Between Gaudi and Wright, You Can't Go Wrong
BARCELONA — When you're under the sun here, you make a pilgrimage to the Basilica de La Sagrada Familia. You just can't leave the city walls without paying homage to this part of Catalunya.
So I went, anyway. Being a Wisconsin girl at heart, I took Frank Lloyd Wright with me. I left Christopher Wren behind in London; St. Paul's Cathedral is just much too much to carry.
Wright designed a world-famous Unitarian Meeting House in my family hometown, Madison. A childhood friend, Jane Kuelbs, had her wedding there. Call me spoiled, I guess maybe I am, to have that as part of the scenery. A Wisconsinite, Wright was not beloved because of his huge ego. People said he was stuck-up, and worse.
At first glance, Barcelona's signature architect Antoni Gaudi, compared to the spare elegance of Wright, struck me as gaudy. His Sagrada Familia is an absolute riot of whimsy. Or is it visual jazz? He and Wright are not that far apart in years, but boy, they are radically different except in their daring. Long gone, they were both 20th-century giants.
So here's my second impression of the Gaudi masterpiece. Looking like a bright summer day, the contemporary spires rise up like a vision of one man's fierce imagination. The eccentric structure resembles the city's Gothic cathedral. Yet it appears to quiver and mock the fixed weight in stone of its ancient predecessor.
The people of this graceful city by the sea do not boast, but this site swells their national pride. The work of the dead architect, Gaudi, is still unfinished. But his massive Modernist cathedral remains in progress with workmen and tourists sharing space everyday as an act of faith. The project is, after all, sacred — named for the family of Jesus. The master drawings are about a century old.
My friend Harriet Gordon Getzels said it best: "The vision! The nerve! The idea! I thought it was amazing that it's been done." She's from Chicago, so she knows greatness when she sees it on a cityscape.
But what about that First Unitarian Society of Madison? The Meeting House on University Bay Drive has a diamond "steeple" that looks like a shapely ship that hugs the ground. It is a late work for Wright, with great personal meaning. His parents were founding members of the original society and help draft its charter of openness, anti-authority and freedom of thought.
Known for wearing a cape, Wright belonged to the congregation when the landmark building was finished in roughly 1951. The slanting copper roof is a familiar sight in Shorewood Hills, near the University of Wisconsin, where I spent many carefree summers.
I like the personal touches and memories that go with the sleek genius of the design. Money was tight, so the congregation moved stones from a quarry near the Wisconsin River. A glacier had been there eons ago, but in Wisconsin people often talk about "the glacier" as if it had just left town. In the old days, they say, you could see Lake Mendota from the Meeting House. No more.
Wright's lively social side came out in his plans for gatherings in the space, where he put a big hearth. Aside from Sunday services, he believed the building should be also be used for dinners, dances, lectures and concerts. Unitarians are considered socially liberal and tolerant Protestants. In a typical Wright flourish, he made the floors a cement-colored "Cherokee Red."
In short, he put his soul into the meeting house, though not traditionally religious. The architect was a believer in connecting the indoors and outdoors, bringing in the beauty of trees and seasons. In that spirit, he put in a saying about flowers feeding the soul — ironically choosing "the narcissus" to prove the point.
Well, Wright also designed the Guggenheim Museum in his late period, so I for one can forgive him his trespasses and flaws. He came (with cape) terribly late to a UW Student Art League dinner, which my mother hosted back then.
Between the sacred spaces of Gaudi and Wright, you can't go wrong. Speaking strictly for me, I'll take the Wisconsin way.
To find out more about Jamie Stiehm, and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.
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