Looking out my office window I can see Salt Lake rising. Just across the street, construction continues on a block of apartments. Beyond the unfinished buildings I can see row upon row of recently finished structures. All these new buildings, out my window and across the city, have some things in common:

They are built on right angles. And they are all shades of gray. The views from my window used to be of mountains, beautiful in any season.

And I wonder. Why do we have to construct our city with so little imagination? Where’s the color that we appreciate so much in our natural surroundings? Where are the organic shapes that echo our own humanity? Is it that much cheaper to build ugly buildings? Wouldn’t it be better—and worth the money—to build beauty in which to live our lives?

Cozy street in Barcelona, Spain

Some of my wondering comes from my recent visit to Barcelona. This Catalan city on Spain’s coast is most famous as the home of Antoni Gaudi, one of the world’s greatest and most eccentric architects. Seven of his buildings are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites—unique and unlike anything anywhere else. Generally, Gaudi’s work is regarded as a harbinger of Modernism, examples of the flowing natural curves of Art Nouveau.

But Gaudi’s buildings are more than that—they are a personal vision, unusual in modern buildings. Enter his most famous building, the unfinished (construction started in 1862 and it’s still being worked on) Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Sagrada Familia, and you feel the soaring immensity and striving for the divine that characterized Gothic cathedrals and is so conspicuously absent in modern churches, particularly in the cookie-cutter design of most LDS wardhouses—but present in the fantastical Salt Lake Temple. Other Gaudi spaces—the undulating Casa Mila La Pedrera with its mesmerizing aquamarine tiling and the delightful Park Guell, its rambling gardens, mosaic walls and whimsical sculptures making the whole feel like an artist-designed Disneyland—infuse Barcelona with a sense of whimsy rare in American cities.

Barcelona is a city that makes you smile.

Barcelona is a walking city. La Rambla, a wide tree-lined parkway, stretching almost a mile, from Placa de Catalunya to the Statue of Christopher Columbus near the harbor, sets the tone. You amble, you don’t rush, taking in the kiosks, the buskers and the markets as you go. No hurry. Barcelona inspires you to live in the moment—eat when you feel like it at one of the tapas bars that line every street. At Quimet & Quimet, in business for a century, with standing room only, we snacked on peaches topped with anchovies, salmon with truffled honey washed down with cava, which flows like water in every tapas place. Take your friends’ or cab drivers’ advice or just walk in the most appetizing looking door—it’s very hard to go wrong with food in Barcelona.

However, the heart of Barcelona’s stomach is unquestionably Mercat de la Boqueria, a crowded street market off La Rambla with stalls selling jamon Iberico, jamon Serrrano, jamon you’ve never heard of, plus cured meats of every kind and fresh meats from every part of every kind of animal: tripe, skinned rabbits, testicles, kidneys. Plus local Catalan cheese, bread and pastry and mounds of beautiful produce. You’ll wish for a kitchen in your hotel room.

hamon on counter at spanish market

And, by the way, Barcelona, though full of lovely hotels, also offers many AirBnB listings; we opted for a tiny but very inexpensive set of rooms in the Barri Gothic, one of the oldest parts of the city, with streets so narrow the taverna crowds spilled out in the street and we had to walk a block to meet our Uber driver. No way you could U-turn a team of oxen here. 

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