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The Shock of the Old

I was in Barcelona recently and revisited some of Gaudi’s masterpieces – Guell Park, the Batllo House and of course the Sagrada Familia, his (unfinished) cathedral. If you haven’t seen Gaudi’s work you really are missing something special.

Gaudi’s buildings look like something a Hollywood special effects department might have created -   more science fiction than architecture, although when you get inside there are all kinds of human touches – beautiful curved niches which just invite you to shelter there, cunning spiral staircases which disappear into the building, organic shapes (barely a straight line anywhere) and a gorgeous, deft touch with light. Light becomes an extra character, funnelled via lightwells to lift the mood or bathe the visitor in golden sunlight via the sublime stained glass in the Sagrada Familia.

Despite the grand vision and the shocking, avant-garde design, Gaudi’s buildings are all meant for people. They work at the human scale, and it’s clear that he revisited and reworked his designs to optimise the human experience of being in a particular space. This is what you won’t find in an architecture book or an episode of Grand Designs – how a space makes a person feel. I find it strange that we talk so little about architecture when one of humanity’s most singular characteristics is our instinct to build a place to live, to feel safe and to be comfortable in. These feelings run deep.

Back home and back to the world of software, I can’t stop thinking about Gaudi’s remarkable ideas. His talent for empathising with the person – that could come straight from the software world. We spend our days trying to understand how this workflow will feel to a harassed practitioner who urgently needs to place a child, or how that visual metaphor can be made comprehensible to a visually impaired user. I wonder if Gaudi did what we find ourselves doing at Liquidlogic – taking the design out to dozens of end users to test their reactions? I’ve never forgotten the response of an ex-miner to our earliest portal design ‘Nay lad, only thing I put online is the washing’!

There’s no reason why software has to be straight lines and concrete. It can be curves and human scale, empathic and warm. We need to be bolder, both as designers and commissioners. Gaudi was appointed as architect of the Sagrada Familia in 1883. I’ll say that again: 1883. Queen Victoria was on the throne, Treasure Island had just been published, the Victorian age was in full swing. And in Barcelona the church and city authorities gave the green light to a design unlike anything which had ever been attempted - before or since. It was so advanced that we’re still building it – and it still takes the breath away.

Gaudi’s buildings work because they’re made for people. The visual impact may be dramatic, but the real magic is in the way they make you feel. I’d say there’s a lesson there for every designer, in every field, and it might just be the one role which artificial intelligence will never take away from us: empathy.

Blog written by Jim Sullivan, Business Development Director, Liquidlogic

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