Gaudi: A Biography Paperback – 4 Nov 2002
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‘This book is written with immense sympathy and understanding for Gaudí himself and his work, but also for the cultural and political background. In its scope and ambition, its clarity and its feeling for the period and the personality, this book is the most definitive book on Gaudí which has yet been produced.’ Colm Toibin
'It is rare for the biography of an architect to be so human and so humorous. Gijs van Hensbergen has managed to recreate in his book that same combination of playfulness and seriousness which characterises Gaudí, and Barcelona. His infectious enthusiasm is conveyed through vibrant and witty prose. Altogether a delight.' Paul Preston
From the Back Cover
"This is a tale of murdered prostitutes and exhumed nuns, of still-born babies and live chickens cast in plaster, of patches of skin removed without anaesthetic from young men, of cholera, alcoholism, riot arson and death-by-tram, at the centre of which there is a celibate, vegetarian, devout man who liked lettuce dipped in milk for lunch…
For many Gaudi's unique architecture 'is' Barcelona. But little is known about the shadowy figure behind the swirling, vivid buildings that inspired the surrealists. Contemporary accounts describe an effete dandy who dressed like a tramp, a revolutionary patriot arrested in a pro-Catalan riot dressed like a tramp age 73, and a hermit who chose lifelong celibacy, rejected by the woman he loved. This masterly biography is the first to untangle his paradoxes, bringing the obsessions of both man and architect powerfully to life, against the changing backdrop of Catalonia.
"A terrifically stirring biography…van Hensbergen animates ideas with narrative drive. Buildings are his characters."
'New York Times'
"'Gaudi' brings vividly alive for the first time the Catalan cultural and political background that is the key to understanding Gaudi"
"The most definitive work on the architect"
"A soaring biography, meticulously researched, elegantly organised, fluidly and lucidly written"
"At the end [of reading 'Gaudi' I felt like jumping on a jet to Barcelona, imagination at full stretch, rosary in hand"
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One significant flaw in the book, however, is the complete lack of visual reference. I HIGHLY recommend that you have a visual reference to the buildings on hand, such as the Taschen book, when tackling this biography. The few photos here are mostly of people.
As pure as Hensbergen's intentions are, the book is a failure. Poorly written, haphazardly organized and indifferently edited, Gaudi is painful to read and does very little to improve ones understanding of the subject. To learn about the Barcelona of those days, its politics and players and how they influenced the architect, read Robert Hughes' Barcelona: a magnificent book by a master non-fiction stylist.
Gaudi: A Biography is also inadequate in the descriptions of the projects and the buildings. Hensbegen never clarifies what happened at Poblet; how Gaudi worked and what his studio was like; that the model for Colonia Guell was for an entire church, not just a crypt; and most importantly how did Gaudi view space? Hensbergen never discusses Gaudi's mature interiors. He treats the designer solely as a sculptor--a former of symbols--not as a creator of spaces.
I was confused as often by the imperfectly written sentences as by the badly explained ideas. The chronology is a muddle. Dates are even mistyped. Names pile up without clear explanation of who they are or why they are being mentioned. And the endnotes...! They are confounding digressions which clarify nothing.Without beauty, rationality and solid construction, this book is wholely unworthy of its subject.
I have always felt a fascination with things that seem to have some unexpected, almost alien, aspect to them. In architecture this includes the temples at Angkor and the Hindu temples of India; are these the works of humankind? So it is with Gaudi. Where are the precursors? Where are the followers? Perhaps there are no followers because what he did was so exceptional no-one dares takes the same path. And then there is the man Gaudi as described in this book - he is no less alien; banishing intimacy with women from his life, being absorbed in catholicism, following a rigorous vegetarian diet. I didn't want speculation - I hate that in biographies - but I would have liked more information. For example, why was Gaudi a vegetarian - was it a religious tenet he was following, was it a moral one, was it health-driven?
Other reviewers have been disturbed by Mr Hensbergens command of the English language. This did not offend me. Perhaps the paperback version I am reviewing had been further edited. But I did find the book slow to capture my attention. Perhaps it was Gaudi and not the prose that finally engaged me - but engaged I was. Another feature that initially annoyed me was the placing of the four sections of illustrations. It seemed to me that I was forever hunting for an illustration for the text I was reading. But by the end of the biography this didn't offend me at all; in fact I grew to love hunting back and forth through the illustrations because as I did so I grew to know Gaudi's architecture better and better.
The book IS painful to read, if you love the English language. On the other hand, if you are able to laugh about bad writing, there are quite a few chuckles in the book. For example, van Hensbergen tells us about Graner's demon automaton in his cinema threatening customers with death, and comments: "This was rounded off by realising, after queuing patiently for one of the two ticket booths, that the usher was a dummy." I love the shift from the passive "was rounded off," which points to Graner's plan, to the ticket-buyer's active-voice subjectivity in "realising." Grammatically, of course, it's garbage. Imagistically, though, it's a kind of inspired madness not unlike the idea of a demon automaton itself.
Van Hensbergen's inadequate command of English grammar provides a constant source of humor. "This was the first time a nation - Catalonia - had connected into the history of a much wider Western culture." He means, of course, that it was the first time Catalonia had connected with that history, a broad but at least defensible claim; but of course what he says is that it was the first time a NATION had done so, which is just plain funny.
Here's another one that I love: "Built up in the Colserolla foothills on the slopes of Mont Tibidabo, Gaudi looked to the mediaeval Christian fort and the Moorish fortified hisn complex of Al-Andalus for his inspiration." I KNEW Gaudi wasn't born, but fashioned out of pipe cleaners and lizard scales, up on the slopes of Tibidabo! Van Hensbergen apparently believes that it's enough to mention the actual referent of "built" in the previous sentence: Bellesguard.
But my all-time favorite comes in the third line of the book: "Gaudi, Barcelona and Catalonia were, and still are, eternally intertwined." For sheer malapropist grace, that one is hard to beat. He means "integrally intertwined," of course. He just doesn't care enough about words to notice that "eternally" and "were, and still are" are mutually exclusive. But look at the economy of that oxymoron! The verbs give us the localized temporal reference, which is contradicted by the universalized adverb. And look at the cumulative effect of the verbs: WERE (and are no longer), and STILL ARE (for a while). He could have written "have always been eternally intertwined," but he didn't. It would have been much less powerful that way. The book isn't just badly written. Here and there it reveals a ubiquitous FLAIR for bad writing. (See, I tried to replicate van Hensbergen's oxymoron with spatial reference, and didn't do it nearly as well!)
The fair thing to say about van Hensbergen's atrocious writing is that he's Dutch, so give him a break. YOU try and write a book in a foreign language, Mr. Reader from Buffalo, see how far YOU get! The real culprits here are the editorial staff at HarperCollins. This isn't exactly a fly-by-night publishing operation. They should hire copyeditors to fix the kind of absurdities van Hensbergen's book is full of. But they're so busy saving money that they don't care. The book reads like van Hensbergen's first draft -- as if nobody else ever looked at it before it was typeset.
Still, I have to disagree with the reader from Buffalo on the book's ultimate value. True, we need more books on Gaudi. But this one is still useful, especially for someone like me who is planning a novel on Gaudi. Every other book available on Gaudi in English is 200 color plates and a brief and fairly pious biography; van Hensbergen has done an enormous amount of research into Gaudi's LIFE. And yes, you have to laugh or grit your teeth at the bad English, but it is pure unadulterated Romantic genius-worship to claim with the Buffalo reader that "an understanding of Catalanism with its piety, spiritualism, chauvinist patriotism and family values," while "helpful to understanding Gaudi's life," is "not essential to appreciating his work. Antoni Gaudi was a genius. Works of genius communicate themselves. That is all you really need to know admire and love Gaudi's designs."
If you are determined to treat Gaudi as an untouchable genius whose life is irrelevant to his work, don't read this book. If you kind of enjoy discovering that artistic geniuses are actually human, and fallible, and not a little neurotic, and if you aren't too fastidious with the English language, it's well worth the read.