M A D I S O N _G R A Y | deep_SIGHT

 

"This city is like Rome with palm trees and a beach...." jef7rey HILDNER
 
_TRIALECTIONS: GAUDI, MIES & MEIER
 

Where're you going?
Barcelona.
So you said.
And Madrid.
Bon voyage
On a Boeing...
 
"Barcelona," Company, Stephen Sondhiem
It was an Airbus, not a Boeing. But it got me there all the same. And now I understand---
 
S P A I N: Madrid is the city of painting. Barcelona is the city of architecture.
 
I had been to Madrid before. But it was my first trip to Barcelona---my first encounter with the culture of the Mediterranean. Having listened to the original cast recording of the Broadway Musical "Company" for years, the word Barcelona had special meaning for me. But it was always abstract, more a lingusitic phenomenon than a geographic reality. Its four-syllable cadence---as with "San Francisco," sonically poetic---evoked the distant and unknown. It still does, but it is no longer abstract.
 
I understand now that perhaps for Sondheim Barcelona signifies something artistic. Something musically analogous to what it now signifies architecturally for me. What it surely signifies for Almadovar in "All About My Mother" (a visually stunning film---spectacular reds; there's an unforgettable dynamic aerial shot looking from the mountains to the Mediterranean Sea, not unlike the view below). A city of wonder, daring, individuality and artistic freedom, indeed genius---at least at a few propitious moments in its history.
 
It was only 24 hours before departing New York that painter-architect friend RR|11 reminded me that not only is Barcelona the city of Antoni Gaudi and Richard Meier's Museum of Contemporary Art, but Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Pavilion is there, too---where did I think it was???
 
And what a fabulous city it is, this B A R C E L O N A. I was only there for three days. But it was long enough to be...
 
T R A N S F O R M E D.
 
Casa Mila & View of Barcelona's Mediterranean skyline/coastline... Gaudi's architecture reverberates with the simultaneous presence of the mountains and the sea...
 
Seeing is believing...
 
GAUDI'S 1910 Casa Mila---nicknamed the Predrera, or "Stone Quarry"---is an architecture simultaneously haunting and reassuring, intense and relaxed, meditative and exuberant. It stirs the soul. A celebration of the imagination, it invites one to consider the possibility of new architectures equally deep and without limits...
 
Casa Mila is a veritable Don Quixote in stone---a supreme achivement of FORM-making and STORY-telling. An architecture of awe-inspiring sculptural power and symbolic enchantment. It represents what can be done when genius unleashed is actualized and supported.
 
"My work done my way. Nothing else matters to me," said Howard Roark in Ayn Rand's screenplay for The Fountainhead. That's what Casa Mila is. Gaudi's work done his way.
 
Seeing is believing...
 
S P A I N: No wonder this is the country that produced Frank Ghery's dazzling Bilbao Museum. The country that produced Cervantes' radical new genre of imaginative writing---the novel (Don Quixote)---and the daring self-referential modernity of Las Meninas by Velazquez. The country that produced, if not the inventor, then certainly the initiator of Cubism, Picasso (he left for Paris in 1906 and painted Les Demoiselles d'Avignon the next year---the same time that Gaudi was beginning work on Casa Mila). The country that produced Juan Gris.
 
This is the country of artistic RISK TAKERS. The country of Antoni Gaudi---the expressionistic Catalan genius. If Don Quixote is the Man of La Mancha, Gaudi is the Man of Barcelona.
 
His work wasn't relevant to me before. But it is now. The principles to be abstracted from Casa Mila, especially, are less idiosyncratic, more universal and practical than I had ever imagined.
 
Seeing is believing...
 
Even were there not residing in this city the monuments of twentieth-century architecture, Barcelona would be a fabulous city to visit or live in---the Mediterranean, the mountains, the Roman-like urban density within the Gothic section of the city, the visual poetry of thin-slivered light along stone streets and facades (image below, left), the balmy these-palm-trees-are-wild tropical climate, the cafe-con-leche Americanco...wish I could go to the "7 Doors" restaurant right now for paella and gambas al ajillo. No wonder my friend PS|23 loves working for an architect in Barcelona. Spain has this remarkable independent sense of time. He works from 10:00 A.M. - 2:00 P.M. and 4:00 P.M. - 8:00 P.M. ...because you have to have time for siesta, and who would think of eating dinner before 10:00 P.M.?
 
1. Old Barcelona street |2. Casa Mila roofscape |3. MACBA entrance facade |4. Casa Batllo balcony masks |5. Casa Mila corner |6. Barcelona Pavilion
 
Three Buildings: the three photographs below show the most important (modern) buildings in Barcelona and signify the dynamic range of their formal/spatial assertions, counter-assertions and, in the case of the third, synthetical-assertions. They are, in order of their chronology, their greatness, their didactic capacity, and their emotional impact on me:
 
1. Casa Mila by Antoni Gaudi, 1906-1910
2. The Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe, 1929 (reconstructed on its original site 1986)
3. The Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA) by Richard Meier, 1990s.
 
[A fourth building, Casa Batllo by Gaudi, 1904-1906, is wonderful too---see the balcony "masks" in the photo above---as is Gaudi's Parc Guell, 1900-1914, images further below. Gaudi's church of the Sagrada Familia (the Holy Family) is less meaningful to me at this point, though I did like seeing it packed with scaffolding... and its poetic presence in the skyline of the city is undeniable (it's the building framing the moon in the black and white photo at the start of this essay).]
 
These buildings comprise a magical trio that exemplifies fundamental architectural dualities. And they are bound by an underlying spatial ideology, wherein the forming of the urban event of the "outdoor room" (or rooms) is no less important that the expression of material form. In this and other ways, the three buildings remind us of architecture's inherent potential for spatial reciprocity between inside and outside, of its irreducible condition as the assertion of Significant Forms that define the Significant Spaces of voided containers.
 
[By the way, who said that the roof view---what I call the 5th elevation---isn't important, that the view looking down on a building from above isn't significant? Fortunately, Gaudi recognized, in Casa Mila (immediately below), that few aspects of an architecture are endowed with more potential significance, experiential and honorific, than the roofscape. And, in dialectical counterpoint, Mies presents the roof planes of the Barcelona Pavillion (second photo below) not as places for celestial contemplation, urban observation, and human activity but as abstract propositions---austere empty surfaces that invite physical occupation but deny it.]
D I A L E C T I C A L | TRIALECTICAL _D R A M A
These three buildings---by Gaudi (above), Mies (below, middle), and Meier (below, bottom)---comprise a virtual textbook of architectural oppositions, techniques and devices...
linear elements & wavy surfaces, thin planes & sculptural volumes, negative facades & facial masks, dematerialized facades & multiple facades; spatial boundaries of light straight folded walls & weighty undulating wrappers of amorphous plasticity...
Architectures of figural solids & figural voids, of roofs as planar abstractions or invented landscapes; of austerity & whimsy, simplicity & angst, calm & turbulence, restraint & exuberance; architectures as space occupier & space definer; of abstraction & representation, move & metaphor, figure & field, structure & symbol, form as content & content as associational/connotative/metaphorical/narrative; architectures of Chess-like Move-making involving... f r a g m e n t s _& _v o i d s.
 
1|unMASKED/MACBA as Index---
 
Meier's building (tough to find in this aerial view of the city, isn't it) is formally and experientially spectacular in some ways and disappointing in others. The plastic expression of the front facade constitutes a tour de force, as does, though to a lesser degree, the sculpting of the void that connects the urban space from front to back to the left of the entrance (no photo, see the plan below). And there is an unmistakable poignancy attending one's occupation of the rostrum, which projects throught the rectilinear mask above the entrance.
 

On the one hand, the resort to Meieristic formal cliches, such as the cylinder/circle-in-plan at the back, and the surprising spatial disappointment of the honorific main hall (a shallow, high linear space associated with the ceremonial ramp, which is visible behind the glazed front facade) make the overall architectural proposition less successful and advanced than Gaudi's and Mies's.
On the other hand, perhaps the cylindrical solid at MACBA can be read as a reference to the cylindrical void that forms one of the two principal inner courtyards of Casa Mila (photo, left). One may also infer formal affinities between Casa Mila's voids and MACBA's wavy volume, as this view (photo, right) of the oblong courtyard at Casa Mila, seen from above, reinforces.
 
Ultimately, MACBA fulfills an intelligent didactic function with respect to the works of the other two architects: It functions as formal/spatial index or analogical commentary on Casa Mila and the Barcelona Pavilion (see Richard Scherr's excellent article "Architecture as Index," Journal of Architectural Education, May, 1991, 44/3, pp. 172-181). (Oddly, there's no word to this effect by either Meier or commentators on the building in the essays included in the excellently documented monograph by St. Martin's Press, which I bought in the museum's bookstore.) MACBA's deployment of building facade as "mask" is an obvious allusion to the extra-large collective mask of Casa Mila and the individualized masks of Gaudi's Casa Batllo. The play of wavy volume against plane is obviously a synthesis of the competing propositions so diagrammatically staked out by Gaudi and Mies. Perhaps we may even read the principal vertical plane of MACBA---the thin, gridded white wall that functions as backGROUND or datum for the still-life-like objects in front of it---as an inversion of the horizontal planes, now flipped up, that comprise the roof of the Barcelona Pavilion. And in this didactic way, Meier's building gives great lucidity and transformational power to the dialectical conditions radically posited by his two predecessors. This phenomenon is what gives Meier's museum it's larger site-specific significance, and situates it so squarely in the historical context of the city in an inspired way. It's the property that allows the museum to function as literate text or memory in ways that transcend the conditions of it's equally literate response to the formal/spatial physicality of the site. In this way, Meier's architecture, though less of an absolute achievement than its predecessors, contributes a significant new layer of material and meaning to the palimpsest of the city's unfolding history.
 
2|Masked/Casa Mila as urban displacement--- Barcelona is conceptually and physically defined by two imperturbable boundaries: mountains and sea. As PS|23 explained, the mountains are equivalent to "uptown." The sea to "downtown." The wide pedestrian greensward of the Ramblas (indicated in green on the aerial view, left, above), on which my hotel was located, extends from the Columbus Monument at the harbor's edge to the circular park of the Placa de Catalunya. (Spain loves Columbus -- he set sail on his historic voyage to the West Indies from Barcelona.) As the aerial photos show, the Placa de Catalunya marks not only the termination of the Ramblas but also the boundary between the irregular Gaudi mask-like shape of the Roman-walled Medieval city at the water's edge and the surrounding regularized fabric of the new, nineteenth-century grid-iron. One may thus read Gaudi's projects, situated within this grid-iron, as urbanistically referential: As if a piece of the idiosyncratic fabric of the Medieval urban landscape were displaced, via the vertical surfaces and hollowed out volumes of his buildings, to an interventionist locus within the homogeneous fabric of the grid. Referring not only to the physical landscape of mountains and sea, Gaudi's architectures also function as polemical and agitated mnemonic devices. They remind us of the inherent tension underlying Barcelona's dialectical urban history.
 
_
Architectures figurally analogous to the City in plan . . . (compare these three photos with the aerial of Barcelona, right)
 
Photo 1|Casa Mila ---showing the masks within masks or the "collective mask" of its longitudinal monochromatic facade. Incredibly beautiful, twisted black metal balcony railings (at once seaweed-like and abstract modern sculpture) provide the material and optical counter-point to the "white" quarry-like/wave-like stone surface
Photo 2| Casa Mila ---aerial, showing the "celestial mask" (the mask or face to the sky) represented by the roof; note the figural affinity between building and city
Photo 3| Casa Batllo ---A similar urban mask/urban plan figural affinity -- and thus urban displacement -- is seen in the bone-like plasticity of the enclosed piano nobile of this other house by Gaudi; as in much of Gaudi's work, it manifests a surprisng symmetry; in fact, the entire facade, save for the upper left corner, which is eroded in order to relate to the existing building next to it, is symmetrical (see photo below, 2nd from left)
Photo 4| Aerial of Barcelona
 
 
I.E., In the facade of Casa Batllo, as in the plan of Casa Mila, Gaudi superimposes idiosyncratic plastic invention on the scaffolding of rational Beaux-Arts planning and composition.
 
MASK = mascara = more face -- i.e., more facade or redundant facade...
 
Roof Chess & architecture as narrative expressionism---The displacement of things Medieval into the nineteenth-century world of the utilitarian grid operates on other levels as well. Gaudi's plastic inventions are metaphorical if not explicitly representational with respect to Spain's Medieval narrative history. For example, a roof shaped like a dragon's tail crowns the top of his El Greco-like, vertically attenutaed Casa Batllo (photo above, 2nd from left, top). Balcony "masks" in the same project evoke associations dark and mysterious -- as much Phantom-of-the-Opera-like seen through contemporary eyes as Medieval masquerade. A bench like a snake (in the grass) forms the edge of the raised platform of his Parc Guell (photos above, 3rd, 4th, and 5th, top). And the quixotic world of masked warriors and knights errant, with their twisted torsos, comprise the magical roofscape of Casa Mila. They stand guard as roof sentinels, theatrically positioned chess pieces on a Medieval chess board or German expressionist film set (Casa Mila predates "The Cabinet of Dr. Calligari" by at least 7 years).
 
ROOF SENTINELS: Haunting anthropomorphic figures---recalling Spain's romantic Medieval past...
 
MONOchromatic EXTERIOR versus POLYchromatic INTERIOR
+ superimposition of idiosyncratic plastic invention on the scaffolding of rational Beaux-Arts planning and composition...
 
---SIGNIFIED by 3 idealized geometric, Figural Voids
3 SIGNIFICANT VOIDS: |1 circle. inner courtyard |2 oval/oblong: inner courtyard |3 square: outer courtyard
URBAN SPACE-DEFINER---On a purely organizational, non-symbolistic level, Casa Mila is aonly to honorifically address the street through significant space-defining fragment of a larger whole. It functions not FORMmissing corner in the urban poche, and it looks as much ; it also fronts on the garden and spatially defines a significant VOID. Casa Mila is the inwardto the extra-large city. Note also, in the diagram above, the to a large semi-private inner courtyard at the center of the square block as much as outward ground floor plan's courtyard-side), and its equivocality between residual solids and fluidity, its interconnection with exterior space (street-side and idealized figural voids.
3|nonMasked/Mies as grammarian...point, line and plane--- In contrast to Gaudi, Mies asserts at the Barcelona Pavilion a reductive, syntactic language or elemental grammar of column and wall, horizontal and vertical, solid and void, opaque and transparent. Apart from the surprisingly evocative green marble wall that encloses the Venus reflecting pool---which allows Rorschach Test readings of nature within the deep structure of its veining---this is an architecture of emotion suppressed and advanced simplicity exalted. It is an architecture of virtually total Move, where form is content, and where the one moment of representational Meaning is imported (the sculpture) rather than, as at Casa Mila, invented. Its originality, modernity, succinctness, serenity, formal purity and power---its calm but lyrical, authoritative control of the architectural field, whose composition calls to mind Theo van Doesburg's painting, "Rhythms of a Russian Dance," 1918---are no longer for me mentally abstract. It is all very real.

A parallel wall building, where diagonal movement and displacement (e.g., the void of the pool vis a vis the solid of the main pavilion roof) is an implicit, principal formal device..

Left: View to Casa Mila |Center: Casa Batllo at night |Right: View of MACBA (right edge) from the roof of Hotel Rivoli Ramblas

2000|MADISON GRAY

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