Sagrada Familia

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The first time I went to Barcelona, Franco was still in power. Catalan, like the rest of Spain, was cautious and dark, well aware of the harsh boot of his repressive regime. That was 1970.

My photos from that visit are buried in a box somewhere in my basement, but I remember making a pilgrimage to the infamous Sagrada Familia. Described by some as Gaudi‘s Sacred Monster, its outrageousness was astounding even in its legendary incompleteness. Its over the top, kitschy extremism was in strong opposition to the supremicist vision of the sleek internationalist style being built all over the world. This strange structure, purportedly based on the intentions of its primary architect who died in a tram accident in 1926, was a massively retro and anachronistic project. The interior was indecipherable to me above the obfuscating net of scaffolding, and the facades were in various stages of “not sure where this is going” confusion. I wasn’t moved so much as I was amazed by its eccentricity. But memorable. That it was that for sure.

Over the next 40 years I passed through Barcelona 4 more times. Franco died in 1975. Catalan began reclaiming its extraordinary heritage and pride. Barcelona became one of Europe’s top tourist cities, and the 1992 Olympics catapulted its reputation even further. Every stopover in Barcelona included the obligatory visit to Sagrada Familia. I began a relationship with that structure when I was 18 years old, and watching it evolve became something of a marker of time that had a personal twist. The story was that this massive project would never actually be finished. Don’t we feel that way about our own work as well?

This last visit to Barcelona was my first since Sagrada Familia was completed enough to be consecrated by Pope Benedict two years ago. Construction continues of course, with the building of additional towers and the construction of a new Glory facade. But for the first time in my life, the interior is scaffolding free. Even though I had been to the site many times before, I was unprepared for what that space has become. No longer just a Guadi creation, this is an assemblage of multiple architectural visions and convoluted variations of outrageous overstatement. But Sagrada Familia has become, for me, a place of overwhelmingly beauty and inspiration.

I did an early morning visit (the line for entry is long every day) with the family art historians, my daughter Kellin and her husband Sean. A great set of eyes combined with a staggering knowledge of Christian symbolism made them the best Sagrada Familia companions ever. We spent hours examining every element and sightline. (Kellin took the rest of our crew back for their visit the next day, putting together an iPhone-based presentation overnight to enrich their experience.) None of us is sure just why this overstated outrageousness works, but it does.

I get why architects dismiss it. It isn’t Gaudi’s creation any longer (In the 1960s, Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto signed a petition requesting that it be left unfinished in its pure Gaudi-ness or turned over to a living architect to redesign.) But there is something in its essentially non-pedigreed architecture that captures the eye and the imagination.

From Rowan Moore’s 2011 review in the Guardian:

His building is dense with his fervour. It strives to compress all of earth and heaven into its structure – endless saints, biblical scenes, symbols, inscriptions, seashells, reptiles, birds, flowers and fruit. Time was captured through images of the seasons and holy dates. It was not just a thing of sight – the spires are designed for peals of bells, the nave for a choir of up to 1,500.

With its avoidance of straight lines and right angles, and its tree-like columns, it embodies Gaudí’s belief that he should follow nature. Above all, it has the property of fusion: on the Facade of the Nativity, the most significant part built in Gaudí’s lifetime, columns and arches melt into a viscous jism that foams, drips and procreates foliage, beasts and people. It then becomes the geological eruption that is the building itself, in whose spires and portals you can, without difficulty and should you wish, read further sexual images. No other architect has made stone look so fluid, so dissolving. It is not pretty, but that is not the point. As Salvador Dalí, an early fan, put it: “Those who have not tasted his superbly creative bad taste are traitors.”

Superbly creative sometimes carries the day.

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