The Barcelona builder

Gaudi: the biography

Gijs van Hensbergen<em> HarperCollins, 322pp, £24.99</em>

ISBN 0002556243

Most writers lead unusually uneventful, not to say dull, lives, particularly while working on their books. But they are a more frequent subject of biographies than are great architects, many of whose works become icons of their culture and are produced in infinitely more interesting circumstances. I have often wondered if this could be because biographies are originated by writers, who understandably find their own craft fascinating. After reading Gijs van Hensbergen's new study of Antoni Gaudi, however, I realised that the reason might be more complex.

Not only was Gaudi a genius, but his uniquely idiosyncratic work is instantly recognisable to millions of people who don't know much about architecture. In fact, he is Barcelona to an extent that no architect anywhere can match (not even those architects whose mark in their own cities is even more conspicuous, such as Wren in London or Bernini in Rome). Obsessively focused on his work to the exclusion of almost everything else in his life, and in possession of a creative gift so rare that he had no followers in his own time, Gaudi might be the archetypical modern artist - were it not for his deep Catholicism, his complete lack of interest in money and his even more complete avoidance of sex.

Van Hensbergen is an architectural lecturer and travel-writer. He is at his best on Gaudi's work, and rigorous in providing the historical and political context of his life (his research can overshadow his protagonist, and secondary characters and events occasionally take too much of our attention). And yet I finished reading this meticulously constructed biography with the feeling that I hadn't learnt much more about Gaudi's passions or personality than what can be inferred from his work.

Traditional biography is based largely on archival material and the interpretive and narrative skills of the writer. As a result, it can seldom offer us the immediate insight into character to which we have become accustomed in the age of confessional TV, phone-in radio and intrusive journalism. From transsexuals discussing their emotional lives with Oprah to John Diamond reporting on the progress of his mortal illness, little remains unknown or unsaid. They may not be true or relevant, we may not really be interested, but we have become used, even addicted, to the intensity of first-person accounts. This may not be a limitation in the case of political or military biographies, where events drive the story, but it has become a problem in the case of artists, where our interest is essentially personal: why do they work in the way they do? We can watch or hear them explain it to Mark Lawson or Melvyn Bragg, week after week. A contemporary biographer, like a good interviewer, has to set the questions that will expose his subject, but must give him a voice, too.

The best biographies these days are hybrids, somewhere between fiction and non-fiction, allowing the author to impersonate and flesh out his subject, developing a form so brilliantly used in novels such as Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor. This may explain why, professional sympathies aside, biographers often choose to write about writers: with many books to quote from, the subject comes with his own voice.

Within the limitations of the traditional format, then, Gaudi is a fine biography. Had the author allowed himself to write as personally about his subject as he does about Gaudi's buildings, this beautifully produced book would have been even better.

William Gill is an architect and novelist

This article first appeared in The slow death of Tory England

2001-06-25