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<p>Photo by Stephen Crittenden</p>

Photo by Stephen Crittenden

Gaudi From The Grave

The jaw-dropping interior of Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia church invites a reconsideration of Gaudí’s place in the history of modern architecture — and presents the Catholic Church with a challenging theological vision.


By the time Antoni Gaudí was run over and killed by a Barcelona tram in June 1926, he had been working on his design for the Expiatory Church of the Holy Family for 43 years — almost his entire architectural career. For the last 12 of those years he worked on the Sagrada Familia to the exclusion of everything else, and during his last 18 months he slept on site in his workshop in the church's crypt, where he soon would be buried.

But work was always slow because money was always tight, and at the time of his death only a fragment of the church had actually been built: the apse and melting candlewax Nativity façade with its peculiar spires that was to become the instantly recognizable symbol of the city of Barcelona. After Gaudí's death, his inner circle of collaborators continued to work slowly in the violent days leading up to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, when a rampaging anarchist mob broke in to the workshop and destroyed Gaudí's remaining drawings and plaster models.

Still a building site bristling with cranes 130 years after the first stone was laid, there have been doubts raised ever since about whether this extravagant folly of the 19th, 20th, and now 21st centuries could or should ever be finished. In his 1992 book, Barcelona, Australian art critic Robert Hughes savaged the project to finish the church. What was emerging, he said, was "little more than a huge simulacrum, an inert copy of a non-existent original." Everything that had been added in the 1970s and '80s was "rampant kitsch … It could have been done by Mormons, not Catholics."

According to the latest estimates, the Sagrada Familia will be completed by 2026, the centenary of Gaudí's death. Over the next few years 10 more spires, the tallest reaching 170 metres in height, will dramatically transform the building's roofline.

But for now at least the interior is finished. Pope Benedict XVI opened the Sagrada Familia in November 2010, and it is reported that more than 3 million tourists visited in 2011. As a university student in Barcelona in the early 1960s, Catalan architect Oscar Tusquets Blanca was one of the leaders of a campaign opposing any further construction work on Antoni Gaudí's unfinished Sagrada Familia church. Now, 50 years later, after taking a guided tour of the Sagrada Familia in the company of one of the building's project architects, he has publicly recanted. Writing in the March 2011 edition of the Italian architecture magazine Domus, Tusquets Blanca says some of the building's finishes and decorative features — handrailings, stained glass and flooring — are not on a par with the whole, and the sculptures on the Passion façade done by Josep Maria Subirachs are "pitiful." But overall he says, his tour of the Sagrada Familia left him "dumbfounded."

"How could we have been so wrong? This wonder would not exist if people had listened to us 50 years ago… I do not know whether [the Sagrada Familia] is the finest work of the last century but it will certainly be the greatest religious building of the last three."

Gaudí’s brilliant interior will soar high above petty squabbles over doctrine.

SOCIOLOGIST OF religion Mircea Eliade used the term "hierophany" to describe moments — or places — where the sacred seems to break through into the everyday world. The interior of Gaudí's Sagrada Familia is such a place. Hundreds of tourists bathed in mauve-coloured natural light are staring up in wonder. Like being in a forest, or under the sea, or gazing out at interstellar space, or being inside a living organism, it's immediately apparent that this awe-inspiring interior space is distinctly different from the kitschy Catholic iconography of the building's exuberant exterior. Above the high altar, a modest crucifix dangles under a little golden umbrella trimmed with electric lights, but other than that it's not entirely clear who or what is being sacralised inside the Sagrada Familia. Stick a glass reliquary on the altar containing the big toe of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and it probably wouldn't seem out of place.

"NOTHING IN the world has been invented," Gaudí once said. "The act of inventing consists in seeing what God has placed before the eyes of all humanity." In a small room in the Sagrada Familia's cloister, a permanent exhibition, Gaudí & Natura, offers a key to interpreting all this wonder by revealing the building's "deep structure."

The exhibition's curator, Jordi Cussó i Anglès, was for 50 years the head model-maker in the Sagrada Familia workshop. A naturalist who played a leading role in researching and restoring Gaudí's smashed plaster models, using superb graphics he shows how it was from Gaudí's intense study of the natural world, and especially the plants of his native Catalunya, that the architect distilled the complex geometrical shapes — paraboloids, hyperboloids and conoids — that he used in the church. The cone of the Mediterranean cypress becomes the distinctive five-armed cross Gaudí uses on top of many of his spires. Seashells inspire spiraling stairwells. An undulating rooftop imitates the curved surface of a leaf. The slender branching columns of the Sagrada Familia's nave imitate the cross-sections of tree-trunks and the patterns of plant growth.

<p>Photo by Mark Burry, RMIT University</p>

Photo by Mark Burry, RMIT University

Rooftop construction.

New Zealand-born architecture professor Mark Burry is executive architect and researcher on the Sagrada Familia construction project. Based at the Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory (SIAL) at RMIT University in Melbourne, he has worked on the Sagrada Familia project for more than 30 years, patiently realizing Gaudí's complex geometrical ideas, using advanced computer technology. Burry says that if he ever needs a reminder "that architects are servants and not anything of a higher order," he thinks of the working relationship he had with Jordi Cussó i Anglès. Because when Cussó was working with Gaudí's smashed plaster models, he was forced to understand what was in his hands:

"Cussó had this other agenda, which was to understand what it was that was motivating Gaudí to adopt these geometrical forms. So you can say anything you like about whether or not the Sagrada Familia should have been finished. But what we can say without any fear of contradiction is that without the effort to continue the building, those secrets I don't think would ever have been unearthed. And all that dimension of Gaudí's intellect would never have been revealed."

Gaudí was one of those great masters — Beethoven is the supreme example - determined never to stand still, and never to repeat themselves. Every beginning is a completely fresh beginning. He is always searching for the next breakthrough.

Mark Burry says Gaudí's style developed through three distinct stages during his career: an early "historicist" or Gothic Revival phase known in Catalan as the Renaixença; a much more free-form middle phase associated with Art Nouveau that included many of his best-known projects, including the Park Güell, the Casa Batlló and the Casa Milà; and a late phase, dating from around 1912 and roughly corresponding with when he was working exclusively on the Sagrada Familia, when Gaudí adopted a more rationalist, classical style, using ruled or quadratic geometry and working with shapes such as paraboloids, hyperboloids and conoids.

“I do not know whether it is the finest work of the last century but it will certainly be the greatest religious building of the last three.”

The Sagrada Familia was originally commissioned by a private foundation of conservative Catholics, the Associació Espiritual de Devots de Sant Josep (Spiritual Association of Devotees of St Joseph), and Gaudí was not the first architect to work on the project. Between 1883, when he took on the commission, and his death in 1926, his ideas for the Sagrada Familia continually evolved. The Nativity façade of the Sagrada Familia belongs to these first and second phases. Professor Mark Burry says he suspects it started out in Gothic Revival style and that Gaudí then deliberately subverted it with great festoons of leaves and flowers, to "absolve its insistence" and "send the message that the Gothic only gets you halfway there."

The late phase previously existed only in Gaudí's smashed plaster models, and it has been revealed only now to the wider public in the Sagrada Familia's interior.

We now can see that art critic Robert Hughes got Gaudí completely wrong in The Shock of the New (1980), when he wrote that "To the classicist's eye," buildings like the Sagrada Familia are "outright madness: not a straight line anywhere. To advanced modernist taste in the 1920s — Bauhaus taste, in a word — Art Nouveau was sickeningly gratuitous." The quadratic or ruled surface geometry that produced the paraboloids, hyperboloids and conoids of the Sagrada Familia, is nothing but straight lines.

I ask Mark Burry how he feels looking back at Robert Hughes's 1992 attack on the efforts of the project to complete the Sagrada Familia. "It is extraordinary," says Burry, "that [Hughes] felt able to savage a half-finished art work. It's pretty worrying, to be honest, that these guys are able to write with such power and such ignorance."

<p>Photo by Stephen Crittenden</p>

Photo by Stephen Crittenden

High altar.

I am people-watching in the Gaudí & Natura exhibition. It's fascinating to observe how everyone in the room seems to be having the exactly the same experience as me. Suddenly Gaudí makes so much more sense than he ever did before, and the Sagrada Familia no longer seems like the whimsical product of some benign fantasist kook on the edge of the Modernist tradition. No, this is the tradition. Gaudí's curved surfaces lead directly to the late style of Le Corbusier (Le Corbusier visited the building site in 1928, two years after Gaudí's death, and is reported to have greatly appreciated the plaster models), and on to the Apollonian purity of Jørn Utzon's Sydney Opera House.

IN BARCELONA the cult of Gaudí is in full swing, bigger even than the cult of Picasso. Everywhere you go, you can see that Gaudí has a particular appeal to the young: the stairs of Gaudí's whimsical Park Güell are heaving like the Spanish Steps in Rome, even the Sagrada Familia is full of young people. They think of Gaudí as a bohemian. Most would be unaware that his deep religious faith is imprinted even on the designs for his ever-popular Barcelona apartment blocks.

It is ironic that the Sagrada Familia should have become a symbol of ultra-modernity when the project to build it sprang out of the deeply reactionary spirit of mid-19th century Catholicism, still shocked and disoriented by the French Revolution, the unstoppable onslaught of the industrial Revolution, the loss of the Papal States, and Bismarck's Kulturkampf against the Catholic Church in Germany. Those shocks would continue in the 20th century, especially in Spain, where thousands of priests, nuns and brothers were butchered during the Spanish Civil War.

It is no accident that the Sagrada Familia was commissioned in the rapidly growing industrial city of Barcelona. By the mid-19th century the Church was rapidly losing the working classes and was trying to win them back. The cult of the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary and Joseph), typical of sentimental 19th century Catholic piety, was promoted by the Church in the hope of counteracting the breakdown of traditional family structures in the big industrial cities. Sexuality and family values have remained a Vatican preoccupation ever since.

“Without the effort to continue the building, those secrets I don’t think would ever have been unearthed.”

But the Sagrada Familia is a paradoxical building that seems to be pointing to some larger horizon for Christianity in the 21st century beyond the cozy banalities of 19th century Catholic piety.

Catholic tradition always has recognized that there are two different kinds of divine revelation. God reveals himself through Scripture, but also through the book of Nature. For Gaudí, nature is "the Great Book, always open, that we should force ourselves to read." If the Sagrada Familia's exuberant exterior can be seen as a celebration of the Church, the inside can be seen as a celebration of nature. Gaudí was a devout and conservative 19th century Catholic, but the Sagrada Familia's architectural and theological ideas are so inextricably intertwined with each other and with his observation of the natural world, that perhaps the religious vision of the building was also bound to be ahead of its time. But not necessarily in ways that Gaudi himself could possibly have anticipated.

Arguably Gaudí belongs within a Catholic tradition concerned with Creation spirituality, the Christian mystery of the Incarnation, and the view that the whole of creation is not just sacred but sacramental. This tradition stretches back at least as far as Francis of Assisi and Hildegard of Bingen, but in the modern era it would include thinkers and artists such as poet Gerard Manley Hopkins; Jesuit paleontologist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who imagined the whole cosmos evolving towards a final consummation in Christ that he called the Omega Point; French composer Olivier Messiaen; German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner; and in more recent times environmental theologians Thomas Berry and Matthew Fox.

There is no doubt that Gaudí would have felt very uncomfortable rubbing shoulders with some in this company. He certainly would not have shared Teilhard's Darwinian and evolutionary ideas. But Gaudí does have a particular affinity with the composer Messiaen (1908-1992). Both were devout Catholics who lived austerely. Both introduced kitsch and surrealistic aspects into their works. Both were interested in number symbolism. Both were utterly original, and in their ability to generate vast structures from the tiniest units they exhibited the characteristic of "scalability" to an extraordinary degree. Where Gaudí's geometry is derived from plants, Messiaen notated birdsong, which he regarded as an image of the eternal. Sometimes he created whole shimmering movements from nothing but birdsong, a highly complex counterpoint of dozens of different birds from around the world. Many of Messiaen's works, including Visions de l'Amen (1943), Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ (1969), and his huge opera St Francis of Assisi (1983), share a common sensibility with the spectacular interior of the Sagrada Familia.

<p>Photo by Stephen Crittenden</p>

Photo by Stephen Crittenden

Nativity façade.

In his book God's Earth, Australian religious writer Paul Collins says that in light of the ecological disaster now facing the planet there needs to be "a radical theological, human and cultural shift" that brings us back to the natural world, because if nature dies, so too will the human capacity for religious feeling and making art.

"It will mean that we will slowly come to realize that we are more likely to encounter the transcendent presence of God in the natural world than in the Bible or the Church," Collins writes.

It also means that Christianity needs to move away from its focus of sin, punishment and individual salvation, and its "fundamentally idolatrous" over-emphasis on the worship of Jesus, towards a spirituality in which Jesus is situated in the context of a much wider cosmology.

When the mainline Christian churches are struggling for relevance at a time of impending ecological crisis, the interior of the Sagrada Familia seems to have something to offer.

Gaudí’s curved surfaces lead directly to … the Apollonian purity of Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House.

BUT IF THE INTERIOR of the Sagrada Familia presents an invitation to a broader vision for Christianity in the 21st century, it isn't one that the Church is likely to be taking up any time soon. In fact there are signs in Rome and Barcelona that Gaudí and the Sagrada Familia have become the focus for a much more conservative agenda.

Since the pope opened the Sagrada Familia in November 2010, the newly-created Pontifical Council for the New Evangelisation has taken a keen interest in using Gaudí as a weapon — even an emblem — of the New Evangelisation, the campaign begun by Pope John Paul II to re-evangelise an increasingly secularized modern society and stamp out progressivism inside the Catholic Church.

There is also a small but determined conservative group in Barcelona campaigning for the pious Gaudí's beatification. One of the leading proponents is Josep Maria Tarragona, who is working on a 1,200-page spiritual biography of Gaudí as part of the beatification process. Tarragona says the Sagrada Familia can only be interpreted as "a Temple of the New Testament" — anything else is "merely frustrating and incongruous."

Meanwhile, the archbishop of Barcelona, Cardinal Lluís Martínez Sistarch, is reported to be taking a closer personal interest in the Sagrada Familia than ever before. During the last week of September, while I was in Barcelona, a short statement appeared on the website of the archdiocese of Barcelona announcing the resignation of Joan Rigol i Roig as the president of the Sagrada Familia Trust, and the appointment of a successor from within the office of the archdiocese.

Rigol is a former president of the Catalan parliament and a highly respected figure. He was known to have an expansive vision for the future of the Sagrada Familia as an international centre for peace and inter-religious dialogue, and he had set a clear objective for the final phase of construction: "To ensure that the Expiatory Temple of the Sagrada Familia becomes the symbol of peace, brotherhood and universal justice that we all want."  It remains to be seen whether this vision will be realised in future.

The sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs, who did the much-reviled sculptures for the Passion façade of the Sagrada Familia in the 1980s, is an agnostic who has been very vocal about his opposition to these attempts to make Gaudí a saint. He has said Gaudí was a universal artist whose vision belonged to the entire world, not just the Church, and that declaring him a saint would only reduce his memory.

By making Gaudí a saint the Church would be making a bid to control his legacy, which seems impossible. What is certain is that the Sagrada Familia will be finished, and the tourists will keep coming. And Gaudí's brilliant interior will continue to soar high above petty squabbles over doctrine, always inviting us to go on having vast thoughts and aspiring to be more than we can possibly be.

5 comments on this story
by Sarah

Stephen,
Exciting piece and beautifully argued, playing to your strengths. Great to know you have found a place that can use your talents.

February 14, 2012 @ 9:51am
by Scott

I am obsessed with the building! When I visited it in September 2010 the stained glass windows had just been installed and the floor was complete. Gazing towards the ceiling I was stunned at how like a canopy of plane trees viewed from underneath the ceiling was. Your article has bought it all back to me.

February 14, 2012 @ 11:55am
Show previous 2 comments
by George

I look forward to seeing it in these more complete stages, but I have to admit a selfish pleasure in having seen it in a more incomplete phase, and I am envious of my family who in turn saw it in even more primitive state.

For a building which celebrates the organic, one of its main pleasures for me in the place was the sense of growing old alongside it.

Brisbane had an incomplete cathedral for some time, and I think at the end, some of us also felt a sense of loss when the scaffolding 'this could be finished' part was in fact, finished..

February 14, 2012 @ 3:46pm
by Al

I agree with the suggestion that the incomplete state of the building seems to make it so affecting. I think it's the idea that something so beautiful is being built across many generations.
There aren't many things like that in the world....
Standing in this building nearly made me envious of christians.

February 17, 2012 @ 1:42am
by Nathan McDonnell

I just visited this mysterious, dumbfounding architectural-theological work a few days ago. Wow .... This article beautifully captures how Gaudì's radically ambitious and unconventional works are summoning the Church (indeed, the whole world) to rediscover God in the mysteries of nature rather than theological dogmatism.

October 2, 2013 @ 7:10am
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