Tuesday, December 14, 2010

(No.127) Strange meets unusual: Barcelona's Sagrada Familia

It is not one of the seven wonders of the world but if there existed a formal list of widely recognized architectural wonders and/or oddities, ones with a fascinating back story, then The Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family Church -- "Temple Expiatorio de la Sagrada Familia" in Barcelona Spain would earn a place.

It was the idea of a Barcelona bookseller, Josep Maria Bocabella, who in 1866 founded the Spiritual Association of Devotees of St.Joseph.

The structure and the story both involve a Catalan native son, a giant in the architectural history of Barcelona and Catalonia: Antoni Gaudi (1852 - 1926). Several of his creations can be found in Spain outside Catalonia but the leading examples are in Barcelona (see "Antoni Gaudi of Barcelona: the Catalan Elvis Presley?", column No. 125 of December 2, 2010 on RickardsRead.com)

Gaudi's architectural style has been described, perhaps unkindly but not without some basis, as Art Nouveau run wild. His life became intertwined in the 1880s with the Church of the Holy family, the Sagrada Familia, when he was only 31 and remained so until 1926 when he was knocked down by a Barcelona tram and died a few days later. In death his name lives on, inextricably bound up with one of the most bizarre and long-lived architectural projects imaginable, one that is still ongoing today after 130 years and unlikely to be completed before 2030 (the 'official' goal) -- if then.

As he grew older Gaudi's religious piety and intensity increased. He had been commissioned by the Spiritual Association of Devotees of St. Joseph, to build a cathedral (take your pick) for the poor of the city of Barcelona OR to provide a place of atonement for the city's increasing decadence. On the other hand, the Association's founding objective had been to achieve, through the protection of St.Joseph, the triumph of the Catholic Church in a time in which it believed dechristianization was being driven by the industrial revolution and the accompanying social changes. Few of the original members including Bocabella could have imagined that by 2010 the cathedral would not have been completed.

Gaudi had imagined a church in the form of a Latin cross over the initial crypt; above the crypt the major altar surrounded by seven chapels in the apse. Above each of its three facades there would be four towers, 12 in total, dedicated to the apostles, In the centre the tallest tower (170 m) dedicated to Jesus Christ. Over time he became obsessed with the building of the structure, eventually taking up residence in its crypt so as to be on the construction site. However by the time he died only the church's crypt, part of the apse , one of the facades and one tower had been completed.

The towers of Gaudi's Nativity Facade begin in the shape of a square and at a certain height become circular. The first tower was completed in 1918 and the set of four was finished in 1926, the year he died. The Passion Facade is on the opposite side from the Nativity Facade and has more marked and harder lines. The studies for this facade were completed between 1892 and 1917 but its construction did not begin until 1952 and not completed until 1978. The main facade is still under construction. Inside the church is intended to hold more than 5000 worshippers.

During the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s the church was desecrated by what are now referred to as "anarchists". This seems to be a politically correct reference to people on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War who were fighting General Franco's Nationalists who were supported by Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy. Nearly all of Gaudi's plans and models were destroyed. His designs were subsequently reconstituted from what photographs and documents could be found.

These days construction of the rest of the Sagrada Familia continues at a pace dictated by the annual inflow of donations and admission revenues from tourists, reportedly at a rate of 1 million Euros per month.

Today the Sagrada Familia exterior looks to a significant extent like a giant construction site albeit one visited by 5 million people each year. On Nov.7, 2010 Pope Benedict came to consecrate the cathedral and the preparations for his visit made the site, as Pat and I saw for ourselves a couple of days beforehand, particularly crowded and chaotic.

In terms of its size and grandeur it is an impressive structure already but a controversial one. Today, under the direction and interpretation of architect Jordi Bonet, the Passion Facade is far more modernistic than Gaudi's Nativity Facade. The former includes giant sculptures on the exterior by Joseph Maria Subirachs; they look, and not just to my eye, out of place in comparison with Gaudi's own facade and original design.

The critic Robert Hughes who, in his book Barcelona, called this facade and the Subirachs sculptures "the most blatant mass of half-digested moderniste cliches to be plunked on a notable building within living memory". Hughes' negative view is more elegantly expressed than mine.

The Sagrada Familia seems to me breathtaking in scope, size and ambition but a dog's breakfast of design. Imagine the following: architects working for owners of one of the giant Las Vegas 'theme' hotels like Caesar's Palace or Treasure Island or The Luxor are commissioned to build a hotel the appearance of which is to suggest to tourists yet unborn an art nouveau European cathedral. I suggest that the exterior of the Sagrada Familia cathedral, or at least one of its facades, could serve as a model.

However it is only fair to point out that there are today just as many if not more fans of the way the Sagrada Familia is evolving as there are critics who deprecate its departures from Gaudi's ideas and style.

At least one thing seems clear to us following our visit to the cathedral: time spent in the magnificent city of Barcelona should not be considered complete without going to the Sagrada Familia.


For information and pictures visit: www.sagradafamilia.cat/sf-eng/


Alastair Rickard