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Antonio Gaudi: Master Architect Hardcover – April 1, 2000
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About the Author
Melba Levick is an accomplished architectural and travel photographer whose work has been published internationally in numerous magazines and in over 30 books.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The work of Antonio Gaudi Cornet (18521926) has transcended time, styles, and the period in which it was created. His achievement grew from his great capacity for observation and his fervent interest in nature. He was a passionate observer, learning directly from what he saw in the sky and the clouds, in water, rocks, plants, animals, and mountains.
To understand Gaudi’s achievement one must recognize that his work is not exclusively architectural. It is more than that: it is not architectural in the sense that historians understand architecture. Gaudi’s work does not fit into traditional schemes that would place it within the narrow limits of a particular style, nor was he the outstanding discipline of any master.
There had never been architects in the Gaudi family, only craftsmen, especially copper and iron smiths. He did not have the occupational idiosyncrasy that is characteristic of dynasties of architects. While he was extremely naive, he was also highly perspicacious. He saw things as they actually are, without prejudice, not as sometimes one might wish them to be. Juan Munne, a carpenter who worked with him for many years, said of him: Gaudi is clear-minded.” Throughout his career Gaudi made use of practical solutions that were both simple and functional, and through them he achieved surprising results.
Observing Gaudi’s architectural forms, one might think that he was either a complex or a convoluted mind. The sinuous facades of his buildings look like somewhat irrational, baroque conceptions. But this is not the case. Because his compositions are inspired by nature, they stand out from those of architects who have always utilized a simple geometry based on abstract forms, like the line of the plane, forms that are nonexistent in nature.
In a logical process of simplification and abstraction, architects have developed designs and constructed buildings using only two auxiliary tools: the compass and the square. They have made use of these tools for drawing on a flat surface as well as for cutting stone or wood. From the plane and the straight line, both two-dimensional forms, one moves to three-dimensional forms, the regular polyhedrons, the cube, tetrahedron, octahedron, icosahedron, and pentagonal dodecahedron, forms that have been traditionally sanctified and identified with the elements of earth, fire, water, air, and the quintessential, as proposed by Plato in his Timaeus. If these forms can be drawn with a square, the compass serves for drawing circles and spheres, forms that have always been used by architects.
In the architecture of every age, made with the help of a compass and square, all pillars can be described as prisms, all columns cylinders, all domes hemispheres, and all roofs dihedral angles or pyramids. This last form, so much loved by architects, is found from the pharonic pyramids of Giza built several thousand years ago to the recent courtyard entrance of the Louvre in Paris by I.M. Pei.
Gaudi’s ingenious observation of nature led him to see that these regular forms either do not exist in nature or, if they do, only rarely. When pyrite cubes are found, or prisms crowned with rock crystal, or pentagonal dodecahedrons of cinnabar, they are kept in museums of natural history as rare and curious objects.
In the light of the country landscape of Tarragona, Gaudi was moved by the beauty of natural forms. He was able to contemplate them at leisure during the summers spent in a little country house in the village of Riudoms. There, he observed that nature produces beautiful, decorative forms in the mineral, animal, and plant realms. At the same time, he understood that nature did not intend to create works of art but rather elements that were above all functional and useful. The brilliant color and agreeable fragrance of roses is not devised to inspire poets or painters but rather to attract insects and to encourage the reproductive function of the plant. An absolutely functional purpose. When Gaudi used the forms of plants, flowers, or animals in the decoration of his buildings, he took the natural forms just as they are in reality and not with the intention of so many architects over the course of history who have used them as an artistic intellectualization, submitting them to symmetries, dissymmetries, or compositional artifices.
Gaudi’s conclusion was a very simple one. If an architect looks for the functional in his work, he will ultimately arrive at beauty. If he looks for beauty directly, he will only reach art theory, aesthetics, or philosophy, abstract ideas that never interested Gaudi. Moreover, he was able to see an infinity of magnificent structural forms in nature.
He observed that in nature many structures are composed of fibrous materials, such as wood, bone, muscle, or tendon. From the viewpoint of geometry, fibers are straight lines and curved surfaces in space made up of straight lines that define a straight-line geometry, which is based on just four distinct surfaces: the helicoid, the hyperboloid, the conoid, and the hyperbolic paraboloid. Gaudi saw these surfaces in nature and brought them to architecture.
The helicoid is the form of a tree trunk, and Gaudi used this form in the columns of the Teresina School. The hyperboloid is the form of the femur, a form he used in the columns of the Sagrada Familia. The conoid is a form frequently found in the leaves of trees, and this form he used in the roofs of the Provisional Schools of the Sagrada Familia. The hyperbolic paraboloid is formed by the tendons between the fingers of the hand, and he built with this form the porch domes of the church crypt in the Guell Estate.
Gaudi had an innate sense of statics, which manifested itself in a simple, logical manner in the stereostatic model for the church of the Guell Estate. Once the ground floor of the church was drawn to a scale of 1:10 on a wooden panel, it was placed on the workshop ceiling and cords were suspended from it at the points where the pillars were assumed to begin. Hung above the catenaries formed by the cords were canvas sacks containing lead shot that weighted ten thousand times less than the weight the arch would have to support. The sacks of lead shot produced a warping of the cords. A photograph was then made of the inverted model. The photograph yielded the absolutely precise and exact form of the building’s structure, with no need for mathematical calculations or drawings of any kind and with no possibility of error. The shapes of the cords corresponded to the lines of tension of the warped structure, and when the photograph was inverted the structure’s lines of pressure were obtained. This simple, exact method attracted the attention of engineers and designers.
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