When Antoni Gaudí began working on his most ambitious work, La Sagrada Família, he told the world “My client is in no hurry.” The Catalan architect believed that God had all the time in the world, so there was no need to rush the completion of the breathtaking Basilica and Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family in Barcelona.
When the final stone is set in place, which is unlikely to be before 2026, the beautiful La Sagrada Família will be the world’s tallest church, soaring a massive 170m (560ft) above the Barcelona skyline. Given that construction began in 1882, it is clear that this is the work of not only a singular and devoutly religious architect, but several generations of dedicated professionals and enthusiasts.
During a weekend trip to Barcelona in October, my boyfriend Gerry and I decided to go and see the world famous building ourselves. No matter how many photographs and pictures you see of La Sagrada Família, nothing can fully prepare you for its magnificence. The church is built in the shape of a Latin Cross; it’s a massive gothic structure that dominates the space it occupies.
What I did notice from the structure and building of the church was that you can discover more about the life of Gaudi – what inspired his passion is, literally, engraved in the stone. You get the impression that he spent a lot of time alone; enjoying solitary walks from the small engraves and touches of butterflies and the Honeycomb Spires.
There is constantly a running video about his life playing through the building, presented in both Spanish and English.
All of this contributes to the fact that, when completed, it may possibly be the strangest looking place of worship ever built on such an epic scale. But it might also be considered the most controversial, as this hugely ambitious church has confounded architects, critics and historians ever since its unprecedented shape became apparent soon after the First World War.
There’s no denying that Gaudi had his critics. George Orwell called La Sagrada Família “one of the most hideous buildings in the world” and went on to say he rather hoped it would be destroyed during the Spanish Civil War. Salvador Dalí called it a “house of sea shapes”, stating it should be kept under a glass dome because of its “terrifying and edible beauty”.
However there are those who have sung its praises. Walter Gropius, master of right-angles architecture and founder of the Bauhaus, praised its technical perfection and the great American architect, Louis Sullivan described it as “spirit symbolised in stone.”
I think what Gaudí had done when he developed La Sagrada Família was establish a form of radical architecture that, in many ways, was far ahead of its time.
That is why I believe that those who oppose against La Sagrada Família do so largely because they simply refuse to see beyond richly decorated and apparently arbitrary forms. But when you go deeper than that, you see that this mind-bending building proves to be a tour-de-force of highly sophisticated mathematics and advanced structural engineering.
Anyone paying attention can see that Gaudí based his designs on the complex forms we know today as helicoids, hyperboloids and hyperbolic paraboloids. These are forms abstracted from nature and then translated into the design of the columns, vaults and intersecting geometric elements of the structure of the Sagrada Família. As Gaudí said himself, everything he designed “comes from the Great Book of Nature”.
Not only is the structure and development of the church amazing, but the story of La Sagrada Família embedded in the history of Barcelona is equally as impressive.
Catalan anarchists assaulted La Sagrada Família during the Spanish Civil War, and in the process destroyed almost all of the few models and sketches there were crafted by Gaudí’s hand. They did, however, leave the architect’s tomb intact. Whatever their grudge against General Franco and the Catholic Church, they knew that people of all classes and political beliefs considered Gaudí a saint.
Destroying Gaudí’s tomb would have been going a step too far. Thousands of people lined the streets for his funeral back in 1926. On June 7th, Gaudí had been struck down by a tram at the intersection of Barcelona’s Carrer de Bailén and the Gran Via. After taxi drivers refused to take him to a city hospital – mistaking him for a beggar – local people took him to the pauper’s hospital.
Once he was found, ragged and paper thin, the old man refused to be moved. “My place is here”, he said. He has since been in the church he spent most of his life on. The place that belongs nowhere more than Gaudí’s heart.
In today’s society, it can be difficult to understand how deep the religious feeling that had given rise to the church went. It wasn’t just simply designed to be a house of God; it was so much more than that.
The idea had originally came to a printer of religious books, Josep Maria Bocabella, after he visited Italy and saw the Shrine of Loreto – the church housing which is said to be the house in which Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Bocabella founded the Associació de Devots de Sant Josep which bought the land for the Sagrada Família and paid for the work.
If faith could move mountains, it could build Gaudí’s basilica.
Once complete, La Sagrada Família will have no fewer than 18 spires – eight have been built so far. Christ’s apostles will be represented by 12 of them, four for the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, one for the Blessed Virgin Mary and the tallest for Christ.
The fact that it started being built such a long time ago and there is still as much passion and enthusiasm from those building it today is astounding. How many other buildings in the world can you say have this much passion and respect?
What both Gerry and I found interesting was that from one side, the building almost looks complete with the exception of missing spires. However the back of the building looks like it hasn’t been touched for years. This in itself makes the building look like a standing time lapse showing just how far they’ve came, but also how much farther they still have to go.
This utterly brilliant feat of imaginative construction has inspired designs by some of the world’s finest architects and engineers over the past century. Not only has it haunted the imagination of those in the past, but will continue to do so for generations to come.