The eccentric architecture of Antoni Gaudi continues to shape modern-day Barcelona, despite his death in 1926, And it is a New Zealander who has ensured his legacy lives on. AINSLEY THOMSON reports.

As I wandered down Barcelona’s grand boulevard, La Diagonal, gripping my map and trying to navigate my way around the unfamiliar streets of the Catalonian capital, an old lady grabbed my arm. She had no English, I had no Spanish, but she knew what I was looking for and wanted to help. With a sweeping gesture of her hands she mimed the spires of the La Sagrada Familia, leaving me in no doubt of where she was directing me. Put simply, even if you’re geographically challenged, you cannot miss Antoni Gaudí’s magnificent church. It looms above Barcelona and is the city’s most recognisable landmark. The twisted spires and sheer extravagance of the detailed carvings make the church unlike any other you are likely to have seen before.

Gaudi, and his eccentric architecture, is the man whose vision has shaped Barcelona. But remarkably it is a New Zealander, the son of an All Black, who for the past 25 years has been charged with ensuring Gaudi’s grand vision takes shape.

Professor Mark Burry, originally from Christchurch, is the Sagrada Familia’s consultant architect and is responsible for working out and translating Gaudi’s complex plans and models into practical reality.

Burry clearly remembers the first time he saw the Sagrada Familia. It was the late ’70s and the young Cambridge architecture student was visiting Spain. He came out of the metro, looked up and was in sheer awe. Burry, like many visitors today, had no idea the church was still being worked on – in fact, the Sagrada Familia, on which construction began in 1883, is one of the world’s most celebrated building sites.

Soon after that first glimpse of the church, a chance meeting with the directors of the project lead to an opportunity that has shaped Burry’s professional life for the past 25 years. At the time the construction of the church was languishing. Gaudi, who died in 1926 after being run over by a train, and his plans and models for the church – many of which had been destroyed in the civil war – were so complex architects were struggling to decipher them. Burry joined the project and became the man who cracked the Gaudi code. His piecing together of the models and plans has made the continuation of the project possible.

Burry, who is based in Melbourne, where he is the professor of innovation at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (he travels regularly to Barcelona), is modest about his role in the completion of the Sagrada Familia. He tells TNT that if he hadn’t done
it someone else would have, but his commitment and passion for the project is undoubtedly key to its completion.

Exactly when it will be completed is a moot point. No one is game to name an exact date, but it is hoped the project will be completed by 2026, in time for the centenary of Gaudi’s death.

Gaudi’s Barcelona
While Sagrada Familia is the most recognisable of Gaudi’s building, there are numerous other examples of his work dotted around Barcelona.

If only I could live here …

Wishful thinking abounded as I walked around the stylish, spacious and surprisingly modern apartment inside Gaudi’s Casa Mila building. The one apartment in the building open to the public, situated on the sixth-floor, has been carefully renovated to give a glimpse of what life would have been like in the early 20th century – for the well-heeled of Barcelona, at least.

Since it was opened in 1912 the Casa Mila has been dubbed ‘la pedrera’, or ‘the quarry’, due to its cliff-like facade. The wavy outside walls (it’s said that there are no straight lines or right angles in the entire building) and their strange, porous texture have been likened to everything from to ocean waves to flowing lava to a rippling sand dune.

Perhaps the most visually striking part of the building is the roof terrace. Its undulating pathways take in chimneys, ventilation shafts disguised as white masks, warriors and creatures such as owls. At times it feels like you’re walking on another planet.

When Gaudi becomes gaudy

The Park Guell is worth visiting for its views of Barcelona alone, but the excesses of Gaudi’s strange and wonderful buildings, sculptures and landscaping make it a spectacular experience.

Gaudi’s inspiration for the gatehouses at the park’s entrance was the Hansel and Gretel fairtytale. This whimsical initial impression sets the tone for the park itself, which is almost child-like in its fantastical architecture and landscaping.

Park Guell was commissioned by Gaudi’s patron Count Eusebi Guell and the idea was it would be an English-style residential estate. Sixty grand houses were planned, but only a few were built before World War I interrupted construction.

Guell died after the war and the dream for a residential park died with him. The City of Barcelona took over the park in 1922 and turned it into a public park.

Gaudi’s other main works:
Casa Vicens (Carrer de les Carolines, 18-24)
Palau Güell (Carrer Nou de la Rambla 3-5)
Casa Calvet (Carrer de Casp 48)
Casa Batlló (Passeig de Gràcia 43)

• Ainsley Thomson travelled to Barcelona with Opodo (0871-277 0090). Return flights with Iberia and two nights at the three-star NH Hotel Duc de la Victoria from £253pp.