That was my first visit in more than 16 years. In the autumn of 1985 I made a film about the city, the peg (or excuse) being that the next year it was to be "European Capital of Culture" or something along those meaningless lines. I'd like to say that my abiding memories of those two weeks was of the exhilarating monuments of the modernista idiom. I'd like to, but were I to do so, I'd be denying the primacy of what Harold Macmillan called "events".
The first event was called Jim. He was our sound recordist, and in the restaurant where we treated the crew on our first night he pored over the wine list. He raised his head and announced the presence of a 1955 Viña Pomal.
"We should try that," he said. We did. Then Jim found a 1961 CVNE. "We should try that," he said. I observed to Jim that he knew his stuff. He replied that he had 5000 bottles at home and that they were all catalogued and cross-referenced on his computer. "So if we're having, say, chilled watercress soup followed by roast lamb and ratatouille for lunch and we're eating outside in an ambient temperature of 68°, I can punch in the data and the program will tell me what the most suitable wine is …"
The second event was called Ros and Andi. These were the two plain-clothes men assigned to us by the municipality throughout the shoot. Their demeanour was infected by a too-protracted exposure to every buddy-cop telly series ever made. They were tough, they were streetwise, they chewed gum, they had tales of traffic violations, they pulled their automatic pistols from their holsters once every five minutes, and on the only occasion that trouble loomed (in the form of a transsexual built like a hoddie and his/her pimp), Ros and Andi went AWOL.
Maybe life’s defining vitality and startling incongruity will always lord it over plastic art
My point is, how can Gaudí, Puig and Domènech and their inspired creations compete inside one's head with Jim, Ros and Andi and their unselfconscious oddness? Maybe life's defining vitality and startling incongruity will always lord it over plastic art, even over objects of such reputation and iconic glamour as the Sagrada Família and La Pedrera.
Sixteen years is a long time. There can be no doubt that we when we return to places (as to books) we inevitably and, perhaps, unwillingly measure ourselves against them. They show us how we've changed. This is crudely expressed by the formula: "I can't for the life of me understand what I ever saw in …"
I shan't go that far. But retracing my steps through Gaudí's oeuvre made me wonder if Jim, Ros and Andi loom so large because I was, in truth, all the while underwhelmed by Catalonia's defining architect and was only persuaded into appreciation out of professional necessity: anything becomes preoccupying, even interesting, if you're writing about it or filming it.
Picasso derided Gaudí – not least because of the Catholic faith he wore on his sleeve. Dalí, however, revered him. This affection is easily understood, and is as telling as seeing Gaudí's work through my eight-year-old daughter's eyes: she used the words "fairy tale" on several occasions. The Gaudí I perceived seemed to belong – in a way that I'd never allowed myself to acknowledge – to the tradition of naive art. I kept thinking of Le Facteur Cheval's Palais Idéal south of Lyons. Or was Gaudí merely imitating the devices of the naive? This, after all, is what his qualified admirer Le Corbusier would do in later years. There is a balance here that Le Corbusier understood: he never looked like anything other than a consummate artist borrowing from the untutored: compare the roof of L'Unité d'Habitation with that of La Pedrera. L'Unité's is awesome, an abstracted distillation of Mediterranean culture that is both Homeric and modern. Gaudí's masks teeter on the brink of kitsch. One cannot, of course, gainsay the imaginative fecundity, the dogged fantasy, the energetic differentness, the tireless eccentricity …