Gaudi: Design Inspired by Nature

Topics: Inspiration

At the start of the 20th century the world was grappling with industrial and social changes, and the new architectural style coined “Modernism” came about in response to new technologies and materials. The movement was also a response to a crisis of architectural style of the time and a desire for architects not to use style and ornamentation of past eras, but instead create a new style that could be used internationally. Architect Louis Sullivan’s quote ”form ever follows function’’ was an inspiration to many architects of the modernist movement and drove the style, which opted for rationality and simplicity of form and material1.

Architect Adolf Loos was greatly inspired by the Modernist movement, although his work and writings are incredibly strict about the its style elements. Loos’ most famous writing, Ornament and Crime, comes across as the narcissistic rants of a man influenced by class-based thought, trying to grapple with the style crisis of the time and convince the world that Modernism is superior to all other past styles.

He tries to assert himself and others of the Modernist mindset as intellectually and culturally superior and “at the pinnacle of mankind”. Most Modernists opted for less ornamentation, but Loos goes as far as to say that “cultural evolution is equivalent to the removal of ornament” and that ornament is needless expression that is damaging to aesthetic, thus it should be done away with. He insensitively insinuates that the use of ornament is reserved for more “primitive” cultures who are not aristocratic, and will never evolve culturally if they do not practice his aesthetic.

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Overall, his writings and architecture seem to take the Modernist idea of simplicity of form a bit too far, not giving as much thought to the comfort of those who use the spaces or of the context which it is built.

Around the world, many architects of the early 20th century interpreted Modernism in there own way to fit within their cultural context. One such architect is Antoni Gaudi, who is key in developing a style specific to Catalonia. During this time Catalonia was going through a crisis of style and returned to old style tendencies, but they wished to create an architecture that responded to the new burgeoning cultural and social climate. Catalonia wished to distinguish itself from the rest of Spain and create an atmosphere that was unique, liberal and cultured, especially in the capital of Barcelona. Gaudi’s unique natural and anthropomorphic style has become a symbol of Barcelona’s culture. He realized early on that the greatest formal and rational inspiration for structure existed in the nature around him. He drew inspiration from his context and believed that nature creates useful forms that create usable and pleasurable spaces. He did not see the geometries of most modernist architecture to be rational, and instead looked at his context of Barcelona and the natural forms it had to offer such as its hills or the sea to create a new type of ornament, one that is not connected to a time period but to the natural landscape.

Gaudi expresses his Catalan style and design beliefs perfectly in that of Casa Mila, an apartment complex built in 1906-1912 in Barcelona. The building lies on a chamfered street corner and Gaudi chose to wrap the three facades to appear as one, creating one homogenous skin. The building is locally known as “La Padrera”, the quarry, because its forms are inspired by the stone quarry that the materials were taken from. The large, single-toned stone facade has undulating horizontal ridges which seem to reference the stratification and cut of quarried stone. The two interior courtyards are also inspired by quarries, and help to bring light and ventilation into the apartments. The courtyards are also an example of Gaudi’s attention to solid and void within his structures in order to bring in more light and create comfortable interior environments. Gaudi always designed to harness the natural properties of the sun and wind for passive solar and ventilation, and a connection to the outside. The stone facade is not load bearing, but simply a veneer so that all of the fenestration can be larger to let in more light. It also creates thin, almost bone like connections between openings, bones being a source of inspiration for Gaudi’s anthropomorphic detailing.

At first glance it would seem that Gaudi is committing the crime of ornament which Loos finds so abhorrent, but upon further examination of the beliefs and design aesthetics of Gaudi, one can see that this is not the case. Gaudi is inspired by the teachings of the English theorist, Ruskin, and his statement that “ornament is the origin of architecture”, a theory that completely contradicts that of Loos. Gaudi approaches ornament in his own fashion, which does not fit within the confines of what Loos detests. Loos has such disdain for ornament because he believes that period based ornamentation causes buildings to become unfashionable and obsolete with time. He believes most ornament to be linked to a specific style which recalls an era of design, and once that era is over, the aesthetic becomes outdated. Gaudi does not design based on specific styles of the time. He creates an architecture of his own that is not rooted in any time period, but instead linked to the prevailing existence of nature on the planet, which we have lived in harmony with since the beginning of our species. Not only does his architecture reference Catalan nationality with elements such as the roof sculptures inspired by the helmets of Spanish conquistadors, but it references natural forms which exist all around us, such as the wrought-iron balcony rails modeled after vine leaves. Most decorative elements within Casa Mila relate to natural forms, from the pattern of the entry door inspired by the pattern of butterfly wings, to tile motifs modeled after marine life. Since nature is something that transcends time and exists in every context, it does not become obsolete. In this way, “Gaudi’s architecture is timeless since it does not rely on styles or tendencies”. It seems that Gaudi has perfectly fused the beliefs of both Ruskin and Loos, succeeding in creating an architectural style which both celebrates ornament, while transcending period based style.

Loos states that “ornament is no longer organically linked with our culture…has no connection to us, has no human connection at all, no connection with the world as it is constituted”. The work of Gaudi disproves Loos’ theory. His design aesthetic and ornament directly connect to the culture of Catalan and celebrate the natural world around us. One could argue that the Modernism that Loos practices does not connect its context, and instead creates architecture that is foreign and disjointed. Loos believes architecture should be celebrated in its simplicity, but he views “simple” as that which can be drawn on a cartesian grid. The Modernist movement follows this belief, creating geometric forms that do not have to be rational or functional, but which they believe to be “simple” and “international”. These forms rarely exist in nature, but are easy to draw with a compass and construct. These architectures have a simplicity of plan, but they are not looking at the comfort of the users or the context in which they are built. Gaudi on the other hand, does not practice abstract cartesian geometry, but a geometry that is ruled by nature. He believes that architecture should adapt to nature and its environment because nature creates useful, enduring forms which create comfortable spaces. He believes that functionality comes from adapting to what nature offers and that architects should study existing natural forms in order to create rational constructive versions of the forms in nature. For example, Gaudi discovered that by applying a weight to a string, gravity would create a catenary curve that could be used to create vaulting systems. He studied gravity at work to create his forms and studied functionality in nature.

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Gaudi: Design Inspired by Nature. (2022, Apr 29). Retrieved from

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