Sagrada Familia nave roof detail. By SBA73 from Sabadell, Catalunya - via Wikimedia Commons
George Orwell thought La Sagrada Familia “one of the most hideous buildings in the world” and regretted that the Anarchists, with whom he fought in the Spanish Civil War, didn’t blow it up when they had the chance, as they did so many other churches. Mind you, that was in 1936 when only the Nativity facade had been completed. Still, it was the template of what has come to be regarded as one of the marvels of the modern world. Still taking shape in the middle of Barcelona, it is a Unesco World Heritage site, attracting about three million visitors a year.
Its long-dead chief architect, Antoni Gaudí i Cornet, is regarded with awe by many contemporary architects and engineers, while some Catholics are promoting the man dubbed “the Architect of God” as a candidate for sainthood.
Earlier this month around 300 experts and followers gathered in the Catalonian capital for the First Gaudi World Congress, convened with the centennial of his death, 2026, and the completion of construction the same year, in view. Six more biennial congresses will take place before then to distill what has been learned over the years from the Catalan genius.
Even those who do not like Gaudi’s work must admit that his expiatory temple is a work of extraordinary vision and daring. Based on nature’s geometric forms, its burgeoning “frosted” towers, delicately sculpted facades depicting the birth, passion and (still to come) glory of Christ, its slender interior columns that soar and branch like forest trees, and the double roof that captures and reflects light onto this “canopy” – all this and more richly deserves the description, "Barcelona's Natural Wonder”, that National Geographic gave it in a wonderfully helpful feature in 2010. (Do a virtual tour of the interior here.)
“In this First Gaudí World Congress we want to show the world the method Gaudí used for his works,” Jose Manuel Almuzara, an architect and member of the scientific committee of the congress, told MercatorNet. “It can be the occasion when we will finally get all our efforts together. The efforts of those who like Gaudí or those who learn from Gaudí.”
Few people would know better what can be learned from Gaudi than the project’s chief sculptor, Etsuro Sotoo, who came to Barcelona from Japan in 1978, discovered Sagrada Familia, stayed to work on it and eventually adopted Gaudi’s Catholic faith. He says:
I came to Europe in search of stone, I wanted to touch it, chop it, and through it I should find something else. Stone brought me to Europe, Europe brought me to the Sagrada Familia, and the Sagrada Familia, over time, has presented me to Gaudí. Now Gaudí is presenting me with something else, my journey continues forward.
His message to the congress was to look not so much at Gaudi but “where Gaudi looked,” to “search through Gaudí, reach beyond, learn more about the essence of humanity in Gaudí, something that we still do not know.” In his view European architecture in general has “not evolved at all” over recent centuries. “Gaudí was in the future before us … that is where we all have to go.”
Work as collaboration
If we follow Gaudi’s gaze, it takes in both nature and nature’s God, the Christian God. Almuzara, who is also chairman of the Association for the Beatification of Gaudi, notes that the great architect saw himself as a collaborator in the work of God:
He considers himself to be a collaborator, not a creator, a genius, as Creation is the work of God only. He plunges into the study of nature and the laws of nature; he analyzes it and applies its laws to his architecture. He just contributes, and he feels he is fortunate to be able to do that. He possesses virtues and talents which he acknowledges with a rightful humility, as a good servant of God.
Gaudi also looked to his workers, as collaborators, looked after their families and built schools for the children, says Almuzara:
Gaudi practices his belief that work is a fruit of a collaboration: and this collaboration must be a fruit of love. The chief architect must know the qualities each of his workers possess. The important thing is to be able to discover what each one is especially made for, as there is nobody who is useless.
As a natural consequence, if Jack is taller than Joe he would certainly be more useful for certain tasks, that particular man would be happier by putting into use his personal resources, his skills and personality for that specific job and the overall work would have a more fortunate outcome.
Thus we are not surprised to see that he pays an homage to his workers in the Sagrada Familia, in a place that will remain unnoticed, between the cloister and the side wings of the church. He creates a few patios in whose keystones in the arches he embeds a kind of inverted isosceles triangle. Below each one he places the tools specific to each one of his workers. He is telling us by doing this that they were essential for the success of the work and nothing would have been done without them.
This sort of attention to people inspired Peruvian architect Lorena Nolte to attend the congress. She told us: “Professionally I want to discover better ways to relate the shapes in nature and the rattan I work upon; this way I will be able to serve better. To serve people, for example, designing good housing environments for them.”
Sacrifice and tribulation
Revolutionaries did some damage back in 1936: they set fire to the crypt, schools and Gaudi's workshop, destroying some of his scale models, but others have repaired, interpreted and built in the same spirit as the master, even if the results are not exactly what he envisioned. Not that it would have worried him. He once said:
There is no reason to regret that I cannot finish the church. I will grow old but others will come after me. What must always be conserved is the spirit of the work, but its life has to depend on the generations it is handed down to and with whom it lives and is incarnated.
What would have been his response, one wonders, to the city authorities who have insisted, in the face of protests from around the world and from Unesco, on routing a high-speed underground railway close to the foundations the delicately balanced basilica. Perhaps chief architect emeritus, Jordi Bonet, interpreted the master best when he told the New York Times in 2007:
Gaudi said that everything is providential. This is the Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family, and by expiatory we mean that everything is achieved through sacrifice and tribulation.
Since then a brisk pace has been maintained. The basilica was consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 and last year the Sagrada Família Foundation named 2026 as the completion date. At the same time it released a fascinating video animation of how the remaining work will go.
The Sagrada Familia and Europe: two cathedrals
For a Europe in the doldrums, this goal is also an act of faith in the European project, suggests Walter Cortellari, an Italian architect attending the congress who organised a Gaudi symposium in his country last year. Taking up an idea of Almuzara’s, he notes that a united Europe also forms a “cathedral”. Sagrada Familia and the Cathedral of Europe are both “utopian” projects but one has been accomplished and the other soon will be:
The analogy of the construction of the Expiatory Temple of Sagrada Família and the construction of Europe is shown first in the fact that both endeavours share a great difficulty because of the great many resources needed; they also have in common the wealth of effort, enthusiasm and faith put into them by great men, together with their desire and hope in all areas against the syndromes of indifference, scepticism and lack of hope. And the attitude of these men has the power to change the people who contemplate their work, including myself, Walter.
He points out the significance of the basilica’s dedication to the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph: “It calls us to re-discover the tremendous value of the family.” Europe could certainly benefit from that.
For himself, discovering Gaudi’s materpiece was transformative:
When I discovered the Sagrada Familia, something changed in my inner self. I then started enjoying my job in a different way as an architect and as a professor. Suddenly I found that I had changed the way in which I perform these two activities.
My passion has been unfolded and has doubled as I have listened to these people [at the congress] talk about their personal encounter with the thought of Gaudi. I am yearning to make it my own and somehow possess this treasure, I am eager to go through this life-changing experience myself.
Like Esturo Sotto he wants to look where Gaudi looked.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNert. Jordi Picazo, a freelance journalist living in Barcelona, contributed the interviews quoted in this article.
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