For all its daring formal and structural pyrotechnics, Gaudí’s Sagrada Família has become a kind of circus attraction in which it is now almost impossible to detect the hand of its original creator
Barcelona’s standing as a world tourist destination relies heavily on Antoni Gaudí’s Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family, or Sagrada Família − the temple is the most popular tourist attraction in the city, with over two million visits a year. Gaudí left the church largely unfinished at his death in 1926. For most of its existence it has been known for the striking north-eastern Nativity Facade with its four eccentric spires, the only element designed by Gaudí and largely completed in his lifetime. (The crypt and exterior wall of the apse follow a previous Neo-Gothic design.)
Work on the church, a private project initially financed by donations from the faithful, continued fitfully in the decades following Gaudí’s death − the towers of the second, south-western Passion Facade were completed in 1976. But under the direction of the current chief architect, Jordi Bonet, who was appointed in 1984, the pace of construction has accelerated, fuelled by soaring tourist revenues, as well as the introduction of computer technology for milling stone. Pope Benedict XVI consecrated the completed nave in 2010, and work is advancing on the main south-western Glory Facade and the spires of the crossing and apse, which will be crowned by a central cross 170 metres above the street. The Archdiocese of Barcelona has set the year 2026, on the centennial of Gaudí’s death, as a goal for completing the building.
The completed nave and the work currently under way are radically transforming the canonical image of the Sagrada Família as based on the Nativity Portal. The decision to complete the work has provoked controversy and opposition ever since construction resumed after the Spanish Civil War. Critics question the legitimacy of any attempt to follow Gaudí’s vision, particularly as all his original drawings and plans were burned, and his plaster models smashed, presumably in a planned attack by an anti-clerical anarchist militia at the outbreak of the Civil War. How much of the new construction then is actually designed by Gaudí? And what are we to make of this strange new intruder on the Barcelona urban scene?
For Jordi Bonet, spry and lucid despite his 87 years, the legitimacy of his work derives from a decades-long reconstruction of Gaudí’s design intent from surviving evidence, and from the fact that Gaudí was conscious that he would not live long enough to see the temple completed, and planned the work accordingly.
Gaudí’s collaborators, including Bonet’s father, the architect Lluís Bonet, managed to rescue pieces of the models and intact original moulds in 1936. Bonet maintains that the original design has been pieced together in a process of forensic investigation based on these fragments, together with photographs of drawings and models, published plans and descriptions, and other documents from Gaudí’s lifetime, including written testimony from collaborators and disciples. In designing the nave, for example, Bonet relied on a contemporary photograph of Gaudí’s 1:10 model for the space. Their resemblance is undeniable.
But most importantly, according to Bonet, Gaudí did not base the future development of the design exclusively on plans and drawings. ‘He was sure it was impossible for him to finish the project. So he left everything completely resolved in a few geometric laws that I will now explain to you.’ Bonet proceeds to demonstrate how all the dimensions of the design are based on proportional divisions of 12, from the span of the main nave and transepts to the diameters of the elliptical medallions on the capitals of the piers. He also explains how all the forms are developed from the transformation of basic geometric figures without discontinuities, as Gaudí found in nature. For example, the base of each pier in the nave has a different polygonal shape. As the pier rises, it shifts through different sections, each time with more vertices, until it becomes circular at its head.
The transformations occur at proportionally shorter intervals as the shaft rises, following a ‘double helix’ that Gaudí developed from the Solomonic column, according to Bonet. Similarly, Gaudí used hyperboloids for vaults and window openings, most spectacularly in the ‘transparencies’ that pierce the vaults of the nave. He used paraboloids to connect successive vaults, and ellipsoids for the capitals of the piers. In short, Bonet’s argument is that Gaudí’s project was not a closed design but rather a template for an ongoing project lasting generations, a strategy that leaves the door open to interpretations, interpolations, modern building techniques, etc. And what we get, accordingly, is Gaudí and not Gaudí at the same time.
Bonet and his predecessors may have captured the geometries of Gaudí’s design, but the fervid textures of his overworked surfaces, and his vital fusion of structural logic, formal serendipity and an original sense for materials and craft (early-20th-century craft at that) are completely lost. Take in the mad profusion of sculpture and fussy surfaces of the lower parts of the Nativity Portal, for example, which are liquid, lumpy and dark like a poured sandcastle (and quite scatological as Catalan art tends to be, from Joan Miró to Antoni Tàpies, revelling in the plastic richness of mud). And now turn to the raw concrete porch of the Passion Facade on the opposite side, with its awkwardly angled piers and architraves.
There may be a Gaudí drawing that traces these exact forms, but my bet is that the eccentric master of Reus wouldn’t have left the matter there. The best thing about the Passion Facade are the oversized, gaunt sculptures by Josep Subirachs, controversial in their time but undeniably characterful.
For the elevations of the main nave, the architects switch from the dark Montserrat stone of the spires to a featureless white stone, and develop the bays in a conventional Neo-Gothic arrangement of lights, roses and gables that Gaudí would surely have taken somewhere else. Here one of Gaudí’s most important innovations on the Gothic, the elimination of the flying buttress through the use of narrow parabolic vaults, goes completely unacknowledged.
The lack of texture and sense of material and craft, and the schematic development of form, continue in the dramatic space of the nave, an entirely post-Gaudían creation. The piers, which soar 45 metres into the vaults, split into smaller branches at their tops, reminding us of the lessons contemporary architects have drawn from Gaudí, such as the split columns of Richard Rogers and Estudio Lamela’s Terminal 4 at Barajas Airport in Madrid (AR July 2006). But though rendered in a host of exotic stones, their brute, smooth surfaces resemble nothing more suggestive than stalks of celery.
In general, the underdeveloped details, the sawtooth outlines of vault edges and the flower blossoms and inverse barnacles of the vaults are pure kitsch − not to mention the suspended crucified Christ that parachutes down from the crossing under a suspended canopy, a barely-perceptible version of which Bonet pointed out to me in a period sectional drawing. Where Gaudí had nothing to say, such as in the terrazzo flooring, the altar, railings, stained glass and other details, the architects and their artists have little to offer either.
Apart from his brilliant architecture, Gaudí himself is a curious character, a product of that provincial, Wagnerian cultural nationalism that also gave us the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, his contemporary. By the time of Gaudí’s death, the Moderniste style he had helped to invent was long out of favour, replaced by the tame, classical spirit of Noucentisme. Through his father Lluís, Jordi Bonet is a direct descendant of this outdated, Catholic, Catalan nationalism − he talks about the sacking of the Gaudí studio as if it had happened yesterday.
Tourist dollars have allowed this eccentric project to go forward, converting it, like many religious sites, into a kind of circus attraction. The new Sagrada Família is no better or worse than a kitschy mosque in Qatar or a kitschy Mormon temple in Washington, DC. But for us architects, sadly, it is not quite Gaudí.
Architect: Antoni Gaudí
Executive architect: Jordi Bonet
Photographs: Rafael Vargas and Pep Daudé
The original cover on Sagrada Familia from June 1930 by Evelyn Waugh