Famously “unfinished”, Antoni Gaudi’s Temple Expiatori Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is a modern masterpiece in the making.
Work on the Sagrada Familia began in 1882, and it is now almost a century, and since Gaudi’s death in 1926, but this spectacular temple is not projected to be finished until 2030 (and that barring any unforeseen catastrophes, which have occasionally been known to plague the project); yet this stately timeline speaks less of any constructional fecklessness than of the sheer scale of the undertaking. La Sagrada Familia, when finished, will be something akin to a modern-day Chartres. From that perspective, 150 years in the making is more than reasonable.
Architect Antoni Gaudi
Architect Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) is known for his utterly singular, perhaps somewhat eccentric, brand of modern architecture. Gaudi took the stylistic sensibilities of Art Nouveau, the virtuoso workmanship of the Arts and Crafts movement, and the exciting technical innovations of late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and melded them with a distinctive Catalan flavour into his unique vision. Though often associated with the Modernisme school of such Barcelona architects as Puig i Cadafalch and Domenech i Montaner, Gaudi truly stands alone.
Though not as startlingly sensational as that of colleague Frank Lloyd Wright, Gaudi’s life was not uneventful. Something of a sybaritic dandy in his younger years, Gaudi became a staunch Catalan nationalist, and was arrested in 1924 for refusing to speak Spanish to a policeman on Diada des Catalanes, the day marking the Spanish conquest of Catalunya in 1714.
It was during his work on the Sagrada Familia, however, that Gaudi became seized with an even more fervent passion: planning the monumental cathedral apparently inspired within him a deep religiosity. He moved into his workshop on the Sagrada Familia site and stopped working on other projects, devoting himself entirely to the temple meant, in his words, to expiate the world’s sins. When he was run over by a streetcar in 1926 (the accident which eventually killed him), passersby mistook him for a tramp and took him to a pauper’s hospital. Pleased with the mistake, Gaudi refused to be moved by his friends, and died there a few days later, happy with the trappings of poverty.
La Sagrada Familia
The life of the building itself has not been immune to incident. Gaudi first became involved in planning for the Sagrada Familia in 1883, and work continued uninterrupted under associates after his death. With the onset of the Spanish Civil War, the building site was targeted by anti-Church revolutionaries, who torched the building and destroyed many of Gaudi’s elaborate models.
The models have been painstakingly pieced back together over the years with the help of plans, photographs and (latterly) intricate forensics. One of the unique pleasures of visiting the Sagrada Familia is the ability actually to watch not only the workmen constructing the building, but also the teams of gifted sculptors recreating models in the workroom beneath the nave, part of the Sagrada Familia Museum in the basement.
Gaudi and Naturalism
It is the sculptural quality of the Sagrada Familia that is most striking, a quality both dictated by and complementary to the architect’s tremendous affinity for organic forms. While Gaudi was more than comfortable with the technical innovations of the modern age, he eschewed the strict geometric, even mechanical, aesthetic of much of modernist design, favouring a deeply naturalistic approach. This naturalism, while also archetypically evident particularly in his designs for Park Guell and La Pedrera, reaches dizzying heights in the Sagrada Familia, reflecting as it does a humble yet glorified respect for the natural world as God’s creation.
Yet the almost outrageous emphasis on sculptural, organic form belies the intensely complex geometry of the building design. In addition to the museum, the site houses a schoolhouse designed and built by Gaudi for the education of the original on-site workmen’s children, which now displays architectural plans, figures and computer-generated models demonstrating the engineering complexities of the design.
In marrying this structural elegance and sophistication with a trademark exuberance, the Sagrada Familia perfectly encapsulates the spirit of Gaudi.