Several years ago I spent one of the happiest days of my life in Barcelona, and nothing happened. I saw nobody. I spoke to nobody. I went nowhere farther than my feet could take me, and I felt more intensely connected to urban life than I have anywhere else in the world. I spent the day as I did as an undergraduate touring Europe for the first time—I walked the streets from early morning until late at night, stopping only to eat or enter whatever buildings I could. I had more energy at midnight than in the morning, because in Barcelona, energy builds, in lilting stages, throughout the day, as the city becomes more a part of one’s inner being.
Barcelona is a city where architecture and urbanism are one. Everyone knows the Antoni Gaudí, the brilliant Catalan whose passion, at once religious and aesthetic, yielded buildings of extraordinary sensuousness, a kind of melted, lyrical art nouveau with hints of Gothic. Gaudí set the tone for the city, for the way its physical forms, too strong to be backdrops, influence your emotions. I began my day at the Sagrada Família church, surely the most extraordinary personal interpretation of Gothic architecture since the Middle Ages. Gaudí started it in 1884, designing as he went until killed when struck by a tram in 1926; the place should have been left as a dazzling ruin, but instead work continues—a pseudo-Gaudí architecture rising in mistaken homage to the master. Most of what is there is still Gaudí’s own, but that may not be true in another generation.
Barcelona has never imitated—it has always continued to invent. All things Gaudí give as much pleasure as the extraordinary wrought-iron lampposts on the Passeig de Gràcia; the city’s grandest boulevard, it brilliantly combines street lighting with exquisite ceramic-tile mosaic seats, reminders that this is a place in which feeling and function can’t be separated.
It was a joy to see Santiago Calatrava’s Montjuïc Communication Tower and Arata Isozaki’s sports stadium—both built for the 1992 Olympics—and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s German pavilion for the 1929 exposition, re-erected in 1985. I delved into the richly textured old quarters, walking the tree-lined Las Ramblas, the world’s greatest pedestrian promenade.
The essential idea of Barcelona is that all of this beauty is to be used. This is not a city of charm; it has a deeper sort of grace, one that comes from understanding that the magnificence of the everyday is the most exalted thing of all.
But what defines Barcelona most completely for me is the 19th-century section of the city called L’Eixample, designed by Ildefons Cerdà, an architect who will never be as celebrated as Gaudí. It has the most remarkable urban grid that I have ever seen. The blocks are almost square, but each corner is cut off at the diagonal, so that every intersection becomes, in effect, a little diamond-shaped plaza. It’s not easy to navigate, since the diagonals make you zigzag as you walk. But his weird plan forces you to look and to feel and to move at the city’s pace, which is neither languid nor frenetic, but alert and determined and perpetually engaged. The chopped-up grid is the essence of Barcelona: eccentricity raised to the level of monumental architecture.
PAUL GOLDBERGER, a Pulitzer Prize winner and staff writer for the New Yorker, is one of the world’s leading architecture critics. His latest book is Up From Zero: Politics, Architecture, and the Rebuilding of New York.
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