Sunday, 6 July 2014

54. Wonder: Sagrada Familia

(For the Sagrada Familia preview, please click here.)

There are a lot of churches in the world. Hell, there are a lot of churches – six! -in my hometown, Dingwall, population 5000. On my list too, there are a lot - thirteen, with at least another nine part of a greater structure. And all this gives rise to what I've recently coined as Church Syndrome, which I expect to be included in the Oxford English Dictionary 2018 edition. Church Syndrome is an architectural condition, whereby the appreciation of a church or cathedral is diminished because it lacks a distinct identity because of all the other churches and cathedrals out there (OED – you can use that definition if you'd like). Just imagine every town in Europe had several variations on the Taj Mahal – the real Taj Mahal would end up seeming a little less special. All the variations, some of them no doubt wonderful, would also seem a little less special. That's the fate of churches. The Notre-Dame de Paris, for example: it's a magnificent cathedral, but there's no doubt it looks like a church. It's not unique. How can a church remain a church but get over this problem? How can a church look different?

The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is identifiably a church. It has the normal features of a large-scale church, built on a Latin cross plan, crowned with bell towers and spires, adorned with stained-glass windows, and with grand facades each featuring three portals. But then it goes a bit crazy. The architect, Antoni Gaudi, who lived from 1852 to 1926, was a little crazy himself, and didn't want to build just another church. Making it his life's work, and inspired primarily by the natural world, he created a church that looks like it has sprouted from the ground like an anthill on steroids. It is the stuff of fantasies, the kind of wild construction you might see in a children's fairytale. But even if you don't quite believe your eyes the first time you see it, it's very real. The Sagrada Familia is a fictional building in the real world.

The first time I saw the Sagrada Familia was in August 2011, on a short holiday with Danielle. I was impressed. It's a weird sight at first, that I couldn't quite get a handle on. 88 years after Gaudi's death, construction is still ongoing: cranes stick out and scaffolding coats many areas. This just adds to the surreality: fairytale creations are meant to “just be”, not have men in hardhats lifting blocks with tower cranes. It took a while to absorb, but I liked it. Not just liked it, but I recognised that this was somewhere special. Whatever you might think of the Sagrada Familia, nobody can deny that it's unusual, and anywhere that is both colossal and unusual is bound to make an impression. Just a month before I set off on my Wonder travels, I reckoned that it had definite dark horse potential to score highly on my list. But that was before I'd officially visited any Wonders. The Sagrada Familia is now the 54th Wonder I've visited, and comes after viewing a whole load of churches and cathedrals in the last few months. How does it seem from this new vantage point?

There is rather a lot to take in, that certainly hasn't changed. And there's even more when you realise that what we see today is still very far from being finished. Construction began in 1882, with Gaudi taking the helm just a year later. He died 1926, aged 73, a few days after being hit by a tram, with just the one facade, the Nativity Facade nearing completion. 88 years later, the Nativity Facade is indeed complete, but it's the only one. The Passion Facade is just about there, but the Glory Facade, which will be the main entrance, has barely started. And then there's the towers, of which just 8 out of 18 have been done. The interior is mostly complete, and the crypt was finished way back in 1889. For decades after Gaudi's death, progress was slow, but since the 1990s, and with technological advances, it has accelerated. A tentative completion date is put at around 2025. Is this too optimistic? I think so. Here's a Youtube video of what's still to be done.

And here's a picture of the final product.

Gaudi could only dream of seeing the finished version, although he never seemed concerned about this, saying, “There is no reason to regret that I cannot finish the church. I will grow old but others will come after me. What must always be conserved is the spirit of the work.” When it's done, it will be the tallest church in the world, with the central tower at 170 metres. This is just a metre shy of Barcelona's hill, Montjuic - Gaudi believed his work shouldn't be greater than God's. Of the Sagrada Familia's eventual 18 towers, he saw just one completed, the 94-metre-high St Barnabus Tower, which was finished in November 1925. It's the one on the far left.

At Gaudi's death, the other three were taking shape, but they weren't completed until 1930, with the two in the middle reaching 107 metres. They are named after four of Jesus's twelve disciples. Four others disciples have a tower, almost complete, on the Passion facade, and the final four will eventually be built on the Glory Facade. If you're wondering about Judas, whose famous betrayal of Jesus led to his crucifixion, then he doesn't get a tower. St Paul, who wasn't actually one of the twelve but who did a lot of early legwork in spreading the word, gets one instead. Poor old Judas, I always feel a bit sorry for him. In the Bible, Jesus actually tells Judas in advance that he'll betray him – what chance does Judas have? He's supposed to have hanged himself over the incident later on, and probably went to Hell for eternity as a result. It was a tough deal being one of Jesus's disciples: ten of them ended up martyred for the cause, with only John managing to simply die of old age.

The Nativity Facade is the Sagrada Familia's star attraction, partly because it's been finished for ages and therefore not covered in cranes, but also because it's where the genius of Gaudi can be most closely sensed. It celebrates the birth of Christ, and is also a celebration of life in general, and is packed with a breathtaking amount of detail. It has the obvious stuff, such as Jesus being born and the Three Wise Men dressing as Richard Branson to offer gifts.

And less obvious stuff, like a cypress tree with doves flying out of it, representing the Tree of Life.

And what's this? A man killing babies? It's a Roman centurion, killing babies by order of King Herod, who felt a little threatened by the prophecy of the birth of the King of the Jews.

And there is other stuff too, not traditionally associated with Jesus being born. Look above at the Richard Br... sorry, the Wise Men. Below them... is that turkeys? I think it is. Something like chickens appear to be below the centurion too. And what about this poor turtle? Looks like he's having a tough time.

Now, take a slightly wider look at the facade, focussing on the central portal. Looks a bit... lumpy. Take a closer look.

Birds, bursting out of the stone. The Nativity Facade is often described as exuberant, and there is surely no better example that the stone walls literally bursting with life.

In the manner of the greatest Gothic cathedrals, the Nativity Facade is packed with these kind of details. It goes on and on. It is Gaudi at his most fanatic, obsessed with attention to detail. As he grew older, he became more and more devout, and more and more knowledgeable about Catholicism and its themes. In the tradition of Gothic cathedrals, Gaudi envisaged the Sagrada Familia as a bible made of stone. He took decades over this, endlessly refining ideas and models, taking excruciating care over everything. Gaudi was not an easygoing, relaxed man, he was a single-minded perfectionist, and no amount of preparation could be too much. See all the figures in the above photos – they are of real people. Gaudi made casts of the faces of the people working on the Sagrada Familia with him, which seems a normal enough practice, but he also went down to his favourite hospital and took plaster casts of stillborn babies. The dead babies on the Sagrada Familia are real dead babies. You can only try and imagine how he first proposed that to the hospital staff. Other "real" figures on the facade are Judas, based on the site's caretaker; Pontius Pilate, based on a pot-bellied goatheard; and for the baby-killing centurion Gaudi found a huge six-toed bartender, presumably as that gave the centurion a monstrous appearance.

He didn't stop with people. Gaudi really believed in getting the details right, so even all the animals are cast from real animals. He would take chickens and turkeys and chloroform them! Then he'd grease them up and cast them in plaster. Somebody found a deal owl and he used that. And to cast a donkey, he had a harness put on it and it was hoisted into the air.

The result is something overwhelming. To call the Nativity Facade beautiful might be a stretch because it's definitely a bit weird, but it is certainly fantastic. I can see why some people might not like it. There is something rather monstrous about it. But a work of art doesn't have to be beautiful.

After Gaudi's death, progress was slow. The Nativity Facade was completed by his successor, as per his instructions, but work was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Worse, during this, the crypt of the Sagrada Famila was broken into by anarchists, and many of Gaudi's plans and models were destroyed. When everything calmed down, work continued, but slowly. The four towers of the Passion Facade went up, eventually done by 1977. The Sagrada Famila now looked like this:

Just two facades, facing each other. Almost a century had passed and things weren't exactly moving fast, but then an unlikely saviour appeared - the Olympics. Barcelona hosted the 1992 Summer Olympics, putting the focus on the city which accelerated interest in the Sagrada Familia. The Passion Facade started to take shape. It's based around the last day of Christ, from the Last Supper to his crucifixion and then his ascent to heaven. Clearly, it's darker material than the birth story, and Gaudi deliberately didn't start with it because he realised it wouldn't be as popular. He was right. From 1988 until recently, an artist called Joseph Maria Subirachs was working on it. And its not very popular.

Gaudi always intended this facade to be harsher, to convey the idea of desolation and pain. It was to be stark, free of ornamentation. In the absence of surviving details, Subirachs took this and then ran with his own style, which is clean and angular. He was assisted by computer-aided design technologies, meaning that the sculpture could be designed and then cut by machine, a process which considerably speeded-up work. But at a cost. The architecture critic, Rowan Moore, laments the “computerised precision” of these works. His criticism extends to the interior too, but he saves his most scathing remarks for the Passion Facade's sculpture, calling Subirachs' work as “awfulness of which is beyond description”. A description is attempted nonetheless, as he rather succinctly labels them as “sculptures of cartoonish anguish”.

I'm not one to put the boot in, especially as Subirachs died earlier this year, but... yeah, I agree. The figures on the Passion Facade look like they may have walked out of the pages of a stylish manga comic. I don't believe the Passion Facade to be a disaster but it's not the Sagrada Familia's strong point. It's the opposite of the Nativity Facade: it looks good despite the details. Stand back and the overall picture is a good one – it is Gaudi's after all – but it stumbles on the execution of the details. Moore comes up with an apparently serious idea to remedy it – machine gun the facade. I'm not sure if the suggestion will be taken up.

The interior suffers a little from this “over-clean” look too, probably because it was only finished in 2010. Nonetheless, it's a magnificent space. Possibly the most striking thing about the interior are the tree-like columns. Like branches, they splay off as they rise. Gaudi conceived the interior as a giant mystical forest and this is exactly the impression the columns give. Appropriately, the ceiling resembles a forest canopy, looking like a covering of giant leaves (just for a little extra symbolism, they are palm leaves, which represent the martyrdom of saints). Clearly, this is a decorative effect, but it is more than that. In case the genius of Gaudi was ever doubted, these arborescent columns are actually architectural innovations. Gaudi wanted to avoid buttresses, the huge support structures that surround Gothic cathedrals that Gaudi called crutches. There must be some other way to take the weight of the roof, he reckoned. He looked to nature for the solution, and found that slightly tilting the columns, and having them branch off did the trick.

The best churches are like pubs, and have a little atmosphere; currently the Sagrada Familia seems a little brightly lit and "new" for my taste. I wouldn't go drinking there yet. Apparently the stained-glass windows aren't all in place, and during the day sunlight streams unfiltered through the stand-in clear windows. Hopefully when the proper ones are in place the interior can look a little closer to Gaudi's vision of a “Church of Harmonious Light”. The ones currently present are doing a pretty good job.

Upon the completion in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI came and consecrated it, officially turning the Sagrada Familia into a basilica in the process. The Sagrada Familia is not a cathedral and probably never will be. A cathedral is the seat of a bishop, and Barcelona already has a cathedral for its bishop to call home. The confusion is easy though. The best cathedrals look like pumped-up churches, and the Sagrada Familia certainly fits this description. But it will have to make do with the honorary title of Minor Basilica, one of around 1600 in the world.

In my view, the Sagrada Familia isn't really any of these, whether church, basilica, or cathedral. It's an anomaly, a church that barely functions. It does, of course, do services, but only in the small parish church in the crypt. Visit it and look around: what is it? It's a giant tourist attraction and one still in construction. This isn't somewhere you go to worship, it's somewhere you go to take photos of and pay about £15 to enter. And about two million people do so every year, making the basilica a handy £30 million annually. It's clearly a great source of income - over £300 million in the next decade towards its intended completion. That's a little more than they'll get handing round a plate during Mass. Is this my only example of tourists funding the construction of a Wonder? Not just the maintenance and upkeep, but the actual, initial construction? Disney World is the only other that comes to mind.

Functionally, it may be a little muddled, but structurally and architecturally, there's no doubt it's incredible. And some of its most incredible details are still to come.It poses an awkward question for me, one I've not yet faced on these travels. What am I judging here? Am I judging the structure that is currently there, or am I judging the structure that will be there in the future? I think I have to strike a balance. As I have it on good faith that the proposed final structure is what will eventually be built, I'll attempt to judge it that way: a colossal, alien building free of cranes and scaffolding. It will surround a tower that will be almost as tall as the London's Gherkin, and looking like a distant cousin too. I'm not sure if a final decision has been made, but possibly the block, or some buildings, to the south of the Sagrada Familia, where the Glory Facade will be, will be torn down to make an open area. Some kind of underpass or overpass across the road will connect it to the basilica's new main entrance. Whatever happens, it will be spectacular. However, my imagination will inevitably fall short. Seeing photos and videos of a building can only go so far. Nothing can replace standing there and seeing a Wonder in person - I've demonstrated that many times on these travels, as some landmarks exceed my expectations and others fall short. Clearly, when the Sagrada Familia is eventually finished, I'll be very keen for another visit (and I'd expect to visit Barcelona at least a couple of times before that). 

On these travels and on my Wonder mission, I've realised that I'm not just celebrating the excellent, I'm celebrating the different. Being peculiar is a merit in itself. Obviously, its not enough on it's own, but when combined with excellence it becomes a formidable combination. The Sagrada Familia is a formidable creation devised by one of the world's most original architects. It's as though somebody waved a magic wand at a Gothic cathedral and turned it into a living creature. It's exciting to behold, although the masses of scaffolding are certainly frustrating. I believe that what emerges will be perhaps the world's greatest church, and perhaps the most divisive: it is not conventional and some people will hate it. How the Glory Facade is designed might be a deciding factor, depending on whether the next sculptor prefers to lean in the direction of Gaudi or Subirachs.

Copying Gaudi is no easy task though. Just look at the plaudits rained upon him. These aren't your ordinary architectural awards. In 1984, all his works were put under the banner of a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Sagrada Familia itself isn't listed, but the parts he did - primarily the Nativity Facade - are. Not a bad achievement. But it goes further. For some years, fans of Gaudi have been lobbying the Vatican to beatify Gaudi, with an ultimate goal to make him Saint Antoni. This is no stunt, Gaudi was extremely devout, and hundreds of documents and testimonies have been compiled for the cause. The Vatican have listened, and apparently next year Pope Francis will put pen to paper and Antoni Gaudi will be beatified. What does this mean? It's good news for Gaudi - it means he's officially in heaven and people can pray to him for help. And it means he's a single step away from sainthood. He won't just be a superstar architect, he'll officiallly become the patron saint of architects. His followers just need to produce a miracle...

Some criteria then.

Size: It's 90 metres long and 60 metres wide, an entire block in the Eixample district of Barcelona, which is big, but smaller in area than many cathedrals. But the Sagrada Familia is about height and mass. Eventually, it will peak at 170 metres high, the tallest church in the world. Currently, the tallest tower (on the Passion Facade) is 112 metres, but there are eight comparably-sized towers currently, and there will be more. This creates a gigantic sense of mass. See the building from afar, especially from an elevated view, and it totally dominates its surroundings.
Engineering: It's a huge, unprecedented construction. Gaudi devised new architectural techniques to make it possible. 
Artistry: It overwhelms in its details, and from a distance looks like a magical, perhaps demonically-possessed fairytale castle that has come to life. It's not beautiful, but is very, very striking. 
Age/Durability: The Nativity Facade is around a 100 years old, but most of the rest is new, or still to be built. 
Fame/Iconicity: It's definitely Barcelona's premier attraction, and probably Spain's too. I think its star is rising.
Context: Barcelona is a terrific city, but it slightly hems in the Sagrada Familia. It not the city's fault - the Sagrada Familia takes up a city block, and nobody expected it to dominate that space quite so much. The blocks immediately to the east and west are parks, allowing nice views of the basilica (although there are rather a lot of trees, which get in the way a bit), but the north and south are regular blocks with buildings and apartments. Once the south-facing Glory Facade is complete, the southern block (if not taken down) will definitely obscure the view.
Back Story: It's mostly the story of Gaudi and his eccentric genius. After that, it's just a regular story of slow building progress. The building is more interesting than the back story.
Originality: There is nothing at all out there like this. Sure, it's based upon a cathedral, but it's a cathedral gone mad.
Wow Factor: Cranes and scaffolding always diminish a wow, but for the best wow moment don't approach from the metro, approach from the far side of the east or west parks. There the scaffolding is less visible and a more pure impression can be felt. And yes, it's wow.

If Gaudi was still alive, having celebrated his 162nd just a few weeks ago, I think the Sagrada Familia would have a pretty strong shot at finishing in my final top Seven, the eventual finished version at least. As it is, for the last 88 years, we've had other architects and artists at the helm. They've mostly followed his plans and designs whenever possible, but Gaudi's genius was an uncommon one and is impossible to follow. As a result, the overall masterplan of the Sagrada Familia remains his, but the small touches of genius that we can see on the Nativity Facade are missing elsewhere. Nevertheless, even today's version in progress is pretty incredible, with the promise of further greatness. With all this in mind, and with cranes and scaffolding gone, I believe the Sagrada Familia will be one of the world's most remarkable sights, and one that will still be discussed in a century's time and beyond. I place it high on my list, as one of my "Other Wonders", just below the historical hulk that is the Hagia Sophia, but above the equally beguiling Sydney Opera House. And unlike both of these, and pretty much anything else on my list, the Sagrada Familia remains one to watch for the next couple of decades. There's more to come.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. Mont Saint-Michel
6. The Colosseum
7. The Eiffel Tower 

Other Wonders
The Millau Viaduct
Angkor Wat
Hagia Sophia
Sagrada Familia
Sydney Opera House
Leaning Tower of Pisa

St Peter's Basilica
Chartres Cathedral
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
The Alhambra
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
Florence Cathedral
The Parthenon
Cristo Redentor
The Palace of Versailles
The Blue Mosque
Petronas Towers 

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Amiens Cathedral
Edinburgh Castle
Shwedagon Pagoda
Pont du Gard
Forbidden City
Verona Arena
Avignon Papal Palace
Thiepval Memorial
Tower Bridge
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha  

Interesting Places
The Sacre-Coeur
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha
Marina Bay Sands

Nazca Lines
Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
City of Arts and Sciences
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam


  1. Gosh I think I would put it even higher ! It looks magnificent if a little terrifying.

  2. I am really looking forward to seeing this one day. I agree that it is its originality that makes it stand out, more than the other criteria. The Passion façade doesn't look bad to me at all, although those blocky shaped heads are a bit mystifying. The inside does look truly impressive.

    Regarding Judas, I've never understood why he is so reviled, as I thought Jesus being crucified was part of the whole plan all along, dying for humanity's sins etc etc?

  3. "those blocky shaped heads" of the Roman centurions were explained to us by our guide as modern interpretations of Gaudi's chimney tops on his building Casa Mila a short distance away in Barcelona.


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