
Luis: Although Gaudí had strong roots in the Catalan culture he was born into, and was nourished by family and religious traditions, his early works had a feature that would be a distinctive trait of his personal brand, namely, the Orientalist style which was a particular mark of the Modernist movement and which is patent at Finca Güell, Casa Vicenç and El Capricho de Comillas amongst other sites.
The formal study of the first buildings clearly shows the influence that the Eastern world must have exerted on him in his student years, when he envisioned the engravings and photographs of travel in Southern Spain, North Africa, Persia, and many Arabic and far Eastern countries, which he could examine in the library of the School of Architecture. At the time, the architectural stylistic movement was quite poor because the builders were only masters, which motivated him to seek inspiration outside the borders, and given the economic and health challenges young Gaudí had to face, his journey was an imaginary one through the prints of adventurous travelers of the nineteenth century.
When we talk about Gaudi's work in Casa Vicens (1883-1885) or El Capricho de Comillas (1883-1885) and Finca Güell (1884-1887) we cannot fail to mention the Orientalist spirit present in them. But where this is easiest to appreciate is in the use of ceramics and especially in creating the mosaic trencadís technique, very similar to Zellig Zillij from North Africa, widely used in Morocco for coating mosques, minarets and other public and private buildings, where the cut ceramic pieces add shine and texture to the geometry of the walls.
The people of the Islamic cultures were not allowed to represent human figures or animals and that is why the use of geometry and mathematics has become almost essential to their designs. This is where zellig or zillij finds its greatest fortune and where Gaudí finds his greatest inspiration. Geometry, as they understood it in Morocco, generated all forms of the universe and its use is evident in zellig patterns. Later this technique would lead to ceramic forms converging into trencadís. In the second century zellig from North Africa was introduced into the homes of the imperial cities of Morocco and Spain, in mosques, in their minarets, towers and even the Giralda in Seville, then developing in the Alcázar and in the palaces of the Alhambra.
This is surely where Gaudí observes its art and geometric design, filtering it through his personal vision and having a powerful effect on his style. It is likely that Gaudí also took note of ceramic techniques observed in photographs of monuments in China and other Eastern countries where glazed pottery was also used as the glaze on ceramics seems to have originated in China.
Obsessed as he was to find a geometry that might simplify his working method and used to playing with the formal geometry where paraboloids, helical, hyperboloids and other forms of non-Euclidean geometry or warped surfaces predominated, Gaudí’s geometry incorporated trencadis and through this, the way to crosslink shapes that would be highlighted by their ceramic coatings.
Shutters are widely used in Arab and Eastern countries and Gaudí usually placed these elements in his early works mentioned above, as well as brick latticework and starry windows reminiscent of blinds in monuments in North Africa and Persia.
From these examples, we conclude that the eastern and especially Moorish influence was such that it is hard not to find architectural elements from these sources in Gaudí’s early work as well as reasons for considering it instrumental in the advent of the Modernist movement.
Sculpture of Luis Gueilburt
Meg: Can you tell me about your own work?
Luis: My work is framed in a figurative but not realistic style, developed in various supports and materials, such as wood, stone or metal,
Meg: You made a sculpture that is part of d the Public Art collection of Barcelona, Euclidean or The Four Elements, located in park Les Corts. Can you tell me about it?
Luis: It is placed inside the water, in a meandering channel that runs through the park. Made of stainless steel and ceramic on a limestone base, it is conceived as a tribute to the Greek geometer Euclid. The work consists of four stainless steel railing circles supported by a vertical tube in the center of the diameter, in addition to several metal clamps set in the circles, which hold cylindrical ceramic pieces. Thirteen of these elements are found, which could refer to the thirteen volumes of the Euclidean treatise, and my studies on plane geometry, the geometry of space, proportions, greater magnitudes and the properties of numbers amongst others.
Life Lesson from Gaudi
Meg: Is there a "life lesson" that you would say Gaudi has taught you?
Luis: Gaudi is most often referred to as a “genius”, thus implying something magical or inexplicable about his life and work. Rather, I prefer to use the term “ingenious” to highlight his originality of invention and construction, his resourcefulness and overall intelligence. There is a profound life lesson in his working style, which relies on careful accuracy, not leaving aside intuition and in the steady effort to accomplish his goals, this being his most inspiring.
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