Dancing about Architecture

Dancing to Architecture – Gaudí’s Casa Batlló

During my last year of college, long before the advent of mobile phones, I made a payphone call in the hallway and noticed someone left a chair nearby. When I tried to sit down, the chrome cord didn’t reach. When I stood on top of the chair, the cord reach was fine.   And thanks to the newly heightened position, I found a long lost, overlooked quarter sitting on top the phone box.

Of course, in this perfectly stupid moment, my physics professor happened to be passing by.

“If Newton climbed the tree, the apple would never have fallen onto his head,” he remarked tartly.

“I’m sure if Newton fell out of the tree, he would have arrived at the same conclusion,” I responded. The school I attended encouraged its students to not be out-tarted by men of science.

He seemed unimpressed by my 25-cent discovery and unconventional position, which, for whatever it was worth, magically altered my perspective. That moment had been more illuminating and memorable than any of the 90 minutes I spent rotting weekly in class.

Flash forward to 2014. You might have seen this meme floating around of what, at first glance, appears to be sunbeams streaming through a skylight into a beautiful concert hall :

Photo by Mierswa & Kluska.

Photo by Mierswa & Kluska.

It is actually the interior of a violin, one of a series of quirky photographs taken a few years ago by Mierswa & Kluska for concert posters for the Berlin Philharmonic.

Again, the marvel of shifting perspective.

Of course, things like this become obvious when someone else points it out to you. So how do you cultivate a fluid mind and the ability to perceive the brand new and brilliant among the mundane?

The footsteps of giants can be studied closely for formulas of their creative genius but it doesn’t necessarily bring anyone closer to the alchemy of their art. What defines this kind of vision is the ability to make connections between ordinary things that appear to have no intersection at all.

There’s a well-quoted phrase that I run into from time to time, often raised up a snooty flagpole when disparaging music journalists, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Whoever wrote it probably intended a quick laugh. But dig beyond the initial snort and it is a cute cop-out that would have you believe each art form is exclusive, expressed and understood only within its own neat parameters–no coloring permitted outside the lines.

The greatest artists step beyond mastery of technique to innovate. They’re willing to shift perspective and dimension. They’ll dance about architecture when you’d never believed it to be possible. They’ll turn writing into music through cadence, poetry and lyrics. They’ll use music to tell a story that moves people deeply without using a single word. They’ll build houses that convey all the sinuous lines of dance.

Take for an example, Casa Batlló, a house in Barcelona built by Antoni Gaudí.

Walking through this house is like getting the opportunity to meander room by room through Gaudí’s imagination. It is the closest I can picture walking measure by measure through a piece of music. A few Art Nouveau curves hint at the era it was built yet the scope of his vision transcends time. It seems more strikingly modern than what goes for most current architecture.   It has warmth, beauty and soul flowing inside a scaly, skeletal exterior.

Exterior facade of Casa Batlló, Barcelona. Photo by Julia Crowe.

Exterior facade of Casa Batlló, Barcelona. Photo by Julia Crowe.

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Gaudí took the same ordinary elements of stone, wood, glass, ironwork and plaster that go into constructing any other house but he mixed them together in unexpected ways, like a sly magician. He crafted a front foyer staircase, for example, that sends its guests creeping upward one vertebrae at a time along a dragon’s spine, unaware that by they time they reach the rooftop, the dragon will have been slain by Catalonia’s patron Sant Jordí.

Foyer staircase, the very lower end of the dragon's spine, Casa Batlló. Photo by Julia Crowe.

Foyer staircase, the very lower end of the dragon’s spine, Casa Batlló. Photo by Julia Crowe.

The original building was constructed during the mid-1870s as a conventional box of a home. When the Batlló family bought the place, it was for its location on the swanky, live-here-to-be-seen Passeig de Gracia. They planned to gut the building and hired Gaudí in 1904 to construct something entirely new. The architect convinced them that a restoration and new façade is all that was required. With the help of his assistants Jospe Maria JuJol and Joan Rubio (who later built the Carrer del Bisbe walkway bridge), he transformed the idea of form and light without neglecting the practicalities of home. For example, Gaudí applied both blue and white tiles along the walls of a long, skylit stairwell with the darker blue tiles concentrated toward the top to reduce the glare encountered from the bottom of the stairwell when one gazed upward.

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The upper floor laundry room is a narrow corridor running along the side of the stairwell where one passes beneath a series of perfect rib-like arches, which the residents once referred to as being ‘in the dragon’s belly.’ Actually, this was the first photograph of the house that I’d seen that made me want to visit in person.

Ribs of the "Dragon's Belly," Casa Batlló. Photo by Julia Crowe.

Ribs of the “Dragon’s Belly,” Casa Batlló. Photo by Julia Crowe.

This is where architecture turns poetic with a purpose. The dragon belly ribs running in parallel are actually hyperbolic function cosines that resist bending and reflect the stability of gravity. (Uh, what?) In other words, there is a lot of heavy tile work on that rooftop that needs to be supported without caving.

Galileo laid out the mathematical formula for parabolic shapes based on projectile motion and attempted to develop a formula correlating gravity’s influence on the parabolic drooping shape of a suspended chain.   One small problem: there’s no velocity to a stationary, drooping chain. 80 years later, Jakob Bernoulli proved that the droop in a suspended chain implied a shape with completely different forces and qualities other than a parabola. The droop occurs due to the chain’s perpendicular suspension to gravity.   And its stability is due to gravity’s equal distribution along the length of the chain. This is why you see suspension bridges with the scalloped design.

If you got through reading the last two paragraphs, then you’ll understand why musicians grind their molars over learning and practicing scales. Without that foundation, there would be no such magic as improvisation.   You have to know what the tools are and the property of the materials before you can conjure dragons.

The rooftop bears the crown of Gaudí’s storytelling, with its water tower taking the shape of Sant Jordí ‘s sword hilt plunging into the undulating dragon’s neck, which bleeds metallic orange tiles. The rooftop chimney exteriors, the dragon and water tower sword hilt are designed with trencadís or broken tile.

Sword hilt/water tower, Casa Batlló. Photo by Julia Crowe.

Sword hilt/water tower, Casa Batlló. Photo by Julia Crowe.

Gaudí and Josep Maria Jujol pilfered the idea from Byzantine, Greek and Turkish mosaics but made it their own. The ancient mosaics used defined color pattern to create a picture but Gaudí and Jujol scavenged discarded pottery, smashed it up into pieces and arranged these pieces to fit the form. Again, it all served a function beyond prettiness. Mosaics help withstand the elements and evenly distribute the heat of the sun in hot climates. (Trencadís is being used on some buildings in Kuwait.)

An example of trencadís at Casa Batlló. Photo by Julia Crowe.

An example of trencadís at Casa Batlló. Photo by Julia Crowe.

Another magicianly gesture within Casa Batlló was Gaudi’s design of the lower cross bar of the sword hilt and a window which serves as the dragon’s eye to both point in the direction of the Sagrada Familia, which he had started building. At one time you could view the church through the dragon’s eye but urban development has since obscured it.

Dragon's eye window on rooftop, Casa Batlló. Photo by Julia Crowe.

Dragon’s eye window on rooftop, Casa Batlló. Photo by Julia Crowe.

I did visit the Sagrada Familia. Casa Batlló is an etude by comparison.  With the Sagrada Familia, Gaudí conceived of how to build a place that radiates a symphonic interplay of light, color and shadow that shifts by the hour and by the day.

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Back to Casa Batlló for an uncanny connection to another technical innovation: in 1905, the Pathé Frères film company occupied the first floor as a commercial tenant through 1921. Pathé Frères capitalized on their successful sales of phonograph equipment to purchase patents from the Lumière Brothers’ camera design for a new burgeoning art form: movies.

Along one narrow street of many winding through the Barri Gòtic, there is one that leads into a recessed, stone paved courtyard that used to be the general area of an ancient shoemakers guild. Inside this courtyard, built upon a medieval graveyard, sits a small fountain outside Gaudí’s church, the 18th C. church, Sant Felip Neri.

Door of Sant Felip Neri, Gaudí’s church, located in the Barri Gòtic. Photo by Julia Crowe.

Door of Sant Felip Neri, Gaudí’s church, located in the Barri Gòtic. Photo by Julia Crowe.

Gaudí was on his way here when he died June 1926, age 74, struck by a tram.  His art and ideas were full of splendor but, because because his clothes were worn and he looked unkempt, the police delayed calling for an ambulance, assuming he was a transient.  He was taken to a charity hospital, where he died a couple days later.

The pitted marks on the walls mark the Spanish Civil War bombings that took place some twelve years later, in January of 1938. 42 people died here from the intense shelling, mostly children who were war refugees from Madrid.  In the middle of it all stands a serene, ancient courtyard fountain.


Seeing these scars and absorbing the ghostly eeriness of this courtyard reminded me of back home.  It dawned on me in that instant why the upstairs laundry room inside the dragon ribs at Casa Batlló looked so familiar.  A stark white nod to Gaudí:
Ribs of the “Dragon’s Belly,” Casa Batlló. Photo by Julia Crowe.
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The righthand photo is Santiago Calatrava’s work, the new underground concourse that links the World Trade Center and World Financial Center to the PATH stations.

Outside my bedroom window, I’ve watched the construction of the World Trade Center complex rise out of its desolate pit.

Santiago Calatrava's Oculus/PATH Station entrance. Photo by Julia Crowe.

Santiago Calatrava’s Oculus/PATH Station entrance. Photo by Julia Crowe.

One of the lasting images I have of this decade-long process occurred during winter after the first anniversary of 9/11, when I saw a man standing solemnly behind the chain link fence that overlooked the exposed slurry wall. He tucked a photograph of a young man into the fence links and then used the tip of his umbrella to trace out a name in the newly fallen slow.

That perimeter fence was removed this week.

Calatrava’s PATH station entrance, called Oculus, is intended to look like a bird in flight. His inspiration came from a sketch he had drawn of a child releasing a bird into the air, which he then imagined into the shape of the flying bird as the station’s entrance.

Like Pere Johan’s grotesques aligned along the walls of the Generalitat, Calatrava has encoded poetry into his design that coaxes the eye upward and shift one’s perspective away from the mundane, the chaos of the street and towards the harmony of art.

It’s nearly enough to get you dancing about architecture.

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Recommended reading: Gaudi: A Biography