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Into the shadows

REVIEW: Gaudi: The Biography By Gijs van Hensbergen. HarperCollins, 2001. 322pp. £24.99

There have been a lot of books about Antoni Gaudi's architecture but this is the first English language biography of the man.

Biography is an exacting art. It calls for grindingly accurate scholarship and harsh self-discipline to keep invention in check. At the same time, it has to be entertaining, shocking, or at least gripping reading. On all these points architecture lecturer Gijs van Hensbergen partly succeeds.

But he has several intractable problems.

One is the destruction of so many of Gaudi's personal papers during the Spanish Civil War. That probably accounts for the thinness of the narrative. Throughout the book Gaudi remains a rather shadowy figure. You feel as though you are skating alongside him, catching glimpses of the man over your shoulder.

Related to this problem is, apparently, the guardedness of people who hold other Gaudi material. It has a commercial value should Rome make Gaudi an official saint, as it seems likely to do before long. You have to wonder if van Hensbergen hasn't unconsciously felt the pressure to pull punches until this happens and the material becomes available. This is an oddly secretive biography in which little hints are dropped here and there and only maybe explained in more detail later.

But there's another problem which shines from van Hensbergen's text and connects with the canonisation: Gaudi was not the kind of person you would have invited round for a quick drink. Intentionally or not, van Hensbergen fills you with relief that he rather than you has had to spend so many years closeted with the detail of this stiff, smug, self-regarding, obsessive, religious fanatic and aggressive vegetarian - who also happened to be a kind of architectural genius.

Some fundamental things about Gaudi's life need explanation. One is how he managed to emerge through a rigid class system, apparently modelled on that of England, from the obscurity of a coppersmith and boilermaker's family to become a thoroughly middle-class (if weird) chap accepted by all.

Another is his lifelong bachelorhood. I dare say we've all seen people who, thwarted in love early in life, have apparently abandoned all interest in the flesh. Some I've known of this sort have hurled themselves into the arms of Mother Church in an alarming way. Maybe that happened here but van Hensbergen does not speculate. He does tell us that Gaudi had been a dandy in late youth but that he was not gay. So that's a terrific relief, isn't it - especially for the canonisers.

Oh, and he spent a lot of effort trying to keep his niece Rosa sober (what's the story there? ), and on one macabre occasion in search of authenticity in sculpture he insisted on watching someone die in the local hospital, leaving convinced he had seen the exact moment 'when the soul had been greeted by the Holy Family'. And he used casts of stillborn babies among the Sagrada Familia sculpture.

Another question is how this sublime and wonderfully aberrant architectural vision could have developed in such a creepy person; and how it could have been so calmly accepted by his ultra-conservative contemporaries (though not by Picasso, who in a 1900 letter consigned Gaudi and the Sagrada Familia to hell) - and by a clergy so repressive and reactionary that in 1909 the locals sacked and burned a significant number of the Catholic church's Barcelona properties.

There's a fourth problem which most architectural book writers face: the standard publisher's contract which makes the author responsible for providing the illustrations.

Unless managed very cleverly, the cost of doing this can be more than the whole publishing and printing budget for the book - and payable by the author. So here, predictably, we have a pretty hit-and-miss collection of old photos which look as though they came out of the back of someone's drawer.

Whatever else van Hensbergen has done in this heroic effort, he reminds us that in the end it is the architecture that endures, not the often horrible people who create it.

Sutherland Lyall is a journalist

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