That’s No Beggar, That’s Gaudí, or A Street Car Named Expire

Sagrada Família in Barcelona. Photo by  Marek Holub via Wikimedia Commons.

Sagrada Família in Barcelona. Photo by Marek Holub via Wikimedia Commons.

On June 7, 1926, a ragged beggar crossed the street in Barcelona, the bustling Catalan metropolis on the Mediterranean coast. Perhaps he was lost in thought, or perhaps the street car was somehow at fault. The man was struck and lost consciousness. Due to his ragged condition and lack of identification, he was left to his fate by the passersby.

Eventually, a police officer reluctantly decided to do something about the situation and took the bum to a nearby hospital where he received the most basic treatment. The following day, the chaplain of the Sagrada Família church, the beggar’s life’s work, recognized him, but it was too late. His previously untreated condition had deteriorated and he would go on to die on the 10th of June.

If you couldn’t gather from the title (apologies for the horrible pun), the beggar was no beggar at all, but was indeed Antoni Gaudí i Cornet, one of the most famous, if over-the-top, architects known to man. He was already in his 70’s at the time, but seemed otherwise healthy, was still working on his all-consuming life’s passion, the aforementioned Sagrada Família, and there really is no telling how long he would have carried on.

Antoni Gaudí in 1910. Author unknown.

Antoni Gaudí in 1910. Author unknown.

Gaudi was born in Reus in 1852. A deeply pious man who’s religious fervor intensified as he grew in age, Catholic symbolism permeated his work, culminating in his masterpiece, the still unfinished Sagrada Família.

Gaudi was an adherent of the Modernisme movement (Modernism in Catalan). It’s akin to the Art Nouveau movement, but he takes it one step further. Architecturally, it’s noted for its dreamlike qualities and from this layman’s eyes, is the manifestation of Surrealism in structural form. Other noted architects include Lluís Domènech i Montaner and Josep Puig i Cadafalch.

I lived in Barcelona for five years, and Modernist architecture can be found all over the place. Most of the better-known works of the masters are in the city’s L’Eixample district (a masterstroke of city planning which I plan to do a post on one day), but other beautiful works, as well as modest imitations can be found throughout the rest of Barcelona, its suburbs and the Catalan countryside. Domènech is by far my favorite of the Modernists, as I find Gaudí to be ridiculously over-the-top and the buildings, at least aesthetically from my untrained eye, seem impractical. See his works here.

Back to Gaudí’s story. He created many famous works in his time. Among his most famous works are the Casa Batilló, Casa Milà, and Parc Güell among others. Seven of his works are heritage listed by UNESCO. Needless to say, he’s one of the most famous and admired architects the world has known.

The question begs to be asked, why was a respected, revered architect in the midst of his magnum opus mistaken for a pauper? Gaudí’s personal life leaves some clues.

A view from inside the Sagrada Família, looking up. Photo by SBA73, via Wikimedia Commons.

A view from inside the Sagrada Família, looking up. Photo by SBA73, via Wikimedia Commons.

Gaudí was never married and was said to have never been in love. He was fully devoted to his work. Work and his religiosity could be said to be his two loves in life. While he was reported to dress more flamboyantly and attend social events as a younger man, he was known for his asceticism and humble nature by the time he was middle-aged. He rejected the material world, refused interviews and few photos were ever taken of the man, despite being a relative celebrity in his native Catalonia.

Upon the commencement of work on the Sagrada Família, Gaudí became slowly obsessed. He made it his life’s work. While work on the basilica began in 1882, Gaudí did not solely dedicate himself to the project until 1915. From then on, it was all he would think of.

It is commonly referred to as a cathedral, though that is false. The Cathedral of Barcelona was begun in the 13th century and sits in the middle of its historic Barri Gotic, the heart of the Medieval city. The basilica, however, was intended to have the size and structure of a cathedral, so one could be forgiven for assuming that it is one. But, technically speaking, a cathedral must be the seat of a bishop, and Barcelona’s bishop already has a home.

The building was less than 25% completed upon Gaudí’s death in 1926, but is scheduled to be finished in time for the centenary of his passing, 2026. That’s pushed back from the 2020 date that was the commonly given time frame when I first arrived in Spain in 2003.

Casa Batilló, Barcelona. Photo by Alexandra Benotzer, via Wikimedia Commons.

Casa Batilló, Barcelona. Photo by Alexandra Benotzer, via Wikimedia Commons.

I personally have mixed emotions about the building. I find the facade to be overwhelmingly amazing, yet find the overall aspect of the building, specifically it’s silhouette from afar, to be rather ugly.

The cliche of the compulsively obsessed artist consumed by their work to the point that they let themselves go is a common one. You don’t tend to think of architects as falling into that category. Gaudí demonstrated what can happen to someone so consumed by their work. Tattered rags for clothing and an unkempt beard became the mark of the man, so much so, that upon being struck down by that fateful tram, no one batted an eye.

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7 thoughts on “That’s No Beggar, That’s Gaudí, or A Street Car Named Expire

  1. Jenny says:

    I spent a few days in Barcelona on a business trip, and I can’t imagine the city without the influence of Gaudi. He expressed something creative and bold that’s part of the personality of the city. And yet I agree with you about the Sagrada Familia. That design did not work, in my opinion. It was as if something original and good was exaggerated in a hallucination. I don’t think it should be finished, and I don’t think it should be torn down, either. I think it should stay just as it is, a thought-provoking lesson in a daring but ultimately unsuccessful experiment in aesthetics. With the Spanish economy the way it is now, I’d be surprised if it was ever finished.

    • Well, it’s construction is basically funded by ticket sales and donations. The interior is complete and I think I read they get 2.5 million visitors a year. I think it’s somewhere around 15 Euros a pop. While that does add up to a lot of money, hardly the quantities needed for a building project on that scale.

      I also found the mix of the old and new sculpting on the facade to be a poor blend. I realize that some day the new stone will fade in color, but right now it simply highlights the difference in skill and craftmanship.

      Basically, it’s just weird.

  2. Good post about one of my favourite subjects. Great title by the way. Last year in a souvenir shop at El Capricco in Comillas I found a cartoon book for children about Gaudi which a rather gory picture of poor old Antoni being run down by the tram.

    • I’d love to see it. If there was anyway you could get me a copy of that picture I’d be eternally grateful. I love that kind of stuff.

      Pretty tragic accident. You wonder how many other street people would have been killed without going noticed.

  3. I’m so glad you mentioned Domènech i Montaner and Puig i Cadafalch as they don’t get enough credit for making BCN beautiful. The Palau de la Música and the Hospital de Sant Pau were two of my favorite places in town and not enough people visit them.

    When I first learned about Gaudí’s manner of death, I thought of Edgar Allen Poe’s and how odd that two such famous men should have the same thing happen to them. Is it just me?

    • Domènech is by far my favorite. Love his work. My partner used to live next to the Hospital de Sant Pau and we’d frequently walk through it.

      I didn’t realize that Poe met his fate in the same way. I’m not the knowledgeable on American history, and I always remember him dying of syphilis for some reason.

      • Just to be clear, Poe’s death wasn’t the same except that he was found in the street and, despite being incredibly famous at the time, no one recognized him and he died in a hospital that someone of his stature probably wouldn’t have gone to. There’s actually still a lot of discussion about the circumstances of Poe’s death, but it seems that I am the only one to have made the connection between the two men. I’m weird that way.

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