At Casa Batlló, Sofia Crespo Conjures Gaudí the Naturalist

With lustrous AI-powered projections of biological structures, the Lisbon-based artist animated one of the Catalan architect’s most-visited masterpieces and propelled its legacy into the future.

“Structures of Being” at Casa Batlló. All artwork photography by Claudia Maurino

In 1903, textile industrialist Josep Batlló had big plans for the unassuming house he purchased on Barcelona’s fashionable Passeig de Gràcia. Seeking to distinguish the property from others owned by his family, he tapped Antoni Gaudí to dream up a “risky” plan for its facade after being wowed by the Catalan modernist’s arresting mosaics throughout Park Güell. Gaudí understood the assignment, adorning Casa Batlló’s swooping exterior in shards of lustrous blue-and-green stained glass that shimmers like a lake’s glassy top layer—a mesmerizing effect likened to Claude Monet’s Water Lilies. Widely considered one of Gaudí’s masterpieces alongside the Sagrada Familia, the Casa remains one of Barcelona’s most-visited attractions, an otherworldly feat of artistic ingenuity even in a city teeming with stunning architecture.

This past weekend, 100,000 visitors gathered outside Casa Batlló for a different reason. The UNESCO World Heritage Site had been transformed top-to-bottom by “Structures of Being,” a kinetic phantasmagoria of light, color, and motion that danced across its 105-foot-tall facade. The spectacle is the brainchild of Sofia Crespo, the Lisbon-based artist best known for using technology to explore biological structures. At Casa Batlló, she created AI-powered projection maps of luminous florals, coral reefs, and butterflies animated by the behavior of marine currents that rippled to music by British composer Robert M. Thomas. The event was the unofficial celebration to kick off Integrated Systems Europe, the world’s largest trade fair for audiovisual systems, which started this week in Barcelona. 

Crespo is the second participant in Casa Batlló’s Heritage of Tomorrow program, which invites artists to create work that engages with Gaudí’s masterpiece. (The first participant was digital wizard Refik Anadol.) The end result, which took three months of rigorous planning to see through, has fun with curves and swoops of Gaudí’s surreal architecture—and even propels its legacy into the future. “The great challenge has been to convey Gaudí’s inspirations on a facade that has a lot of personality and intricate details,” Crespo says. “I wanted to capture how he worked and thought, including materials, symbology, and his more spiritual dimension.” 

Sofia Crespo. Photography by Filipa Aurelio

As the weekend wrapped up, Crespo sat down with Surface to talk about Gaudí the naturalist, game engine technologies, and how the king of Catalan modernism might have responded to AI.

In a video, you mentioned parallels between Gaudí dialing into the natural world through Casa Batllo’s architecture and your practice of evoking nature through AI projections. Has Gaudí been an inspiration for any of your previous work, and how?

I was already familiar with Gaudí’s work, and have found his use of natural forms inspiring. For this project, I dove more into his life and practice and saw the depth of his understanding of the natural world. Another inspiring moment was visiting his first built works and seeing how much he evolved as an architect before reaching the visual language we associate with him today. 

Given Casa Batllo’s intricate facade, what special considerations were necessary when developing your visuals?

It was a very complex, challenging facade to work with. Not merely because it has a complex surface, but also due to the multitude of colors and the types of surfaces: shiny tiles, matte sandstone, timber, glass. I relied on simulating how the projection might behave on the surface using game engine technologies combined with a 3D scan of the facade. This proved essential to do the most justice to the facade’s intricate, wonderful nature.

What did you uncover about Gaudí’s creative methodologies during your research?

His act of not only drawing from the natural world as inspiration, but truly observing it, and then uncovering and using its processes for his approach to structural optimizations and formal language. His articulation of nature in his architecture was far more than aesthetic. I wanted to bring that living quality to what’s ultimately a static facade, even if I see motion in its form today.

What common ground did you discover between you and Gaudí?

A deep appreciation of the natural world and finding inspiration not only in natural forms, but also the behaviors and systems we can uncover all around us. 

What special considerations went into the music selection? What did your collaboration with Robert M. Thomas look like? How does the final audio evoke Gaudí’s life?

I wanted the sound to explore a parallel journey inspired by Gaudí’s work and life. Robert and I worked to fine-tune the concept so they’d work together. Thanks to his working with Cosmos Quartet and Juan de la Rubia, the piece came to life in a very special way, recorded at the Palau de la Música Catalana. The composition played alongside the mapping traces through Gaudí’s life, his victories, and tragedies, and the monumental legacy his work culminated in. 

If Gaudí were alive today, how do you think he’d incorporate AI into his practice? 

I’m not sure he would. He was a physical presence. Incorporating new understandings of the natural world that we’ve uncovered thanks to new technologies, on the other hand, seems more likely. 

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