September 20, 2007

Casa Milà

Casa Milà was on our list for our second day in Barcelona. Also known as La Pedrera, or (rock) quarry, this building is one of the main Gaudí attractions in the city. When it was first completed, people were not all that impressed. In addition to the commonly known nickname of La Pedrera, the building was referred to as el avispero (the wasps' nest) and la empanada (the meat pie). One of my favorite, more modern descriptions is found on this site where they say "it looks like the perfect dwelling for an urban Fred and Wilma Flinstone." It does look less enchanting than, say, Casa Batlló.

Fortunately, Casa Milà is more interesting on the inside. Gaudí intended this building to be apartments. Now a UNESCO site, it receives many visitors a day. It costs less than a visit to Casa Batlló and as Señor CC and I discovered, one certainly gets their money's worth out of it.

Casa Milà is actually two connected buildings, each with their own central open-air patio. It is in one of these patios that we found ourselves upon entering the building. Here the colors are fantastic. Take a look at the ceiling:

I have mentioned before that modernisme is all about nature - whether it is the architect/artist's (they are both) use of natural shapes or their ability to use architectural materials and make them look like things one ordinarily finds in nature. I have read that Casa Milà is Gaudí's attempt to naturalize architecture, whereas in Park Güell he architecturalizes nature. A perfect example of this is the parabolic shape of the attic:

These parabolas are a natural shape, and although one recognizes that and sees a connection to nature because of it, I don't think anyone looks at it and thinks 'Why, that looks just like a insert well-known piece of nature!' It looks like a parabola and not a leaf, bug, tree or ocean wave. In Park Güell one sees palm trees and ocean waves...made out of rocks.

Aside from support shapes such as these, the entire weight of Casa Milà is supported by columns and metal - not by exterior walls. This is also true in Palau de la Música. Many modernimse buildings were constructed in this manner so that windows could be placed all along the outer (non-load-bearing) walls to let natural light in. The benefit for Casa Milà was that, aside from the apartments having plenty of windows, rooms could be modified to suit the owners with no risk to the structural integrity of the building.

There is one apartment visitors can view in Casa Milà. It is decorated as it would have been at the time of the building's completion - 1910. I have some photographs of the rooms, but they do not do them justice. I am not talking about the decoration of the rooms so much as the shape of them. Each room is completely different in shape, and none contain any right angles. In fact, most walls are simply curved much like the exterior of the building...or they are of a temporary nature so that owners can enlarge or divide the space as they wish. This creates a very open and airy feeling as there appears to be a little extra room here and there that one does not get in a rectangular room. Granted, there is space missing here and there as well, but due to the odd shape of the rooms and the abundance of light from the windows, one doesn't notice.

All of these open areas and lack of load-bearing outer walls could cause one to wonder just how does Gaudí build safe structures. Yes, there are columns and metal supports away from the outer walls, but still - how did he know where to provide support? The answer is simple: he was a genius. That was Señor CC's comment upon finding and learning about this:

This upside-down model (complete with mirror underneath) is how Gaudí determined the load-bearing sections of his creations. Using it, he knew where to place extra support. He used no formulas or mathematical equations. In fact, since there is still work going on at La Sagrada Familia, scientists and mathematicians have checked his methods using formulas and equations and have found him to be absolutely correct. Gaudí would attach chains or strings together in the general, albeit upside-down parabola, shape of the building on which he was working. Everywhere that the shapes intersected was a load-bearing point. He would then attach sacks weighted with pellets (not shown) to determine how much support was needed. He used the mirror to see what the 'building' was going to look like right-side-up. Amazing, indeed.

How do I know this (very general and vaguely described) information? Why, there is an audio-guide tour at Casa Milà. In fact, aside from the information about the model, and a bit from touring the apartments, I don't really remember anything else from it. Why? It was way too much information! As in 'stand here at this one spot for four minutes while we tell you the entire history of this brick' T.M.I. - it zapped us of our interest in many places. If anyone reading this goes to Barcelona, Casa Milà is interesting, and do get the audio-guide (it's free), but don't hesitate to fast-forward or simply stop recordings when they get to be dull...and they will.

Perhaps the big attraction of Casa Milà is the rooftop terrace. It is supposed to be especially fabulous at sunset. It was fairly crowded when we were there, and I think that aerial photographs are cooler, but it was definitely nothing like anything I've seen before.

Think for a moment about what is normally contained on a roof. Granted, this one is a terrace, so it is more flat than sloped, but it does still have to function as most roofs do. It has vents, chimneys, and access points (stairs). One would never know that these things exist on the roof as they are all disguised by the imaginative structures of Gaudí.

These items are the most abundant on the roof and are arranged in mostly odd-numbered groups. A set of three is covered in green ceramics (above) photo, but most are bare and look remarkably like some sort of guard wearing a helmet:

There are also a couple of vents on the rooftop. These take an interesting shape. Some say that for Gaudí's time they are futuristic in shape...a hint of things to come...some even call them a premonition of abstract sculpture. Me? I can't help but think of some sort of plant or coral growing on the sea floor sans brilliant color. Can't you see the fish swimming through the holes? Maybe my impression is just a result of enjoying the fish tank in the pediatrician's office one too many times. Whatever your imagination decides, they are fairly fantastic:

I bet you are wondering how we got up onto the terrace in the first place. If you take a close look at the aerial photo you can't really see any access stairs. Oh sure, there are steps on the terrace itself - to make up for the difference in heights between the two buildings' roofs, but how does one get up there? Here is the answer:

The dollops of cream ceramics hold stairways that take you from the roof to the attic. There are only two open to visitors - one for getting up there and one for leaving. There are about six blobs total, and I imagine that they each contain an access from a different section of the apartments to accommodate all of the inhabitants. These have been likened to the tops of ice-cream cones, and I must say that for the most part I agree.

I can tell you that my favorite things about Barcelona is the modernisme architecture. That said, I do not think that Casa Milà is all that fabulous. Yes, I just wrote a lot about it - and I did learn a ton of information while there. If you are very interested in Gaudí and want to know more about his life and work than you probably need to, then it is a good place to visit. I am glad that we visited there as I doubt we will have another chance to do so. However. I must tell you that La Pedrera is certainly an adequate name for the place; it is no wonder that of all the nicknames, that one stuck. Aside from the patios, Casa Milà is bland and fairly devoid of color. Having been to Palau de la Música, which is an overload of detail and color, and having seen the exterior of Casa Batlló, which is ceramic dragon eye-candy, I was a tad disappointed in the lack of color (and the extra whimsy that it provides) at Casa Milà.

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