Colonia Guell – Catalonia:
Just 25 kilometres inland from Barcelona, Colonia Guell is a UNESCO heritage colony town and is a working example of Antoni Gaudi’s architecture and Catalan Modernism design.
Colony towns were modelled on the British industrial towns model, as the Industrial Revolution swept all across Europe. Eusebio Guell moved his textile factory to one of his properties in Santa Coloma, on the outskirts of Barcelona, in 1890. He then set about creating a complete town and social infrastructure to provide for his employees. He had about 1000 factory and estate management staff, so he planned the town for this capacity on day one. So Colonia Guell was formed.
Eusebio Guell first met Gaudi at the Paris World Fair in 1878 and they quickly became friends. Guell appreciated Gaudi’s designs and became his patron, supporting him in his work. In return, Gaudi created a number of buildings and designs for Eusebio Guell, including Park Guell, Palacio Guell and the crypt at the Church of Colonia Guell. All three are UNESCO World Heritage listed sites since 2005 and reflect some of the best examples of Gaudi’s’ architecture and design. Colonia Guell gives the visitor a chance to get up close and appreciate the Gaudi style away from the well known and intimidating Sagrada Familia.
Walking through the town you get a feeling of space and relaxation, far removed from the industrial bustle of 120 years ago.
Guell built houses, mostly terraced for the workers that each had a toilet and a garden – an expensive option at the time. However, Guell felt that workers health was improved with good sanitation and the ability for workers to grow their own vegetables and keep small animals (chickens, rabbits, etc)
There were over 100 colony towns in Catalonia and they all had similar properties; The three biggest buildings in each town would be the Factory, The Church and the Owners House. Eusebio Guell’s town was different; He built a school and made it one of the pinnacle buildings in the town. He was visionary in his belief that educated workers would be able to add value and enhance his business, at a time when many viewed education as a threat. And of course, the school was designed by Gaudi.
It was closed for maintenance when I visited so I apologise for the lack of photography. I am sure I will go back again soon.
Eusebio Guell did, however, want to remind his employees who it was that gave them all these nice things, so in the middle of the large town square, he put a drinking fountain, topped with a large marble statue of himself. At the very centre of the town, it would have been passed by workers going to the factory, housewives going to shops, and children going to the school.
He also built a theatre off the square, making it as much of a social pleasure hub as well as a working town square.
The jewel in the crown of Colonia Guell is the Church, or better known as Gaudi’s Crypt, as he never got round to finishing the whole church. Guell asked Gaudi to design and build a church for the townspeople in 1898, and Gaudi agreed but said it would take a while. It took 10 years to design, and in typical Gaudi flair, he designed a 2 tier church, with a 40metre tower that would be able to be seen from anywhere on his estate. The design started with a lower church (the Crypt) for the workers, with sweeping ramps leading up to an upper church for the gentry.
Work started in 1908, but in true Gaudi style, nothing happened fast.
The Crypt was a melting pot for Gaudi’s ideas, and that was the brief that Guell had accepted when he gave Gaudi the blank cheque to build it. Gaudi used the crypt as a working test bed for his ideas that he would then implement in his other buildings. Walking around it you are amazed by the lack of any straight lines, but that almost hides the cleverness in moving between angles and materials. Looking up, the angled stone pillar meets with square brick that moves to flat stoned and then tiles; it all looks so seamless and natural that there is nothing that jars the eye. It seems so smooth that you easily miss the complexity in making it work. Gaudi was a true artist.
It does show many of the techniques and style that Gaudi has used on his other works, notably his best known La Sagrada Familia, in Barcelona
Gaudi believed that nature is made of curves, so nothing is straight in the crypt.
There are arches everywhere, each supporting themselves and the structures above them, in an ever complex manner.
Patterns made up from broken tiles and small bricks decorate the surface of many areas. Called Trencadis mosaic, this technique took a long time to prepare and then install, adding to the huge cost and time to get anything finished. And with Gaudi it took longer; if he didn’t like something or changed his mind, he pulled it down and started again.
The front of the crypt has a lot of supporting pillars, all at angles, and would have supported the ramp up to the upper church had it ever been completed. For all the madness in the design, it does show that Gaudi was genuinely expecting to finish the church.
The work came to an end in 1914, when an ageing Guell’s sons told Gaudi that the Crypt was adequate for factory workers and that there was no more money to be spent on it. Although the side ramps and door frame were there for the top church, that’s where the building stopped.
Eusebio Guell died in 1918, but given the slow progress of the build, he would never have seen the church built. It was consecrated as a church in 1915, and this was probably a proud moment for him regardless. It has been used as an active regular church ever since.
Only 20 minutes drive from Barcelona centre, or 6 minutes on the train, as a tourist spot to visit, I cannot recommend Colonia Guell enough. I think it is a very important pre-visit destination before you see La Sagrada Familia and helps you understand the Antoni Gaudi design evolution. Use one of the tour guides to show you around the town to make it a really interesting day out.
Thinking of visiting? Why not pin this post for later