July 20, 2004


Well, I'm glad that I always am careful to pack yucky things (or, as Lee puts it, "things that don't taste good") instide plastic bags. I went to put on my sunblock this morning, and it was all over the inside of the bag it was in. Completely contained by the bag, which all works out for the best since it's something I won't mind jettisoning on the trip home, leaving me room for more stuff. But still, whew. Up til now I'd been doing it as a precaution against something that had never actually occurred. Vindicating, it is.

Anyway, I ended up leaving the hostel around 11. Today I wandered more southward, into the mazy oldtown area that wasn't marked "pedestrians only" on the map. I'm not sure what the actual differences with the roads are, because they all still are about seven or eight feet wide. It's just that here, there are wrong way, one way, no parking, and you-must-turn-here signs all over the place---mounted to the buildings, of course, because there's certainly no room for a signpost. Even in the places there are no road markings, so it's pretty free-for-all. (·) (·) (·) I now understand the enamel "entrada" and "salida" ("enter", "exit") signs that were on random corners---these mark the direction of that particular road, or did before various roads were barred to street traffic, and before the more modern symbolic signage came into use. (That's another thing---no words on almost any of the signs. It's all about shape and colour, although I think the colour is always redundant.)

On one street, I saw a sign "Urbá" and the much more important "Lliure" ("free"), so I went in. It appeared to be some sort of museum, although on closer inspection it appeared to be more of a showcase of the city (·) (·) and the current city planning projects. (·) I am deeply envious of the residents of this city and region; they understand quite well that designing a city is not solely about maximising revenue for someone or maximising space efficiency. Equally important are things like livability, and sustainability. (·) Integrating different sectors of the society is a priority---they have recently been building "10hj" subsidised housing, with some units set aside for young families that don't make enough to live in the city otherwise, and some units set aside for seniors on pension. (·) Even though this city this size of Chicago already has a better public transit system than anything in North America, they have several more metro lines planned, a few extensions to their existing metro and light rail lines, and a whole new streetcar system of which the first segments are just opening. (·) How can we get Americans to take this attitude?

So this little wander dumped me out into the Port Vell ("old port"). I poked around a little there, (·) (·) but decided to head up further north. I decided to go to the university, since the guidebook seemed to indicate a place nearby there to eat, and I was intending to head on further north from there. I popped into the university building (·) briefly, which was cool (they have a gorgeous courtyard (·)), but I was getting hungry so I left soon.

Then, I couldn't find the page in the guidebook I'd been looking at last night, but I ended up finding another place on the Ronda de la Universitat called "Le table de pain" (which I think should've been "du pain" but whatever), where I had a decent crêpe de salmon and a fantastic café con leche (con azúcar too, of course). I conducted the whole thing in Spanish, which as I've said, I don't speak.

From there, I was nearly at the Pça. Catalunya again, but this time I wanted to get a real look at the place, fountains and all. (·) Then I proceeded up the Passeig de Grácia, which is a lot more like the sorts of major roads I've seen before, albeit with somewhat different traffic patterns. (·) (·) (·) The sidewalks were huge, of course, and the main road was divided into ten (!) lanes. Two on each side were the "frontage road" lanes in the style of Palatine Road east of Rand: if you wanted to make a turn (in either direction), you had to be on these side roads (of which one lane was a parking lane). The remaining six lanes were in the middle, and the outside two of those were dedicated to bus and taxi traffic only. Somewhat oddly, the middle four "express" lanes were not evenly split, but had three lanes northbound and only one headed south. I suppose there's some other road with the reverse arrangement, and it no doubt makes a great deal of sense, actually.

This took me past the Casa Batlló, (·) (·) but I went straight on up to La Pedrera, (·) an apartment block designed by Antoni Gaudí. This guy was a machine. But before I went up to the "permanent collection" on the top floors, I checked out the free exhibition on the first (second) floor, which was on Mesoamerican cultures. Honestly, there's only so many Aztec figurines one can look at. Although, the curators may have realised this, and about two thirds of the way through they have the fertility-themed items, which included four items labelled "Fal·lus"---they were enormous stone penises, and none of this crude it-can-be-interpreted-as stuff either, as they were sculpted in loving detail and completely unmistakable for anything else. Also of note was a little sculpture innocuously named "Escultura masculina i femenina" that I mentally subtitled ": before the missionaries". Near the end of the exhibit was a bas-relief from the Mayan classical period of a captive. I didn't know they did bas-reliefs over there, but evidently they did. I'm not sure what caught my eye, but the thing was pretty intense.

So then I took my leave of the visiting exhibition to go upstairs, where for €7 I got to wander around a restored apartment from the modernista era, the "attic" which now holds the Espai Gaudí, a permanent exhibition of models and explanations of his work, and finally up to the roof, which was an Escheresque maze of staircases and chimneys and ventilation shafts, all decorated in the sinuous modernist style.

The apartment was pretty sinuous itself, actually. There wasn't a rectangular room in the place, and most rooms didn't even contain any right angles. The living and dining room had a hardwood floor in an awesome pattern that involved triangles of alternating colour (light and dark wood) that could be viewed either as arranged hexagonally or on a rectangular grid. (·) The bathroom had an old-fashioned elevated-tank toilet, but the tank was not directly over the toilet, rather on an adjacent wall that required the pipe to swerve on its way down. The kitchen had a pre-appliance arrangement from back when kitchens just had counters and a stove, and even running water was a relatively new development. Over the stove, though, was what could only have been a hot water tank; I'm not sure where the output for it was (it may have run through the walls), but it was designed such that without any pumps or for that matter any other interference, it would be full of hot water any time the stove was on (presumably more often than not). (·)

After the apartment, we went up to the "attic". (·) The majority of the building had been designed with the then-new-ish steel girder technology that obviated the need for load-bearing walls. Gaudí apparently wanted an attic as a matter of insulation, but didn't want to add to the weight carried down the interior of the building, so this floor supports the roof by means of a dense network of arches constructed out of flat brick. The effect is pretty attention-grabbing.

(Sidebar: when I went to see Sta. María del Pi the other day, I knew it was relatively close to my hostel; last night I was thinking that based on the volume of the bells ringing it must be closer than I thought. I was deceived by the maziness of the barri I'm staying in: I just poked my head out my window, and its bell tower literally forms the back wall of the other half of the hostel.) (·)

In the Espai Gaudí I learned just how cool this guy was. Without really having a math background in the conventional sense, he had an immense intuitive understanding of the mathematics required to engineer his architectural dreams. He discovered a way to operationally calculate an optimal load-bearing arch by hanging weights proportional to the load to lengths of string that were topologically laid out according to his design. (·) He understood minimal surfaces in a way that few do today. Furthermore, he also had a good grasp of the relationship between form and function, and the importance of colour, texture, and light in any space that humans are going to be spending any significant amount of time.

The roof was, as I mentioned, almost Escheresque, except for the fact that it is actually implementable in 3D. (·) The whole thing is rather whimsical rather than practical for anything I could think of, although points of it gave quite good views of the city. In particular, from this vantage point it was easy to see the brilliance of the city planners who designed the Eixample---the city region where La Pedrera is situated. The street is a strict square grid at ten blocks to the mile, except for where one or two angle streets cut through. One block (really more of a rounded square, as the corners are cut off to make every intersection more friendly to pedestrians and motorists both) has buildings all around its exterior. But these blocks are pretty big, so there's a big open area in the middle, with terraces and green areas for the people who live and work around the outside. (·) (Reminds me of some designs I saw at the carfree site.) Apparently, a number of these are being reclaimed as public green spaces. (Also reminds me of something I saw at the carfree site.) Even in this turn-of-the-century part of the city, whose façades show that it was quite well influenced by the French style, livability and communality were not dismissed.

On my way out, I browsed the gift shop and found myself wishing I knew somebody with a kid of, oh, about ten years old, who was into building models and stuff. There was one of those card-stock books with cut-out (with an exacto knife, that is) pieces for La Pedrera. There were a few different "Gaudí kits" to assemble to understand hyperboloids, paraboloids, and catenaries. Just the sort of thing I would've gone crazy for about fifteen years ago. :)

At that point my feet were getting really tired, so I hopped back on the metro to my hostel. Now I'm starving, so I'm going to head out for an early dinner.

More pix: Of La Pedrera: (·) (·) (·) Other pix: (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·)

Posted by blahedo at 7:00pm on 20 Jul 2004
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