Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Criticism of Subirachs’ carving is wholly misplaced. Gaudi made clear his desire for this facade to be “hard, bare and as if made of bone”, as Christ dies in the setting sun. And yet within this deeply heartfelt work there is great visual dexterity and even wit. The shroud that wrapped Christ is displayed, His image in it a concavity, a sculpted negative; the soldiers' helmets, reminiscent of warriors from a science fiction film, are actually designed after the chimney tops of Gaudi’s Casa Mila; a Roman eagle recalls fascist imagery in pre-war Italy.

The profusion of sculpture seemingly melted into (or out of) the Nativity façade, executed under Gaudi’s control and using the new technology of photography in its production, reflects a fascinating localism of place and time. The sculpture includes flora native to Catalonia, and figures whose faces were modelled from citizens of Barcelona. Temptation is represented by a demon handing a recognisably early twentieth century bomb to an anarchist. All of these sculptures were intended to be painted in bright colours and in this, as with the use of local faces, Gaudi was following clear mediaeval precedents but adapting them for a new millennium.

Enter the church, and the true character of Gaudi’s conception is revealed.

A cool, softly coloured cavern is flooded with subtle light and appears endless in every dimension. Barcelona is a city of stone and water, and the opposites of mass and movement that these represent are seen in the Sagrada Familia. Gaudi intended to conjure the effect of a stone forest, with dappled light night and day and colourful vaults of green and gold, and so daylight is delicately filtered through metal wire and glass inserted into perforations in the ceiling to wash down the stone columns.

How was this achieved?

Admiring of mediaeval Gothic cathedrals but seeking to improve on their mix of internal height and external light, Gaudi sought his own solution. The Gothic or pointed arch had itself been an improvement on the semi-circular Roman arch, permitting taller spaces, but it still required support from buttressed walls. The flying buttress transferred weight more delicately and dramatically to outer walls, freeing greater amounts of space for windows. This drove cathedral naves even higher, but Gaudi was still not satisfied.

He developed catenary and parabolic arches, the shapes respectively of a chain hanging between two points and a plane cutting through a cone, and employed both on his buildings. The latter in particular enabled great weight to be carried using the least material, and did not require buttressing. Walls could thus rise high and true and unsupported.

This was combined with equally innovative approaches to that most basic of architectural elements, the column.

Many architects would like to invent a new architectural order; Gaudi did. Utilising a system of exquisite proportion and geometry, often calculated empirically, he in fact created four new column styles, each of which displays a specific interrelation of plan, height and colour, this last also relating to its capacity. At the Sagrada Familia, some of the columns slant away from the vertical. Gaudi had tested the concept and properties of angled stone columns at Park Guell. The taller columns also divide, with for example one branch supporting the choir and the other continuing up to a nave vault and continuing again to the highest point of the inside space.

Thus one can see that just four twelve-sided columns of red porphyry ring the crossing; they are 24 metres high and will support 6,000 tonnes once the final, Jesus tower is built. The eight ten-sided columns around the transept are of purple basalt. Grey granite eight-sided columns line the central nave. Pale cream Montjuïc stone is employed for the lightest, six-sided columns of the side naves. The total height of each column type in metres is always double the number of points in its base. These bases twist into each other to become circles at their upper levels. There are in fact five levels of vault, each also based on proportions, reaching 15, 30, 45, 60 and 75 metres above the floor.

Clearly, Gaudi was a serious man with serious aims, yet there is a delight evident in much of his work that belies this and is visible even at the Sagrada Familia. Colour is bold where used, there are animalistic shapes and disparate materials, most notably his ‘trencadis’ tiling in which existing glass and ceramic ware – decorated tiles, wine bottles, even dinner services – is broken up and the pieces reassembled. Mosaic appears unexpectedly, inset in stone like a cameo brooch. Pious texts, often polychromed, grow out of the interior and exterior, like neon in stone. From the staircase winding up between the inner and outer walls of one of the bell towers, glimpses can be had through the open sides of the current works below. The vertexes of the central nave walls split to reveal fruit, including lemons, figs, apples and cherries, executed in brightly-coloured mosaic, and wheat sheaves, to represent the Eucharist. Pleasingly Gaudi’s first family name is derived from the Catalan verb ‘to enjoy’, and surely it is at least partly this joyfulness which attracts so many admirers today.

Between Nativity and Passion lies Glory. Gaudi’s designs for the final, Glory, façade, an analogue for the journey and story of Man, include clouds rendered in stone and sixteen stylised lanterns. A monumental staircase creates an underground passage beneath the Carrer Mallorca representing vice and Hell. The work is under way.

Mediaeval cathedrals were built with hand and horse power. The Sagrada Familia saw more modern methods employed. Gaudi experimented with reinforced concrete and this material remains in use; major columns have stone facings integrated into their construction as permanent shuttering during the concrete pour. The same technique is also used for the tower pinnacles, prefabricated off-site with trencadis set into their formwork so as to lie on the surface of the piece on completion. Smaller columns, usually in the upper levels, are wholly reinforced concrete components. Vaulting is also of concrete, produced through polyester, steel or wooden moulds as needed.

Gaudi would recognise much of the mechanical handling equipment now in use, though the project’s unique nature has driven its evolution. Invented by the church’s construction team, a tall thin hydraulic platform like a mechanised flower is used in conjunction with a crane to support and then place heavy but delicate pieces. A replicating device builds concrete spiral staircases economically, whilst batching plant makes concrete by the cubic metre for specific jobs with the ingredients mixed automatically.

Other technology, of course, would be quite alien to Gaudi. CAD/CAM computer programmes are now used to explore, design and generate the highly complex three-dimensional spatial anatomy of the church, often outputting directly to rapid-prototyping machines to produce plaster models and templates for use by the masons. Other stone is cut off-site by CNC machines, though perhaps Gaudi was aware that in Victorian England manufacturers were turning out machine-worked decorative mouldings by the yard.

Completion of the five central towers will change the perceived image of the cathedral utterly, from the upraised hand of the past century to something resembling a Russian Orthodox church. At 170 metres its central tower will make the Sagrada Familia the tallest religious building in the world, only one metre lower than the summit of Barcelona’s Montjuic hill.

Final completion of the Sagrada Familia is officially projected for 2026, the centenary of Gaudi’s death. Unofficially an earlier date is likely, due to improving technology and increased revenue streams. As a church funded entirely by donation and, nowadays, admission charges, the more people who visit, the more funds are available for further work and the faster that work gets done. And the more that is built, the more people come; construction has become a virtuous circle. The building is so admired that after years of lobbying, the process of beatification for Gaudi is underway.

Whenever it occurs, completion will mark the culmination of one man’s dream, his first and his last. The Sagrada Familia is the symbol of a city and the legacy of Antoni Gaudi, the heart of stone.

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The awe-inspiring interior of the Sagrada Família is the equal of any mediaeval cathedral but is the product of the twentieth and twenty first centuries

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