When I was about 8 years old, my parents sent me to spend the summer with my grandfather in Barcelona. I still remember how excited he was showing around me the city where he was born and raised. Each street, monument, bench, and tree had a story that could be traced back to his difficult childhood during the Civil War. We walked for hours and visited the most iconic landmarks. Most of them were created by the same artist, a genius Catalan architect who became a sort of hero for the people of Barcelona. I guess the same way we Mexicans consider Frida Kahlo an icon of our culture, Catalans see Antoni Gaudí as a man who embraced and honored his roots. Of course, I didn't understand all those architectural principles and concepts my grandfather mumbled at me, but I remember how amazed I was while we explored each corner of Gaudí's fantastic creations.
In the following years, whenever I went back to Barcelona, he would take me to see these incredible buildings once again. As he used to say, "One can't get enough of these wonders; there's always something new to discover." I kind of acquired this pride for Gaudí's creations. Although I didn't know much about his story or artistic vision, the awe I felt at the Sagrada Familia or Parc Güell was enough for me to see this man's brilliance and love for life. Years later, I did some research on his biography, and what shocked me the most was the way this brilliant man's life came to an end.
On June 7, 1926, while he was walking to his most famous building, the Sagrada Familia, he was hit by a tram. When people saw a grubby man with long hair and beard lying on the floor, wearing some rags, and with no identification papers, they assumed he was just a drunk homeless man and left him there until the police arrived. About an hour after the accident, a police officer took him to a public hospital where doctors tried to save his life. Several hours later, the hospital staff would find out who their patient was, but they couldn't do anything to save him, and three days later he passed away. Once people heard of the sad news, thousands gathered at the hospital to accompany their genius on his last journey. Now he'll rest forever at the Sagrada Familia, the construction to which he devoted his life.
Many things came to my mind when I read this devastating story. I could only imagine the guilt of those who ignored Gaudí after the accident. What had they felt when they realized that this dirty old man was the one who had colored and brought life to their city? This also made me aware of how cold-hearted human beings can be. It's terrible to abandon a dying man on the streets, no matter his background, profession, or social status, but that's another subject. After hearing this story I felt like I had lost a part of myself, even if it was because of the death of a man I didn't know.
Then it hit me. The reason I was feeling so upset was because Gaudí reminded me of all those special moments I had shared with my grandfather and how much he admired this man.
I still remember when I first visited Parc Güell. I was really excited because we would visit the famous mosaic dragon on the stairs. However, that turned out to be the less astonishing part of the park. My grandfather explained that the park's name came from Gaudí's friend, Eusebi Güell. At that time, the only thing that got stuck in my mind was his last name (there were many buildings with that name: Colònia Güell, Palau Güell, etc.).
We entered the two little houses by the entrance of the park; as I walked in, I thought of Hansel and Gretel's candy house. I was told they were part of Gaudí's interpretation of modernism and art nouveau, whatever those terms meant. The gigantic palms, the columns, the details on the benches and stairs, the delicate mosaic work, all looked unreal, as if they had come from a dream. My grandpa told me he and his brothers would go here to play, and I only fantasized about seeing this place without all the crowd.
We would join him on his daily walks, and as we went down the Passeig de Grácia, he would point out those important buildings that gave a history and a face to this city. Of course, on the top of his list were Casa Batlló and La Pedrera, both iconic buildings by Gaudí.
The first one was easy to spot, it was a very colorful building covered with sinuous and delirious forms. My grandfather explained to me that it represented the story of St. Jordi and the Dragon. As he shared the tale of why he was venerated as the patron saint of Catalonia, the swirling colors suddenly came to life and for a moment I felt as if a fairy tale was taking place right before my eyes. The whole body resembles a dragon's body and on the roof we can see the gleaming scales. The cross, which sits proudly on the top, symbolizes St. Jordi's sword. It wouldn't be a dragon story if there wasn't a damsel in distress, so, naturally, the balcony on the center is where the princess was held captive. The bloodthirsty nature of the dragon is perfectly expressed in the other balconies and bone-like columns, which remind us of its past victims.
The technical aspects of a monument or a building have little to do with the way it can impact us. Of course, going inside these buildings and seeing the light filter through the beautiful stained glass windows can be truly mesmerizing, but at the end of the day, what matters most is the emotional bond we create with the building.
It's all about how we connect with it. And that's precisely the magic of Gaudí and his creations. Beyond the architectural uniqueness of those fantastic buildings, the people of Barcelona are attached to his works on an emotional and personal level, which has evolved into admiration. These buildings are meant to tell the story of Barcelona and its people. But now, they're part of that story.