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Portrait of Antoni Gaudi i Cornet

A biography of Antoni Gaudi

ANTONI GAUDI LIFE STORY

The life of Antoni Gaudi is full of interesting stories, bright moments and inspirational creations. If he hadn’t been working in Barcelona, the city wouldn’t be what it’s now. His architecture, way beyond his time, attracts people from all over the world and make the city a standout as something unique and different from any other city in Europe. In this Gaudi biography we’ll go through the architect’s life story, from his childhood in the countryside to this death run over by a tramway, highlighting the crucial moments in his life that inspired changes in his architecture and personality.

He was a prolific architect and designer, and mentioning every single one of Antoni Gaudi works and furniture pieces would take much more than the scope of this post, but we’ll do go over the timeline of this most famous works and see who were the most important people in his life and what kind of relationship they had.

1

Early life of Gaudi

Biography of Antoni Gaudi: his brother Francesc

The life of Antoni Gaudi starts on a June 25 1852, when he’s born in Riudoms, a rural area south of Barcelona and near Tarragona. However, there's no birth certificate to prove that, there's only a baptism certificate that states that he was baptized in the church of Sant Pere Apòstol in Reus, a larger town close to Riudoms, the next day. This has let to small controversy, as people from Reus claim that Gaudi was born there instead, and Gaudi actually wrote Reus as his birthplace in official documents, but said he was born in Riudoms in informal conversations.

The Gaudi family did live in Reus, but Gaudi’s paternal grandparents had a farmhouse in Riudoms, the Mas La Calderera. So rumors are that Gaudi would have been born in Riudoms because Gaudi’s mom would daily head to the family farm to take care of the animals despite being heavily pregnant, or because the family went there visiting on June 24 (Saint John’s Day being an important festivity in Catalonia) and she went into labor while being there.

Antoni Gaudi parents were called Francesc and Antonia. Gaudi was the youngest of 5 children, but two of them, Maria and Francesc, passed away at a young age before he was  born. And the other two, Rosa the eldest and a Francesc named after the other decesed son, wouldn’t have a long life either: the architect would be the only one living beyong 35 years old, even if he always suffered of a weak health like the rest of his siblings.

Gaudi’s father and grandfather were coppersmiths that worked with rough iron making cauldrons and metal instruments to distillate local liquors. That was going to become an importance influence for Gaudi as an architect: As a child he’ll often help his father at the workshop, learning how to work metal and to create volume. He’ll also often visit other craftsmen in town to see them work, gaining an inside knowledge of how different materials are handled.

Gaudi went to nursery school in Reus, run by a Francesc Berenguer. Then the kid befriended the son of the teacher, named also Francesc, who would in the future become one of Gaudi’s most important collaborators. Later on, he studied in a Catholic school where he studied secondary and started highschool. His marks weren’t precisely outstanding. He also worked in a textile factory (during the Industrial Revolution times it was common that kids would be made to work to help provide for their families).

Gaudi would also spend a lot of time in Riudoms to heal from various ailments including rheumatism. There he’d take take long walks around the country, and his observations of Nature would also become key influences on his works later on as an architect.

2

Arrival to Barcelona and student times

In 1868, Gaudi moves to Barcelona to join his brother Francesc who studies Medicine there. Gaudi finishes his last year of high school at a Convent, then the next year he'll register for the Faculty of Sciences to prepare to access the School of Architecture. Unfortunately in 1971 he has to go back to Reus due to economical problems. That Summer he fell in love for the first time, with a French girl that was already bethroten and broke his heart.

Anyways, the following school year Gaudi is back to Barcelona and starts working as an apprentice and draughtsman for the architect Josep Fontsere (whose father was from a village near Reus and Riudoms), hoping that’ll help paying for his studies. However, it’ll take him two more years to pass the exams to be accepted in the School of Architecture. In the meantime, in 1872 breaks out the Third Carlist War, but Gaudi isn’t mobilized yet.

In 1873 he prepares again to pass the admission exams for the School of Architecture and starts writing what now is known as the “Manuscript of Reus” a compilation of sketched and handwritten texts about the family farmhouse, his thoughts about art, and personal diary. It’s one of the very few documents written by Gaudi that has been preserved, and it includes from 1973 until 1977.

Antoni Gaudi is finally requested to join the military service in 1874, but by then he’s finally been accepted in the School of Architecture and because of his student status he’s given an administrative post in the military, rather than made to serve as a soldier. Still, he’d be most of the time on sick leave due to his weak health, what allowed him to continue studying. His first school projects show a Victorian style, very in line with what was in fashion at the time. He continues to work for Francesc Fontsere, and helps him with the commissions for the 1888 World Fair, even figuring out how to pump water to the top of the monumental cascade, which experienced architects hadn’t managed to figure out.

The war is over in 1876. That’s personally an unfortunate year for Antoni Gaudi, as both his mother Rosa and his brother Francesc passed away. But from the professional point of view that year he’d meet Francesc de Paula Villar, who’d hire Gaudi to help him with the restoration of the Basilica of Montserrat. In 1878 Antoni Gaudi finally finishes his studies and graduates as an architect. The sentence that the dean of the faculty and important architect of the time, Elies Rogent told Gaudi when he gave him the diploma is famous:

We have given this academic title to either a fool or a genius. Time will show

3

Antony Gaudi's first projects as an architect

That year Gaudi designs a cabinet for Mr. Comella, a globe manufacturer that is going to sell his products in the Universal Exhibition of Paris. The originality of the piece of furniture attracted the attention of one of the most special visitors, count Eusebi Guell, who was fascinated by it and asked to meet its designer. This was the beginning of a long friendship, and soon Guell will start commissioning Gaudi a variety of projects, becoming the architect's most important patron.

Antoni Gaudi is finally free to start working as an independent architect, and his stablishes his first office in number 11, Carrer del Call. He also designs his first business card. In 1879 dies his sister Rosa, and Gaudi and his father take in his little niece Roseta. Gaudi starts receiving his first projects, such as some street likes for Plaça Reial, and he joins the Centre Excursionista de Catalunya, an intellectual hiking club. By the early 1880’s he’s moved with his father from the dirty Old Town to the elegant Eixample, frequents the elite cultural circles and meets important writers and artists. He’s a dandy that dresses nicely, has an intense social life and moves around in horse carriage.

In 1883 Francesc de Paula i Villar quits the construction of a church promoted by the Catholic Society of Devotees of St. Joseph. The building was already started: Villar had already laid out the perimeter of its crypt and built about 3 feet of the crypt walls. Gaudi having worked for him in Montserrat in the past, he was offered to continue the project. And the architect saw here his opportunity to shine. He turned what was originally going to be a regular church into a masterpiece that would go down in history. The Sagrada Familia Church was going to be the project of his life.

That same year his architecture office takes off. He starts Casa Vicens and El Capricho, and other projects will come after like the entrance pavilions of the state Count Guell owned in the suburb of Pedralbes. His style evolves from the Victorian seriousness of his student years to a modernist style that is inspired first in exotic Moorish art, then in the historical flavor of Gothic.

Gaudi also continues to collaborate with a labor cooperative in Mataro, for whom he had also ready done small projects in the past. There he meets the love of his life, Pepeta Moreu. She was an educated and independent woman who despite being 5 years younger than Gaudi she had lived a very intense life. Attractive and wealthy, she married young to a ship captain that soon lost their money in alcohol and gambling.

When Pepeta announced that she was pregnant with their first child during a trip to the Middle East, he replied that he had another wife in Buenos Aires and quitted her right there. Despite being a woman and alone in a foreign country, she managed to survive playing the piano until some sailors agreed to take her back home, where she managed to void her marriage. 

Unfortunately her son died of diphtheria at 3 years of age. But she continued her life and got a job as a French teacher at the Labor Cooperative of Mataro, her hometown. That’s where Gaudi met her, and he fell under the spell of her beauty and conversational skills. However, he was too late: when he finally asked her to date, she was already engaged to another man. Gaudi was so heartbroken that he never fell in love again, and from then on he devoted his life to his job instead.

It’s 1885. After a few months stay in the village of Sant Feliu de Codines to escape the cholera pandemic, he is back to Barcelona. Projects keep coming: The Episcopal Palace of Astorga, the Casa de los Botines in Santander, Palau Guell… And in 1891 he starts the works of the Nativity Façade of the Sagrada Familia. In 1900 his Casa Calvet received the price to the best building of the year in Barcelona.

4

Architectural maturity

The decade between 1900 and 1910 is considered the maximum moment of splendor for Gaudi. He is ready to break up wit the "modernist" label and takes the concept to higher level. His style doesn't resemble anything else his other colleagues were designing. He defies the norm, and plays with organic shapes and color while envisioning ground-breaking construction systems and integrating sustainability and modern technologies in his works.

In 1900 Count Eusebi Guell asks him to participate in this project of garden city, Park Guell, where Gaudi will work until the project is stopped in 1914. In 1905 he takes care of the full refurbishment of the apartment building Casa Batllo. And in 1906 he’s hired to build another apartment building for another well off family, the Mila. Then in 1910 takes place an exhibition about his works in the Gran Palais of Paris that receives very good critiques and will be followed by another exhibit in Madrid.

However, his style was too ahead of his time. The Barcelonans have a hard time understanding so much color and funky shapes and they start mocking his architecture, even calling Casa Mila “the Stone Quarry” (La Pedrera) for its looks. Park Guell is also a failure, not so much because of Gaudi but because of the isolated location Count Guell had chosen. And the fact that Gaudi disregarded his clients budget and requests giving them trouble (the Mila took him to court… and lost!), made that no other Barcelona family wanted to hire him anymore.

But nothing was going to stop him. He is now free to completely devote himself to what has already become an obsession and passion for him: the Sagrada Familia Church. Even convalescent from tuberculosis and retired in the Pyrenees to heal, he continues to work on it and designs the grand scheme of the Passion Façade.

From a personal point of view it’s also time for changes. In 1906 he decides to move to the model house of Park Guell, designed by his assistant Francesc Berenguer, and he takes his father and niece with him. Unfortunately Gaudi’s father will only get to enjoy it for a few months, since she died that year being 93 years old.

Antoni Gaudi has grown to be an assertive man, with clear ideas that he is ready to defend, no matter if it’s his work and creative decisions, or his political ideas. Even if he’s not actively campaigning for Catalan autonomy, he always speaks in Catalan by principle. He’s not going to switch to Spanish even in front of the King of Spain Alfonso XIII and his minister Antonio Maura when they visited the Sagrada Familia church in 1904, nor for the Spanish writer  Miguel de Unamuno, who also visited the church in 19906.

5

Exclusive dedication to the Sagrada Familia church

Antoni Gaudi's life gets harder. He loses his niece Rosa in 1912, then his old friend and collaborator Francesc Berenguer in 1914. In 1916 dies another close friend, the bishop Torres i Bages, and in 1918 passes away the Count Eusebi Guell. Gaudi finds confort in religion, and becomes more and more like a hermit: praying a lot, dressing poorly, eating very little and having a very reduced social life, and devoting himself to work. He said:

My good friends are dead; I have no family and no clients, no fortune nor anything. Now I can dedicate myself entirely to the Church

And that keeps him busy: the Nativity Façade is rising and he needs to leave a project that the next generations can continue after he is gone. So he is going to develop a type of architecture that nobody else in his generation had ever dreamed of. He works with parabolas, helicoids, hyperboloids and all kind of geometric shapes to create plaster models for the church, when nobody else was using mathematics this way to build buildings and computers didn’t exist yet.

He continues to be inspired by nature, but not just its superficial shapes: he looks at the fractals that configure nature’s inner structure, then figures out how to apply it in his architecture. And he beats Gothic architecture by envisioning a self-supporting church that rises to the skies without the need of flying buttresses. It’s a type of architecture that doesn’t look like what he had designed 10 years earlier and can’t be compared to it: it’s the most advanced Gaudi.

He continues to give support to the Catalan cause, getting beaten up by the police during a Catalan literature celebration in 1920. He continues to speak Catalan in public despite the language having been banned by the dictatorship of general Primo de Ribera, and he gets beaten again by the police for participating in a protest against the Catalan ban in 1924. And that same year he spent a few hours in prison for wanting to attend a mass in memory of the Catalan patriots killed during the 1714 war of succession, and was only let out after his friends paid his bail.

6

Gaudi's death

But Gaudi's health is getting more and more frail. He has a bad leg and has a hard time walking between his home in Park Guell to the Sagrada Familia church every day, then back: it's almost one hour each way! He doesn't hear that well either. In early 1926 he decides to set up a little bed in his workshop at the church, so he can spend the nights over. He won't be going to Park Guell that much anymore, even if he still owns the house there.

Then on June 7, 1926 he was heading to the Old Town to pray at his favorite church, St. Philip Neri, when he was hit by a tramway of the line #30 when he was crossing Gran Via de les Corts catalanes between Bailen and Girona streets. Either he was immersed in thoughts and didn’t see it coming nor could hear it approach due to being partially deaf, or he saw a tramway coming one way, stepped back and got hit by the one coming from the opposite direction.

He lost consciousness. He was dressed in rags and had no ID card with him. People didn’t recognize him and they took him as a beggar and sent to the Hospital de la Santa Creu, where the poor people went. No good doctor took care of him. In the evening the chaplain of Sagrada Familia realized he was missing, and he mobilized his friends to look for him. But by the time they found him the next day, it was too late.

Gaudi’s injuries were too serious, and he died June 10, 1926. A funeral was organized and the procession taking him from the Barcelona Cathedral to the crypt of Sagrada Familia where he’d be buried was attended by thousands of people. You can still visit his tomb in the Chapel of Mount Carmel in the Sagrada Familia crypt.

7

His legacy

The instructions were clear: Sagrada Familia was to be continued until its full completion. So his disciple Domenec Sugranyes took over. In his will Gaudi had also established that his home in Park Guell was to be sold, and the winnings were to be a donation for the construction works of the church. Gaudi got to see only one of the towers of the Nativity façade completed: the other three were finished a few months after he died.

Ten years later started the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). The Crypt was burnt in a fire, some sculptures of the Nativity Façade were crushed, and the workshop where Gaudi’s materials were left was also destroyed by the fire. His models exploded, and if there were any paper plans, they were gone too. Sugranyes was able to save as many pieces of broken models as he could after the fire was over, but it was a a too big blow for him, and he died only two years later.

However, the next generation of architects at the Sagrada Familia have been able to reconstruct the models, from notes, sketches and old pictures found in other locations, but mostly recalculating the math that Gaudi used to create the models and matching it from bit to bit of the what was left of the models.

The Passion Façade was built in the 1950’s, and decorated with sculptures of Josep Maria Subirachs in the 1980-90’s and early 2000. The interior of the church as completed in 2010. The tower of the Virgin Mary as completed in 2021, in 2022 come the ones of Mark and Luc the Evangelists, and in 2023 those of Matthew and John. In 2026 should be completed the highest tower, JesusChrist, on time to celebrate the 100 anniversary of Gaudi’s death. And the completion of the building with the crowning of the Glory Façade is expected sometime in the early 2030’s, but the exact dates aren’t clear yet.

Academic legacy

As for Gaudi’s recognition as the great architect and engineer he was, there’s been ups and downs. 4 years before he died, the Spanish Architects Congress gave support to his architecture and praised his plans for the Sagrada Familia church. However, his dead coincides with the end of the Modernism in Barcelona, and the modernist style including Gaudi’s works went out of fashion. For the next decades locals considered them vulgar. Even Ms. Mila threw away some of Gaudi’s furniture and destroyed the decoration he made in her apartment.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that Gaudi’s architecture started recovering its importance, thanks in part to the painter Salvador Dali who recognized his genius, and the architect Josep Lluis Sert, a good friend of the also surrealist artist Joan Miro, who put in value its architectural value. In 1952, coinciding with the 100 anniversary of Antoni Gaudi’s birth, the society Asociacion de Amigos de Gaudi was founded. In 1956 was celebrated a exhibition about the architect in Barcelona and the Politechnical University created a Gaudi chair. The next year, another Gaudi exhibit took place, this time at the MOMA in New York (USA). 

At an academic level the works of Antoni Gaudi were recovering its well deserved reputation, finally getting again the attention of national and international art historians, architects and critics. And nowadays his architecture has inspired contemporary architects and designers such as Norman Foster, Santiago Calatrava, Frank Gehry and Enric Miralles amongst other.

Mainstream fame

However, it took longer for the main public to start appreciating the works of Antoni Gaudi again. With the end of the long and grey dictatorship of general Franco, in the early 1980’s the Barcelona politicians craved for some attention and wanted to put Barcelona on the spotlight. Barcelona needed to have the Olympic Games, and for that it had to be attractive not just from the sport and infrastructure point of view, but also for its cultural heritage. And they realized the Gaudi works were a key asset that no other city could rival with.

In 1984, the UNESCO declared Park Guell, Casa Mila and Palau Guell World Heritage Sites, which started attracting the mainstream attention. In 1986 Barcelona beat Paris an was given the celebration of the 1992 Summer Olympics. During the years in preparation to host the Games, these three Gaudi sites went through important restoration campaigns. And later on, their images appeared in the videos shown before each competition on TV. People from all over the world were now discovering an amazing architecture that they needed to see in person.

The 1992 Olympics marked a before and an after not just for Barcelona, but also for the Gaudi sites. In 1995 Casa Mila was finally open to the public, and the number of visitors grew exponentially during the next years. Then came successful Year of Gaudi, which took place in 2002, 150 years after his birth, and other Gaudi sites that had never been open to the public before accepted to organize guided tours that year. And actually Casa Batllo continued to be open after that.

In 2005 Casa Batllo, Casa Vicens, the Crypta Guell were also declared UNESCO World Heritage. And in 2013 the day of Gaudi’s death, June 10, was declared World Art Nouveau Day, and that same year Torre Bellesguard opened officially as a tourist site. Then in 2017 Casa Vicens opened to the public again after a throughout restoration carried on by its new owners, an Andorran bank.

Religious legacy

The strong Catholic faith and the way Gaudi’s life was devoted to the construction of a breathtaking temple has also been acknowledged by the Church. In 1992 was created a guild to request the canonization of the architect, and calling him “God’s Architect”. In 1998 the Bishop of Barcelona Ricard Maria Carles proposed his beatification, and in 2023 the cardinal Juan Jose Omella created the Canonic Society to discuss Gaudi’s beatification with the Vatican.

8

Timeline of the life of Antoni Gaudi

9

Works timeline

10

Learn more: Antoni Gaudi biography books

Or read our blog articles about Gaudi’s life and works >>

11

Experience it: Private Gaudi tours

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Isn't the biography of Gaudi fascinating?

Marta

Author Marta Laurent Veciana

AUTHOR BIO

Marta is the founder of ForeverBarcelona. She is a passionate tour guide that loves Barcelona and loves writing too. She is the main author of our Blog, and is committed to sharing her knowledge about Barcelona and her best tips with our readers.

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