Gaudi's Folly: La Sagrada Familia and the Face of Barcelona

Above: Antoni Gaudi, the architect that helped give Barcelona its distinctive skyline.

Many elements have come together to make Barcelona, Spain, one of the most utterly unique cities in the world. Part of its uniqueness comes from the Catalonian culture, with its own dialect and an almost nationalistic spirit. Part stems from his ancient history as a Roman outpost founded by Hannibal’s father, absorbed into the Kingdom of Aragon and dominated by hostile forces many times over the centuries. The city is one of Europe’s industrial and financial powerhouses. But, perhaps more than anything, Barcelona is notable for the innovative, often downright bizarre creations of one lone architect. One could say that no single structure summarizes the character of Barcelona more than the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família: the Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family.

Above: La Sagrada Familia, under construction for 127 years and counting.

Antoni Gaudi, the creator of La Sagrada Familia, was born in a village of southern Catalonia on June 25, 1852. His family had a long history of coppersmithing on both sides, so it was logical that Gaudi would take up some sort of artistic pursuit. As a child he frequently battled bouts of rheumatic fever, remedied by sitting outside and breathing in fresh air while admiring God’s natural creations. Young Antoni’s appreciation for nature and its forms colored his artistic sensibilities, right up through his development as an architect. In 1873 he enrolled at Escola Tècnica Superior d'Arquitectura, where his instructors did not know quite what to make of his creations. Reluctantly they issued him the formal title of Architect in 1877, although one of his professors quipped, “Who knows if we have given this diploma to a nut or to a genius. Time will tell.”

Gaudi’s first professional jobs were fairly simple: some lampposts for a pavilion here, a showcase for a glovemaker there. Then, in 1883, he received a commission to design a home for Manuel Vicens, a local industrialist who operated brick and tile factories. It was a grand opportunity for Gaudi to strut his stuff, and he achieved more than expected. The Casa Vicens is an enormous structure of four stories and 12,500 square feet, made of rough stone and bricks with staggering checkerboards of tilework. Gables and towers, topped with Moorish domes and arches, jut out from the building at odd heights and angles. It was a strange but auspicious debut for the young architect, getting people’s attention without going too far overboard (yet).

Above: Casa Vicens, Gaudi’s first major architectural achievement.

Gaudi found his key patron in Count Eusebi Guell, another industrialist who saw a lot of potential in the young man (although he once told Gaudi, “I don’t like your architecture, I respect it.”) Guell contracted the architect to build some stables and an entry pavilion at the businessman’s palatial compound. Inspired, Guell began to envision something along the lines of what would today be a contemporary gated community. In this case, however, the concept was more of a utopian community for the rich. Unfortunately, Gaudi’s work was not as popular among Barcelona’s wealthy as either man would have liked. Little was done for the project, aside from two houses and a crypt. The two men continued to work together, with Gaudi building the strange Palau Guell as a new residence for the eccentric businessman. The palace was freakish even by today’s standards, surmounted by bright, twisting, bulbous chimneys and wavy rooflines.

Above: the roof of the Palau Guell, with Gaudi’s multicolored spires, rough pebbled towers, and extensive brickwork.

Similar in spirit is Casa Batllo, a home built in 1877 that Gaudi and Josep Maria Jujol remodeled and redesigned from 1905 to 1907. The new façade, inspired by the story of St. George and the Dragon, carries images of the tale including a turret and cross that represent the sword plunged into the dragon. The roofline of the building undulates like a dragon’s spine, and the façade is covered in broken mosaic tiles ranging from green to orange. There are very few straight lines visible on the entire surface of the building, the windows are mostly framed in warped ovals, and the very stonework is sculpted into splashes, drips and tapers.

Above: the façade of Casa Batllo.

In 1882 Gaudi’s religious convictions began to weigh heavily upon his heart. He felt led to build a new monument to God’s glory, one that would be completely unique in the world but reflect the creativity of the Creator. Gaudi began designing La Sagrada Familia as an enormous cathedral with eighteen towers: one each for Mary, Jesus, the twelve apostles, and the four Evangelists of the church. The design includes myriad features out of Christian symbolism, with sheaves of wheat and bunches of grapes to indicate the Eucharist, inscribed words from the liturgy, the traditional symbols of the Gospel writers, and primitive-looking scenes of the Nativity and Passion of Christ. He even put much thought and prayer into the height of the towers; the one representing Jesus will, with its finishing cross on top, measure one meter less than the nearby hill Montjuic because Gaudi did not want his creation to surpass God’s in height.

Above: the eastern façade of La Sagrada Familia, representing the Nativity.

The whole structure of La Sagrada Familia somewhat resembles a melting wax model. Sections of stone seem to ooze like mud from the towers and walls of the cathedral. The spavined arches of the entryway are held up by columns like thighbones and angled as if they will collapse any moment, though they are structurally very sound. The towers, tapered like elegant candles, are perforated with long columns of small windows, and the still-glassless rose windows give an eerie, lacelike effect. It is simply one of the most remarkable architectural achievements in history. Once considered Gaudi’s folly, the church defines the skyline of Barcelona, and much of the Catalonian character.

Since Gaudi’s death in 1926, additional designers have had their say in furthering the work on the church. Josip Maria Subirachs’ design for the Passion Façade reflects some elements of Cubism, a style that departed from Gaudi’s Art Nouveau emphasis and stands out distinctly. As time goes on, La Sagrada Familia continues to develop as a unique landmark of religious architecture and Catalonian creativity. Though work isn’t expected to be completed until 2026, the centennial of Gaudi’s death, part of La Sagrada Familia is expected to be opened for church services by September 2010.

Above: Subirachs’ Cubist-inspired design for the Passion Façade.

Above: A graphic artist’s fanciful interpretation of what the Sagrada Familia might be like when it is finally completed, sometime around 2026.

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