ANTONI GAUDí
 

 

This research advocates for the complementarity of John Ruskin's and Viollet-le-Duc’s views on Gothic architecture by analyzing the extraordinary work of Antoni Gaudí, who merged innovative structural research with a close relationship to laborers and craft.


More than a century after John Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc published their interpretations of Gothic architecture in the Dictionnaire and the Stones of Venice, their writings continue to have a significant place in architectural discourse. However, many modern and contemporary scholars have criticized the definitions of Gothic architecture they laid out in these works, particularly the glorification of medieval labor and craft in Ruskin's case, and of a rational Gothic structural design in Viollet-le-Duc's. Moreover, Ruskin and le-Duc's respective analyses of Gothic architecture are mostly contrasted by scholars, being interpreted as markers of romanticism (Ruskin) versus modernism (le-Duc).

Despite this criticism and tendency to opposition, Ruskin and le-Duc’s views on Gothic architecture can be seen as both true—complementary, even. It is their findings combined which yields the fullest conception of the nature of Gothic architecture—and therefore, a richer and more relevant theory of design. The complementarity of John Ruskin's and Viollet-le-Duc's theories is substantiated in the work of architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926), who was influenced by both theorists simultaneously and left one of the most extraordinary architectural legacies of the 20th century. 

In 1854, Viollet-le-Duc’s Dictionnaire raisonne de l’architecture francaise was first published, wherein he offered an entirely original perspective on Gothic construction focused on the cathedral's structural properties. He writes,
 

“Everything is a function of structure… the gallery, the triforium passage, the pinnacle, and the gable; no Gothic architectural form is the result of flights of fancy.” [1]


For Viollet-le-Duc, the “technical, functional, and constructive aspects” of Gothic architecture were the main topics of his analysis, which redefined Gothic architecture as the product of structural engineering and innovation. [2] Ultimately, these writings and his subsequent theoretical conclusions have given rise to what was later called ‘structural rationalism’. Though it’s evident from his design work that le-Duc had personal predilections for certain structural types, such as the vault, his bottom-line stance on architectural form and material is that buildings must be expressive of their structural logic, and that their structural members should be exposed and integrated into a style balanced by both traditional and modern materials. [3] And while le-Duc doesn’t explicitly stake out claims about Gothic architecture being the single vision of one designer, he largely focuses his writings on the master builder, revealing his marginal regard for the role of the medieval laborer.
 

“Any fair-minded person ought to be able to understand that the experience acquired by the master builders of the times can be useful to us, and all the more so because these particular master builders were such innovators.” [4]


“Everything is a function of structure… the gallery, the triforium passage, the pinnacle, and the gable; no Gothic architectural form is the result of flights of fancy.”


  Image: Amiens Cathedral analysis; Dictionnaire raisonne de l'architecture francaise vol. II pg 332

Image: Amiens Cathedral analysis; Dictionnaire raisonne de l'architecture francaise vol. II pg 332

For Ruskin, however, the Gothic cathedral represents an intersection of morality, culture, and aesthetics. He presents the construction process of Gothic cathedrals as the communal effort of free men, working imperfectly but zealously on a project with their independent creative faculties. He presents this model as an alternative to the burgeoning “industrialized process of labor” [5], in which men become cogs in machines—their spirits crushed by monotony and exploitation.

 

“Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their
actions. If you will have that precision out of them… you must unhumanize them.” [6]


Moreover, he connects the craft of the builders with the visual properties of Gothic architecture: rudeness, changefulness, naturalism, grotesqueness, rigidity, and redundancy. Rudeness is an attribute he calls particular attention to, holding the conviction that the cathedral’s imprecise craftsmanship is a key aspect of its beauty and a reflection of human nature. He characterizes the construction of cathedrals as an unplanned process wherein the form of the cathedral gradually takes shape, accumulating asymmetries and inconsistencies as generations of builders succeed one another. [7] Ruskin’s reading, then, focuses on the imperfect yet rich form, materiality, and detail of the Gothic, but also does not preclude from it a structural expressivity (rigidity) or a certain rationality (changefulness).

 

“But in the Gothic vaults and traceries there is a stiffness; analogous to that of the bones of a limb, or fibers of a tree—an elastic tension and communication of force from part to part… throughout every visible line of the building.” [8]


“For in one point of view Gothic is… the only rational architecture, as being that which can fit itself most easily to all services... Undefined in its slope of roof, height of shaft, breadth of arch, or disposition of ground plan,... whenever it finds occasion for change in its form or purpose, it submits to it without the slightest sense of loss either to its unity or majesty.” [9]


(Ruskin) characterizes the construction of cathedrals as an unplanned process wherein the form of the cathedral gradually takes shape, accumulating asymmetries and inconsistencies as generations of builders succeed one another.


  Image: "Rudness" in the Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi, New York, 1961

Image: "Rudness" in the Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi, New York, 1961

Later in the 20th century, however, John Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc’s interpretations have been deemed narrow and ahistorical by architects and scholars. For Viollet-le-Duc, it was Pol Abraham, an architect in the 1930s, who first cast doubt on his analysis of medieval construction, dismantling le-Duc’s widely accepted views that Gothic architecture was formed entirely from necessity. [10] Louis Grodecki (1910-1982), a Gothic scholar, summarizes the current criticism of le-Duc’s analysis:


“[Viollet-le-Duc’s] seemingly scientific approach has been frequently contested. For instance, the
presence of pointed arches or of diagonal arches under the roofing might be considered only
preliminary pre-Gothic experiments… the formal traits of this particular style have little to do
with material structure… this proposed definition actually conflicts with historical fact.” [11]


Similarly, historians have cited evidence to overturn John Ruskin’s idealistic perception of the cathedrals’ construction process, wherein craftsmen collectively build and fashion the edifices over generations without a clear plan:

 

“It is especially the English texts that reveal the role of the actual creators: the architects, the
engineers, the so-called masters. One often hears the ill-considered assertion that opposes the
great individual master architects of the Renaissance, such as Brunelleschi, to the anonymous builders of medieval architecture, who created the so-called collective work of an entire people.
In point of fact, we know a good many Gothic architects by name, beginning with… (an extensive
list follows, including the architect of Notre Dame)…


These architects are more than just names in an official record book. In some cases we have
access to information about their lives, personalities, careers, and artistic styles. These documents
also indicate that the medieval master was a truly multifaceted individual. Not only was he
technician and engineer, but also he was responsible for sketches of moldings, for decorative
elements, and even for sculpture and paintings.” [12]


Though Ruskin and le-Duc’s arguments are compelling, in hindsight we find that their conclusions are, in part, based on error. Ruskin’s non-rational approach marginalizes the master builder as well as the rigor and intentionality of the cathedral, whereas le-Duc’s structural analysis is problematic in its totalitarianism. However, by combining their understandings, we arrive at a more balanced and accurate understanding of the Gothic—that it is both structural and phenomenal, both architecturally designed and collectively fashioned. More importantly, we arrive at a more credible sketch of the duality underlying all extraordinary architecture.


However, by combining their understandings, we arrive at a more balanced and accurate understanding of the Gothic—that it is both structural and phenomenal, both architecturally designed and collectively fashioned.


A significant architect who has demonstrated such a duality in his work is Antoni Gaudí. Remarkably, he drew from both le-Duc and Ruskin’s theories, discovering a powerful complementarity in their ideas. A survey of key projects in Gaudí’s oeuvre reveals ways in which he implemented their theories, including the Casa Milà, Parc & Chapel Güell, and the Sagrada Família. The three lenses of my analysis—structure, materiality, and labor—are drawn from the major tenets of our theorists.

Establishing Viollet-le-Duc’s structural theories as a primary source of inspiration to Gaudí is not difficult—the architect is known to have read le-Duc’s writings carefully, filling his books with notes and marginal comments. [13] Moreover, Gaudí is often quoted as saying he was trying, in his work, to emulate and continue the great example of the Greeks, referring to a central argument of le-Duc’s from the Entretiens: that the Greeks had developed a rational, structurally and materially consonant architecture for their day and age. [14] Gaudí believed, just as Viollet wrote, that old and new solutions combined would point the way forward to modern structural techniques. [15]

  Image: Chapel Guell structure, Antoni Gaudi, New York, 1961

Image: Chapel Guell structure, Antoni Gaudi, New York, 1961

While the most recognized case of Gaudí’s structural innovations is the Sagrada Família, an important precursor was the Güell project. Here he designed a chapel and park that first tested a new theory of construction. Gaudí was partly dissatisfied with the Gothic structural model, wherein vaults and arches are braced on either side by flying buttresses or massive walls in order to counteract the enormous thrust of the church’s weight. For the Güell project, he developed an original language of warped surfaces and tilted columns to shed this reliance on buttresses and solid mass. Particularly in the Güell chapel, all of the forms that Gaudí employed respond to structural requirements and stresses, although not in a dully mathematical way. Gaudí’s injects his sculptural sensibilities into the building, and he allows for its structural members to adopt specific, idiosyncratic scales and positions based on physical models. [16]


All of the forms that Gaudí employed respond to structural requirements and stresses, although not in a dully mathematical way. Gaudí’s injects his sculptural sensibilities into the building, and he allows for its structural members to adopt specific, idiosyncratic scales and positions based on physical models.


The structural strategy tested at Güell became more sophisticated in the Sagrada Família. Over a period of years, Gaudí tested structural schemes for the cathedral using his signature modeling method of gravity-shaped wires. In terms of structure, what essentially differentiates Gaudí’s cathedral from its Gothic predecessors are the elements that ‘verticalize’ horizontal forces (thrust). In historic Gothic churches, these elements (flying buttresses, bearing walls, etc) are external, whereas the ‘verticalizing’ elements (columns) in the Sagrada Família are all interior. This inversion, enabled by the tilted column in tandem with steep parabolic arches (another innovation), yields an approximately 20% increase in free interior volume compared to similarly scaled cathedrals, and a drastically reduced level of externalized thrust. [17]

  Image: Gaudi's structural wire-model for the Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi, New York, 1961

Image: Gaudi's structural wire-model for the Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi, New York, 1961

Underlying all of Gaudí’s structural experiments was a passionate preoccupation with natural, organic forms—a central mark of beauty according to Ruskin. [18] Significantly, Gaudí’s incorporation of natural forms and elements in his work coincided with the publishing of Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture in Catalonia—it’s evident that Gaudí was not only influenced by le-Duc, but also by Ruskin, his counterpart. Notably, a critical difference between Gaudí and contemporaneous Art Nouveau architects is that Gaudí’s interest in nature was not limited to mere ornamentation—it was much deeper. He drew from the geometries of nature to explore structural principles that are found in the organic world.
 

“His interest in nature [was] primarily for the structural… inspirations and lessons it may provide. The interior of the Güell chapel, for example, and certain models and plans for the Church of the Sagrada Família, completed in his last years, offer his starkest and most fundamental structural derivations from nature, and point to the direction he had been instinctively seeking all his life… to uncover the technical romanticism and inherent aesthetic of nature’s forms.” [19]
 

Gaudí sought to harness nature as an animating force in the form of his work, in alignment with Ruskin’s theory. Sert mentions that Gaudí, “often spoke of ‘warped surfaces’ of ‘stresses’ and ‘thrusts’ of columns ‘branching like trees’…” these forms were the outgrowth of solving structural challenges within the Güell Chapel and Sagrada Família. Moreover, there is remarkable synergy between the natural structural forms Gaudí experimented with and the technical performance demanded by the architecture of the cathedral. For instance, the tilted columns within the Sagrada Família not only slant along their long axis to mitigate thrust, but they split at the capital into a cluster of individual members which each independently support a section of the vault within reach. The column appears tree-ish, and is even more convincingly organic to the viewer when they realize that each ‘branch’ of the capital points in different directions towards the center of gravity of the section of the vault they support. This highly precise absorption of loads surpasses the efficiency of a singular column, and also creates a rich, sculptural object that Gaudí believed would be a stunning receptacle for light. [20] Cases such as this one, of structure being efficient and innovative, yet natural and sculpted, abound in Gaudí’s work.

  Image: Resonance with organic forms,   Antoni Gaudi, New York, 1961

Image: Resonance with organic forms, Antoni Gaudi, New York, 1961

Concerning materiality, Viollet-le-Duc and Ruskin approach their considerations from different, though not incompatible angles. Viollet was “concerned to show how iron could be used with precisely the same economy and precision as stone and timber had been used in the Middle Ages.” [21] His design work, published in the Entretiens, show a novel (albeit awkward) solution for resolving the structure of a large civic vault. Although first and foremost his advocacy was
for rational and clear ‘structural form’, he promoted the open combination of iron and masonry.

Ruskin on the other hand, praises the imperfection in the craftsmanship of Gothic architecture for the morality and liberty he thought it signified, but also for its aesthetic qualities. In the rough texture and outlines of cathedrals’ stones, ornament, and sculpture, he saw intense beauty:
 

“And in all things that live there are certain irregularities and deficiencies which are not only
signs of life, but sources of beauty. No human face is exactly the same in its lines on each side, no
leaf is perfect in its lobes, no branch in its symmetry. All things are literally better, lovelier, and
more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human
life may be Effort, and the law of human judgment, Mercy.” [22]


As bi-polar as these viewpoints seem, Gaudí has embraced them both. His incorporation of nontraditional materials, like iron, steel, and reinforced concrete, is a recurring feature in his work, sometimes acting in the foreground of the architectural composition, exposed to view, and other times reinforcing vaulting or masonry. Gaudí’s craftsmen constructed the most intriguing forms and structures imaginable, evincing an amazing degree of control when building intricately webbed vaults and hyper-parabolic surfaces—oftentimes merely with bricks and mortar. Their intention in such works is incredibly precise, testifying to a sophisticated engineering sense, but the craft of the Gaudí’s architecture bears a consistent ‘rudeness’ to it at all scales. Gaudí thought like a sculptor, who, instead of recreating a human figure in perfect photographic resolution, opted for rendering the figure with texture and expressiveness—like Rodin. Gaudí resonated with Ruskin, and was not unduly concerned with ‘clean finishes’ unless it was for some particular effect. Interestingly, just as Gaudí’s pursuit of nature and material limitations led to new structural forms, these forms, like the rounded and warped surfaces, led to new ornamental strategies.


“Just as his need to support the dead weight of the vault of his Güell Chapel with columns of
stone and brick of the slenderest dimensions feasible, led to their twisting and tilting to develop
the most economical way of absorbing the thrust, the need of a method for cladding rounded and
warped surfaces with flat tiles led to new decorative effects from the fragmentation of
conventional tiles to fit his surfaces. From a material limitation a fresh architectural form was
developed, just as the conventional limitations of the flat tile had led to a fresh decorative
expression through the solution of the problem, the glazed tile mosaics, when applied to warped
surfaces.” [23]


Gaudí thought like a sculptor, who, instead of recreating a human figure in perfect photographic resolution, opted for rendering the figure with texture and expressiveness—like Rodin.


  Image: Organic form and new forms of ornament; broken ceramic & pottery,   Antoni Gaudi, New York, 1961

Image: Organic form and new forms of ornament; broken ceramic & pottery, Antoni Gaudi, New York, 1961

As for labor, Gaudi’s work encompasses both the theories of Viollet-le-Duc and Ruskin. It should be established that Gaudí gathered an “…exceptional set of collaborators, such as architects, sculptors, and craftsmen (contractors, decorators, plasterers, smiths, smelters, carpenters, glassworkers, ceramists, etc.)…” [24] to realize his architectural visions. He developed relationships with craftsmen of all kinds over the arc of his career, culminating during his work on the Sagrada Família near the end of his life, when he lived on the construction site of the cathedral. Gaudí’s architecture has never been appreciated as the creative output of just one man—craftsmanship and detail is too essential a part of the work—unlike architecture that relies on industrially produced materials and components.

However, Gaudí’s approach to directing the craftsmen and artisans who worked for him was marked by a spirit of respect, fatherly love, and high expectations. [25] Gaudí, though deeply concerned with the outcome of his architectural projects, was also truly invested in the welfare and personal development of the craftsmen he worked with. Records exist of Gaudí describing his attitude towards his collaborators:


“Work is the fruit of collaboration, which can only be built on love. The architect must make use
of all of the knowledge and ability of his colleagues. He must develop each man's particular
quality. He must integrate, adding up the efforts of all and supporting them when they begin to
become discouraged. This is how one works with joy and the assurance that reflects the full
confidence of the organizer. He must know that useless people do not exist. Everyone is useful
according to his own abilities. One must simply discover each man's abilities.” [26]


It’s evident that Gaudí was the master architect behind his work. He had a clear technical and artistic vision that he always communicated to his craftsmen, which is representative of the master-builder role emphasized by Viollet-le-Duc. Nonetheless, Gaudí was also was deeply concerned with their welfare and artistic development of his assistants and craftsmen, equipping them with the freedom and guidance needed to develop their skills, and to cause them to flourish as artists in their own right. This attitude, of desiring the best for his collaborators, aligns with Ruskin’s position on labor and is the opposite of the profit-driven aim to exploit laborers, extracting value from them with no regard for their individuality. Gaudí even went to great lengths to financially support ill or injured laborers. By relating to his laborers this way, Gaudí, a devout Christian like Ruskin, knowingly or unknowingly emulated the words of God as spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
 

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to
give you a future and a hope.” [27]


“Work is the fruit of collaboration, which can only be built on love. This is how one works with joy and the assurance that reflects the full confidence of the organizer. He must know that useless people do not exist. Everyone is useful according to his own abilities. One must simply discover each man's abilities.”


 

 

Citations
 

1. Grodecki, Louis, and Anne Prache. “Chpt. 1” Gothic Architecture, New York: H.N. Abrams, 1977.

2. I. Tarrio, “Arches in Masonry Structures: Viollet-le-Duc’s rationalist theories,” E.T.S. of Architecture, Technical University     of Madrid, (pg. 1), Madrid, Spain (year unknown).

3. Frampton, Kenneth, and John Cava. Studies in Tectonic Culture: The Poetics of Construction in Nineteenth          
    and Twentieth Century Architecture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1995.

4. Viollet-le-Duc, "Construction" [1855], The Foundations of Architecture: Selections from the Dictionnaire Raisonné   
    de l’Architecture Francaise (New York:1990), 158-165.

5. Piotrek Swiatkowski, “How to Think Constructivism: Ruskin, Spuybroek and Deleuze on Gothic Architecture" pg. 1, 
    2011.

6. John Ruskin, "The Nature of the Gothic," in The Genius of John Ruskin (New York: Da Capo Press, 1985), pg. 177.

7. Ibid. p. 189.

8. Ibid. p. 194.

9. Ibid. p. 189.

10. https://dictionaryofarthistorians.org/abrahamp.htm

11. Grodecki, Louis, and Anne Prache. “Chpt. 1” Gothic Architecture, New York: H.N. Abrams, 1977.

12. Ibid. chpt. 1

13. Sweeney, J., & Sert, J. “Ch. 1 The Gothic Revival – Viollet le Duc” Antoni Gaudí. New York: Praeger, pg. 24, 1961.

14. Duc, E., & Hearn, M. The Architectural Theory of Viollet-le-Duc: Readings and Commentary, pg. 39, 1990.

15. Sweeney, J., & Sert, J. “Ch. 3 The Architect-Builder” Antoni Gaudí. New York: Praeger, 1961.

16. Ibid. “Ch. 3”

17. Ibid. “Ch. 3”

18. Ibid. “Ch. 3”

19. Ibid. “Ch. 3”

20. Ibid. “Ch. 3”

21. Summerson, J. Heavenly mansions and other essays on Architecture: “Viollet-le-Duc and the Rational Point of
      View,” London: The Gresset Press. 1949.

22. John Ruskin, "The Nature of the Gothic," in The Genius of John Ruskin (New York: Da Capo Press, 1985), pg.184.

23. Sweeney, J., & Sert, J. “Ch. 4 Knowledge and Use of Materials, Texture, and Color” Antoni Gaudí. New York:
      Praeger, 1961.

24. http://www.GaudíallGaudí.com/AA002.htm

25. http://www.clairval.com/lettres/en/2011/06/12/2080611.htm

26. http://www.casabatllo.es/en/tag/Gaudí/

27. Jeremiah 29:11 ESV

 

 

Bibliography


1. Grodecki, Louis, and Anne Prache. Gothic Architecture, New York: H.N. Abrams, 1977.

2. I. Tarrio, “Arches in Masonry Structures: Viollet-le-Duc’s rationalist theories,” E.T.S. of Architecture,
    Technical University of Madrid, (pg. 1), Madrid, Spain (?).

3. Frampton, Kenneth, and John Cava. Studies in Tectonic Culture: The Poetics of Construction in
    Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Architecture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1995.

4. Viollet-le-Duc, "Construction" [1855], The Foundations of Architecture: Selections from the
    Dictionnaire Raisonné de l’Architecture Francaise (New York:1990), 158-165.

5. Piotrek Swiatkowski, “How to Think Constructivism: Ruskin, Spuybroek and Deleuze on Gothic
    Architecture" pg. 1, 2011.

6. John Ruskin, "The Nature of the Gothic," in The Genius of John Ruskin, New York: Da Capo Press,
    (1985), pg. 177.

7. ‘Abraham, [Hippolyte] "Pol",’ https://dictionaryofarthistorians.org/abrahamp.htm.

8. Sweeney, J., & Sert, J. Antoni Gaudí. New York: Praeger, 1961.

9. Duc, E., & Hearn, M. The Architectural Theory of Viollet-le-Duc: Readings and Commentary, 1990.

10. Summerson, J. Heavenly mansions and other essays on Architecture: “Viollet-le-Duc and the
      Rational Point of View,” London: The Gresset Press. 1949.

11. “Antoni Gaudi I Cornet” http://www.gaudiallgaudi.com/AA002.htm.

12. http://www.clairval.com/lettres/en/2011/06/12/2080611.htm, June 2011.

13. “Antoni Gaudi, the Life of a Genius,” http://www.casabatllo.es/en/tag/Gaudí.

14. Ching, Francis D. K., and Mark Jarzombek. A Global History of Architecture. Hoboken, N.J.: J.
      Wiley & Sons, 2007.

 

 

Images


1. Chapel Güell

2. Sagrada Família

3. ‘Rudeness’

4. ‘Nature’

All photographs cited from: Sweeney, J., & Sert, J. Antoni Gaudí. New York: Praeger, 1961.