Monday, 10 June 2013

Preview: Sagrada Familia

On the 7th June 1926, a shabbily-dressed man in his 70s was walking very purposefully through the streets of Barcelona. To all outward appearances he looked like a tramp - scraggy-bearded, dishevelled, half-starved, his worn and loose-fitting clothes hanging off him. Observant locals would have been familiar with this apparent tramp marching the same route almost daily, preoccupied and seemingly oblivious to what was around him. This included the trams, notorious for recklessly careering their way through the city. Back then, it was not uncommon for trams to push their way through crowds of people, and the brakes of a tram were never something to rely upon. Bloody-minded, the tramp felt that pedestrians should have priority over trams and cars; the driver of No. 30 on this day was reading a different script. The exact version of events is unclear, but it seems that, unaware, the man stepped out in front of a tram, which struck him. The tram stopped and the driver pushed the obviously injured old man to the side - then drove on! A bleeding, concussed tramp by the side of the road, most people walked on by, but two women came to his aid. His injuries were clearly serious; they called a taxi and he was taken to a hospital, with fractured ribs and cerebral bruising. His underwear was held together with safety pins - the nurses assumed he was just another beggar and put him in bed 19 of a public ward.

Within a couple of days, visitors started flocking to his bedside. They had found him! On 10th June, he died and two days later hundreds of thousands gathered to pay their respects in what was virtually a state funeral to one of the greatest architects Barcelona and the world has ever known. Antoni Gaudi, the eccentric but visionary architect behind many of Barcelona's greatest buildings was dead at the age of 73, with his masterpiece unfinished. Almost a century on, Barcelona's most celebrated building by its most celebrated architect remains unfinished: the Sagrada Familia.

Imagine taking a Gothic cathedral, melting it into a thick gloop, then dripping it back down to earth in big lumps. That's kind of the Sagrada Familia - a church, but unlike one you've ever seen before. It's not a cathedral - Barcelona already has one - but a minor basilica, which is basically an important church as recognised by the Vatican. The Sagrada Familia is less a construction built from stone blocks, more something that has seemingly grown from the ground, like a living creature. Call it magnificent, call it monstrous, call it exquisite, call it just plain ugly; it's a building that can divide opinion, but the one thing everyone can agree on is that's unique. Gaudi built something that looks like nothing else on earth.

Its origins are more conventional, and more Gothic. Back in the 1860s, a book dealer called Josep Maria Bocabella decided he wanted to build a church in honour of the Holy Family (Sagrada Familia), which is the family unit of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, as worshipped by the Catholic Church. He set up an organisation to oversee this. A location in the newly emerging Eixample district, then on the outskirts of Barcelona, was selected, with the church to take up a whole block of land. An architect called Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano drew up plans free of charge, and by 1882 the first stone had been laid. It was to be a Gothic church, and the intention was for it to be complete, or at least ready for Mass, within ten years. 130 years later, it seems this didn't exactly go to plan.

Quickly, the relationship between Villar and the church council broke down over a difference of opinion on technical design that ultimately boiled down to funding. Villar was out the door by early 1883. A new architect and director of works was required - and Gaudi was the choice. The legend is that Bocabella chose him after seeing his face in a dream, then a few days later meeting him in a friend's office. The reality is probably more mundance - Gaudi was cheap. He was only 31 years old, with a good reputation but without much experience. He ticked the right boxes - a good Catholic, Catalonian, and he knew the right people. Gaudi had been taught by Villar at architectural school, and Bocabella may have thought he was getting more of the same, at a cut price. It was a tremendously lucky break for the young, untested Gaudi. By late November 1883, he'd started work, officially being named the director of works in March 1884.

If a speedily built Gothic church was still Bocabella's plan, he chose the wrong person. As Gaudi later said, God was his main patron and had all the time in the world. Chartres and Seville cathedrals had taken centuries; Gaudi felt no particular rush. By 1891, the crypt started by Villar was finished, but any hopes of a pre-1900 finish for the entire building soon disappeared. This was not all Gaudi's fault, although his wildly ambitious designs must have made clear that it was not a short-term project. In 1892, Bocabella died. His son-in-law took over but died just month later, then Bocabella's wife took over - and she too died months later. Eventually, it became the Bishop of Barcelona's responsibility. This, compounded by funding problems, meant the beginning of never-ending delays. Gaudi wasn't bothered. Up until 1915, he occupied himself with loads of other commissions, usually private, and built up his reputation as Barcelona's definitive architect, with notable constructions such as the Casa Mila, Casa Battllo, and Parc Guell, among others.

From 1915 though, up until his death, he devoted his time to the Sagrada Familia. A ferociously single-minded, impatient, illiberal, short-tempered, pessimistic man who became increasingly devout and hermit-like as the years progressed, his genius nonetheless shone through and he became something of a living legend. As the eastern facade arose, Barcelona became aware that something special was appearing, whether it was to their taste or not. The eastern facade, or Nativity Facade, is an explosion of life and happiness in monumental form; a celebration of the birth of Christ, and packed with images of new life, such as birds seemingly emerging from the stone. It was finished in 1930, four years after Gaudi's death and after 36 years of work. It remains the Sagrada Familia's defining image. It looks like nothing else, a surreal, action-packed mix of animals and religious imagery jostling for space in the facade, crowned with four spindly towers reaching 107 metres high.

Progress was always slow, and after Gaudi's death things just got slower. The Spanish Civil War halted work, and parts of the church was damaged during it. Worst of all, Gaudi's workshop, with many of his models and designs, was destroyed by anarchists during the war and many of his flourishes and unique touches lost forever. And work goes on today, 87 years after Gaudi died and 131 years after the project was started. The western Passion Facade is now complete as is the interior. The remainder is expected to be finished before 2030, with the central spire to reach 170 metres high - making the Sagrada Familia the highest chuch in the world.

The Sagrada Familia is a divisive building, the marmite of the world of Wonders. George Orwell called it "one of the most hideous buildings in the world. It has four crenellated spires exactly the shape of hock bottles,” and "I think the anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance."  Picasso wasn't a fan of it it or Gaudi, once saying “If you see Opisso [an artist friend of Gaudi's] – tell him to send Gaudi and the Sagrada Familia to hell”. But the artist/architect Hermann Finsterlin made comparisons to the Taj Mahal and wrote: “The Sagrada Familia is for me one of the building-wonders of the world.” What do I think? From just seeing photos, it's difficult to comprehend, but I've been lucky enough to have seen it already, during a short holiday to Barcelona a couple of years ago. After arriving at Girona airport about an hour's drive away, we took a bus into the city centre. On the bus, all of a sudden, there was a rumble of excitement. From the right-hand side, the Sagrada Familia appeared in sight, far in the distance, just briefly. The bus was buzzing; everyone kept their eyes on the window, and we were rewarded with further glimpes of the massive, crazy church. As far as reactions go, I doubt the Eiffel Tower or the Pyramids of Giza would have elicited more excitement. The Sagrada Familia was clearly a showstopper. It's not just a building to command respect, or appreciation - it demands a reaction. It's an exciting, different, strange construction, that has all the qualities of a Wonder of the World.

And, of course, it is unfinished. And next year I'll see just how unfinished it still is. Can an unfinished building be a Wonder? Yes, in theory, I think so. It was in pretty good shape when I saw it two years ago, and so when I see it next year I'll judge for myself. And as ever, I'll provide a fuller account of it and its history here, as well as my own impressions.


  1. This building is probably number 1 on my list of things to see one day. I think that one thing that makes it a very good candidate for a Wonder is that it is simply completely different from anything else that exists anywhere. Does that kind of architectural style even have a name?

    On a (ever so slightly) related note I don't know if you've heard of the lone eccentric building his own Cathedral, also in Spain? Look up Justo Gallego Martínez.

    1. That Martinez guy looks fascinating. His church definitely looks like it's worth a visit when I go to Spain. It reminds me a little of the underground Damanhur temples/caves -, which were mostly done by just one guy.

      I heartily recommend the Sagrada Familia, and Barcelona in general. Gaudi's buildings are a pleasure to look at.

      Incidentally, I've got a couple more Cracked articles on the way, probably in around a month.

  2. Thanks, that's very interesting about the caves. That's certainly up Cracked's street! Looking forward to your articles, I go on their site every day so am sure to see them when they appear. As we are on the subject of lone eccentrics building impressive structures, there is also the Facteur Cheval's Palais Idéal. When I think of what these people did, and I look at my unfinished plastic model of the Queen Mary that has been lying around in a cupboard for the past five years, I feel quite ashamed!


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