Gaudí Completes the Casa Milá Apartment House

With a design for the Casa Milá apartment house that was totally modern yet free of eclecticism, Antonio Gaudí established a controversial prototype for regional architecture.

Summary of Event

For Antonio Gaudí, the completion of his work on the Casa Milá apartment house in Barcelona, Spain, in 1910 was the logical culmination of a career that had started when Gaudí was a boy in the provincial town of Reus, south of Barcelona. Gaudí knew even then that he wanted to be an architect and viewed his chosen profession almost as a religious calling. He would be the consummate architect: theoretician, artist, engineer, designer, and master builder. He would develop a style that would be completely his: a style that would benefit his fellow citizens, for Gaudí had a deep-seated social consciousness; a style that would add to the cultural heritage of Catalonia, for Gaudí was an ardent nationalist. Catalonia, located in northeastern Spain, is generally considered to be Spain’s most progressive and prosperous region. Despite Madrid’s repeated attempts to assimilate Catalonia into a greater Spain, the Catalans have fought stubbornly to retain their identity. Architecture;Casa Milá apartment house
Art Nouveau;architecture
[kw]Gaudí Completes the Casa Milá Apartment House (1910)
[kw]Casa Milá Apartment House, Gaudí Completes the (1910)
[kw]Apartment House, Gaudí Completes the Casa Milá (1910)
Architecture;Casa Milá apartment house
Art Nouveau;architecture
[g]Spain;1910: Gaudí Completes the Casa Milá Apartment House[02540]
[c]Architecture;1910: Gaudí Completes the Casa Milá Apartment House[02540]
Gaudí, Antonio
Güell, Eusebio
Viollet-le-Duc, Eugène-Emmanuel
Ruskin, John

With a delicate constitution that would plague him his whole life and with limited resources, Gaudí had to focus on his objectives. At the Architectural School of the University of Barcelona, he studied only what was of interest to him and what he thought would be of benefit to his work. An architect whose theories he found fascinating was Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, who was at the time restoring some of France’s ancient monuments, including the City of Carcassone, which Gaudí visited. Viollet-le-Duc advised would-be architects to look to the past for inspiration rather than for designs. A freethinker, he saw medieval cathedrals not primarily as places of worship but as marvels of engineering. Gaudí shared this admiration but saw the Gothic arch as too weak, needing support. He developed in its stead the parabolic arch, which has virtually no lateral thrust and is therefore more versatile.

To supplement his income while he was a student, Gaudí worked as a draftsman for local builders. The experience was invaluable. He developed a thorough knowledge of materials, tools, and construction devices such as the tiled laminated arch traditionally used in Catalonia. It was lightweight and inexpensive yet amazingly strong. More important, Gaudí developed a deep compassion for the humble artisans among whom he worked.

One of Gaudí’s first commissions following graduation was a plan for a workers’ cooperative. He exhibited the plan at the Paris Exposition of 1878, and it attracted the attention of Eusebio Güell, a local textile magnate who was cultured, had a social conscience, and was, like Gaudí, an ardent nationalist. Güell subsequently gave Gaudí a number of important commissions, including one for an elaborate town house for himself.

More important, in the Güell home Gaudí was introduced to a number of new ideas, including those of John Ruskin, an influential English art critic, as well as to the music of the German composer Richard Wagner, whom Güell greatly admired. From Ruskin, Gaudí gained the idea of seeing architecture as essentially organic, related to nature through its play of light and color. Ruskin also stressed the national content of good architecture. Wagner, as a librettist, composer, conductor, and producer, was a model for Gaudí of a well-rounded artist.

Reflecting the influence of Viollet-le-Duc, Gaudí’s designs for buildings were inspired by those of the past but adapted, such as Moorish designs with brilliantly colored tile work or Gothic ones with parabolic arches substituted for the traditional pointed arches. A significant commission from Güell was for a garden complex of twenty houses to be located on a barren hillside. To support the numerous necessary terraces, Gaudí used the tilted column, another of his architectural innovations. The vast central terrace was supported by columns in the Greek Doric manner. The columns also served as conduits for water that was collected on the terrace and was filtered by the sand that was used instead of paving. Surrounding the terrace was a sinuous border of multicolored tile fragments set in mortar. As a housing complex the project was a failure, but it became a brilliant success as a public park.

By the time Gaudí received the commission for the Casa Milá apartment complex in 1906, he believed that he had developed fully as an architect. There would be no traces of the Moorish, the Gothic, or the Greek in his design. Casa Milá would be pure Gaudí, but it would also be Catalan in spirit, in harmony with the undulating shoreline on one side and the rugged serrated mountains that served as a background to Barcelona.

The facade of Casa Milá was of massive undulating stone cut through by windows and balconies; the whole was in a constant play of light and shadow. The stone also served as insulation against the blazing Mediterranean sun. The facade was apart from the freestanding building, attached to it by rods. The building in turn was supported by pillars from which was suspended a framework of trusses and girders. The arrangement permitted a fluidity in arrangement, with each apartment different from the next. Two generous interior patios served as sources of light and air. Gaudí paid meticulous attention to both the cellar and the roof. Ramps led down to the cellar, giving Casa Milá one of the first underground garages. The roof, supported by Gaudí’s lightweight tiled arches, boasted probably the largest collection of freestanding Surrealist sculptures in the world in the form of its numerous chimneys.

Casa Milá was Gaudí’s last secular assignment. Had he built nothing else, it would have earned him a ranking among the leading architects of the twentieth century.


Gaudí never completely finished Casa Milá, as he had become increasingly engrossed in his greatest project, the Expiatory Church of the Holy Family (Sagrada Familia), to which he devoted all of his energies until his death in 1926. Casa Milá, however, remained one of Barcelona’s most controversial buildings, and its impact ranged far beyond the Catalan capital. A true assessment of that impact is difficult to make because so little is known of the architect and his relation to what many consider to be his most significant building. Gaudí sought no recognition. He seldom gave interviews and left no writings. Such plans and other architectural drawings as existed were largely destroyed during the Spanish Civil War. Because attitudes toward architecture have changed since Gaudí’s time, an assessment of the impact of Casa Milá must be made in terms of both immediate and long-term effects.

Among its immediate effects, the Casa Milá apartment house, with its undulating lines, its asymmetry, and its emphasis on light and shade, came to be regarded as an extreme example of the Art Nouveau style popular between 1900 and 1914. That categorization is simplistic, however. Although related to Art Nouveau, Casa Milá is part of the Catalan interpretation of Art Nouveau known as modernismo, or modernism. Gaudí’s modernismo, however, is more than surface decoration. Organic in nature, for the body and facade of Casa Milá can be equated to a body and its skin, Gaudí’s outward forms are a manifestation of forces at work below the surface.

The second immediate effect involved the relationship of Casa Milá to an emergent art form called Surrealism. Surrealism
Art movements;Surrealism Surrealism attempts to transpose absolute reality into superreality by resolving the contradictory conditions of dream and reality. Many of the Surrealists, including Salvador Dalí (also a Catalan), considered Casa Milá, with its amazing roof sculptures, to be the result of such a resolution. The Surrealists fought most strongly to keep Gaudí’s memory alive.

By the time of Gaudí’s death and even before, the intensely personal, regional style that he pursued was being replaced by what became known as the International Style. Originating in Germany with the Bauhaus Bauhaus group, the International Style International Style
Architecture;International Style was rectilinear, impersonal, and devoid of ornamentation. Preferring steel, lightweight metals, and glass over masonry, its practitioners placed primary emphasis on function. Divorced from tradition, the style sought to be universal.

Although the communist and fascist dictatorships of Spain tended to favor a ponderous neoclassicism, elsewhere the spread of the new style was phenomenal. Whole sections of cities were leveled to be replaced by glassy, boxlike structures. The rebuilding of the devastated cities of Europe after World War II hastened the utilization of the International Style, for among its advantages were ease of construction and economy.

Gradually, a reaction began to set in from persons unhappy living and working in these buildings and from architects who had begun to see themselves as little more than designers of containers. The centennial of Gaudí’s birth in 1952 witnessed a growing desire for more personal styles such as that represented by Casa Milá. Ornamentation began to reappear. A group of architects calling themselves the postmodernists promoted ornamentation as a means of enriching architecture. Interest in Gaudí’s works was renewed, and the list of publications on the Catalan master grew. Rediscovering Gaudí also meant becoming aware of his regionalism, the relation of his buildings to their environment, and his commitment to versatile urban design. Casa Milá embodied all of these characteristics.

Architects began to become uncomfortably aware that architectural design suitable to northern Europe was not suitable to a tropical climate. In addition, the phenomenon of universalization that the International Style represented meant the subtle destruction of traditional cultures and a loss of human values. Increasingly, attention focused on what became known as critical regionalism in architectural design, with awareness of and attention to traditional regional models, building materials, and construction methods.

Concomitant with the growing disillusionment with a standardized design in urban architecture was unhappiness with the destruction of the urban fabric that often resulted from use of this design. What resulted, with depressing regularity, were whole sections of cities consisting of impersonal high-rise buildings at odds with the surrounding environment and often even hostile to it, separated by highways and parking lots. These replaced traditional close-knit neighborhoods, fostering a sense of isolation rather than of community. With all of his urban buildings, and especially with Casa Milá, Gaudí was careful to relate to the environment. Although unconventional in design, Casa Milá harmonizes with the adjoining buildings and follows the contours of the streets.

Probably the most outstanding feature of Casa Milá as it relates to urban design is its versatility. The numerous balconies, one concealed from the other, foster the solitude humans often crave, while the roof and the patios foster the social interaction that is equally necessary. The design itself permits the rearrangement of space to suit changing demands. In 1923, Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret), one of the best-known modern architects, called for nonmonumental buildings that would be “machines for living.” Casa Milá may be considered to be such a machine. By using the traditional monumentality as a facade, Gaudí provided the best of both the traditional and the new. Architecture;Casa Milá apartment house
Art Nouveau;architecture

Further Reading

  • Bassegoda Nonell, Juan. Antonio Gaudí: Master Architect. Photographs by Melba Levick. New York: Abbeville Press, 2000. Concise text by the director of the Càtedra Gaudí at the University of Barcelona is illustrated with some two hundred images of Gaudí’s work. Traces Gaudí’s influences and presents examples of the full range of his work.
  • Collins, George R. Antonio Gaudí. New York: George Braziller, 1960. Many consider Collins to be the leading American authority on Gaudí. The book is divided into three parts: Gaudí’s life, his works, and an evaluation. The last part is particularly valuable. Includes many photographs, some architectural drawings, and copious notes.
  • Hitchcock, Henry-Russell. Gaudí. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1957. Hitchcock, a prolific writer on architectural history, was one of the early promoters of the International Style; the Museum of Modern Art, more than any other institution, fostered growth of the style. Hitchcock stresses Gaudí’s uniqueness and seemingly cannot relate him to the growing disillusionment with the International Style. Black-and-white photographs.
  • Kostof, Spiro. A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Kostof, a noted professor of architectural history, spent his life making architectural theory comprehensible. This second edition of his masterpiece has been revised and expanded to include a new concluding chapter based on Kostof’s last lecture notes.
  • Martinell, Cesar. Gaudí: His Life, His Theories, His Work. Translated by Judith Rohrer, edited by George R. Collins. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1975. One of the most detailed and complete studies of Gaudí available. The author, who knew Gaudí in the last decades of his life, is both an architect and a historian. The work is divided into three sections: Gaudí’s life, his theories, and his work. Appendixes contain a number of valuable primary documents, including an early essay by Gaudí on ornamentation, Gaudí’s earliest architectural plans, and his school transcript.
  • Mower, David. Gaudí. London: Oresko Books, 1977. An excellent, comprehensible survey of Gaudí’s career. Two valuable features are a series of quotations from prominent figures such as Walter Gropius, Salvador Dalí, Louis Sullivan, and Albert Schweitzer on Gaudí and chronologies dealing with the career of Gaudí and the history of Catalonia. Photographs are interspersed with text.
  • Solá-Morales Rubió, Ignasi. Gaudí. Translated by Kenneth Lyons. New York: Rizzoli, 1983. Divides Gaudí’s professional life into three phases: early eclecticism, the period of equilibrium (which includes Casa Milá), and the architecture of destruction (which includes the monumental Church of the Holy Family).
  • Van Hensbergen, Gijs. Gaudí: A Biography. New York: Harper Perennial, 2003. One of few biographies of Gaudí available in English. Examines Gaudí’s life and work, including his influences (such as his Catholicism and his patriotism) and the innovation and complexity of his designs.
  • Zerbst, Rainer. Gaudí, 1852-1926. Translated by Doris Jones and Jeremy Gaines. Cologne, Germany: Benedikt Taschen Verlag, 1988. An excellent book for readers wishing an easy introduction to Gaudí and his works. The author, an art critic, is a Gaudí devotee. Gaudí’s works are treated separately. The photographs, all in color, are outstanding and include examples of Gaudí’s furniture and interior decorations.

Tiffany Leads the Art Nouveau Movement in the United States

Hoffmann Designs the Palais Stoclet

Completion of the AEG Turbine Factory

German Artists Found the Bauhaus

Surrealism Is Born

Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye Exemplifies Functionalist Architecture

Wright Founds the Taliesin Fellowship

Prouvé Pioneers Architectural Prefabrication