Barcelona deserves its reputation as one of the world’s top travel destinations, a city with a grand mix of history, culture, cuisine, and architecture. When it comes to Barcelona’s architecture, no name is more highly regarded than Antoni Gaudi. His singular style of design has bequeathed the city some of the most recognizable buildings on the planet and the pinnacle accomplishment of the Catalonian’s “labore corporis” is Sagrada Familia.
The story of Sagrada Faimilia – Sacred Family – and Antoni Gaudi are intertwined. Both the city and the man represent a series of contrasts – and similarities. In some ways each is a product of the other, and neither would be one without the other had it not been for a devoutly religious man’s ambition and a city’s desire to construct a shrine to Catholicism.
For centuries Barcelona has made its own way in the world. When the region was brought into Spain, more than 500 years ago, the city bordering the Mediterranean balked. After all, Barcelona had been a nexus for commerce and trade long before Spain was a nation ruled by a far-off king. Even today, Barcelona, the major city in Catalonia, continues to be the economic engine of Spain. This is a fact Barcelonans are proud to point out, while the government in Madrid tends to downplay it.
Long before he was nicknamed “God’s architect” Antoni Plàcid Guillem Gaudí i Cornet was born in June 1852, in a small village south of Barcelona, along the coast. He was the youngest of five children and he lived with his family in the village of Reus. Gaudi took great pleasure in exploring the countryside and learning about nature and the world of Catalonia. But his path to world-renowned architect was somewhat circuitous, owing to the times and his overall health.
Like all young Spanish men of the day, Gaudi served four years of military duty beginning in 1875. But he was not physically robust, so he spent a good deal of his service on sick leave. He was allowed to enroll in architecture school and graduated in 1878. However, his skill as an architect was in doubt; a professor is reputed to have said, “We have given this academic title either to a fool or a genius. Time will show.” Over the years Gaudi would go on to show both his professors and the world his genius.
Gaudi was a contrast of humility and ambition. His reserved manner is thought to have been due to years of poor health, including rheumatism. He never married and had only one serious relationship, with a woman who ultimately spurned him. But professionally the creativity of his design and a desire to go beyond the norm caught the eye of patrons and clients, including industrialist Eusebi Guell.
Gaudi’s name is synonymous with Sagrada Familia but he was not the project’s original architect. Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano was chosen and his plan was to build a church in a Neo-Gothic style; the cornerstone was laid in 1882. But soon Villar was squabbling with his patrons. Gaudi, who had been hired in 1882 to design the crypt, replaced Villar as chief architect in 1883. Although it took another six years for him to complete work on the crypt, the extra time enabled the development of new ideas that would radically alter the look of Sagrada Familia. Those new ideas fell under the umbrella known as Modernism (or Modernisme to the Catalans).
Like so many revolutions, Modernism rejected what came before and Gaudi embraced these new ideals. For Gaudi, Gothic and Neo-Gothic architecture were restrictive and did not embrace the natural, living aspect of the world, resulting in something forced. Modernism went beyond rigid formulas and straight lines and integrated the arts, design, and construction to create more fluid and natural results. By the time he finished his work on the crypt in 1889, Gaudi was advocating a wholly new design for the church.
The result, still under construction more than 125 years later, is a demonstration of daring. Gaudi designed a house of worship with elements like none other in the world. And knowing Sagrada Familia would never be finished in his lifetime, he wisely chose to construct models of key elements to go along with his drawings so his vision would be adhered to. To make real what Gaudi saw in his mind is as complicated in the 21st Century as it was in the 19th. Today computer-aided design makes it easy to view a drawing from any angle. Lacking that technology, Gaudi took no chances. To be certain builders and craftsmen constructed what he envisioned, Gaudi literally turned mock ups on their head – using small chain link strings, he hung elements upside down to demonstrate how the line of a spire was to appear and how much it should curve. He then placed a mirror below the hanging mock up so builders could see exactly what Gaudi intended.
Even from a distance, Sagrada Familia stands as a marvel. Giant tapered spires soar toward heaven, conveying a connection to the spirit of humanity. Gaudi cleverly reduced the weight of the spires and softened their appearance by using columns and openings. The east side of the church – the Nativity Façade – appears from a distance to be a hodgepodge of shapes and iconography but up close stands out as characters and moments from biblical history. Solomonic or barley-sugar-styled columns support the massive stone carvings above. One could easily spend days admiring the carvings and stonework around the outside of the building before venturing inside.
The interior of Sagrada Familia is a wonder to behold. The interior incorporates Gaudi’s embrace of Modernism, his creativity, and love of nature, all infused with his fervent Catholicism. It is a religious building of such grandeur and beauty that there is sometimes confusion about what it should be called. Many people (and news reports) refer to Sagrada Familia as a cathedral, but it is not; a cathedral is a church where the seat of the bishop resides. (The Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia in the Gothic Quarter is where Barcelona’s bishop is located.) But Sagrada Familia is so highly regarded that in November 2010 Pope Benedict XVI elevated the church to a basilica, granting it special privileges.
Gaudi’s spiritual hopes that Sagrada Familia reflected his love of God sometimes created conflict with the realities of design and engineering. An area of potential conflict was the height of the building and size of the columns needed to support the roof. Standard columns – Dorian, Ionic, or Corinthian – would be so huge that they would crowd out the interior space. In typical fashion, Gaudi went in an entirely new direction to solve this problem. He turned to the beauty and efficiency of nature and combined that with skillful engineering. The result is a breathtaking – and still revolutionary – design of interior columns.
Gaudi’s columns feature several brilliant elements. They employ a gentle, subtle twist that allows for a more slender column. His columns utilize multifurcation, mimicking the branching of trees as they stretched upward, at the same time creating more open space and pushed the roof ever higher. Buttressing the beauty and harmony of the interior space is Gaudi’s reliance on consistent mathematical formulas and ratios that maximize height, width, space, and openness. (For example, a number of elements and areas of Sagrada Familia are divisible by 12, both a neat arrangement as well as homage to the Apostles of Jesus.)
Another equally impressive element of the basilica is Gaudi’s use of light and stained glass. He designed the walls to include huge areas of glass so when light passed through the space inside would be bathed in a warm glow of soft colors. The light from the stained glass dances and reflects off so many places that visitors become mesmerized. It is another example of Gaudi’s integration of the natural and spiritual worlds.
To assist Gaudi, his engineers, and the craftsmen, a huge workshop now in the basement of Sagrada Familia was built that is still in use today. Models of various elements are constructed so the math, angles, and engineering can all be worked out to reflect Gaudi’s inspiration. But the Catalan knew his dream would take longer than his lifetime to complete. Gaudi was so committed to putting as much time as possible into Sagrada Familia that toward the end of his life he slept on a cot at the site.
As the years wore on, Gaudi became increasingly ascetic and his focus became his work on Sagrada Familia. As mentioned earlier, he never married. He did not drink alcohol or eat meat, and would on occasion undergo extreme fasting to purify and cleanse his soul. He went to mass and confession every day and he prayed regularly. Later in his life he became scraggly and unkempt and he cared more about his work that how he looked. In fact, it would be his disregard for personal appearance and his piety to God that would bring about the end of his life.
In June 1926, Gaudi was 73 years old. One day early that month he was heading to his daily confession. For a man with much on his mind he was likely lost in his thoughts and not paying much attention to his surroundings. Tragically, he was struck by a streetcar, and because of his appearance and not having any identification with him, he was mistaken for a beggar and taxi drivers refused to take him to a hospital. A doctor in the area gave him a cursory once-over and concluded nothing more could be done. Finally a policeman took him to a hospital, but Gaudi was only given minimal care, based on the assumption he was a pauper. By the time — a day later — a priest from Sagrada Familia recognized who the patient was, it would be too late. Antoni Gaud died two days later on June 10.
Gaudi’s death sparked an outpouring of mourning from Barcelonans and the funeral procession snaked throughout the city and finally ended up at Sagrada Familia. He was laid to rest in the crypt where he first began work at Sagrada Familia 44 years earlier.
Work on Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família continues, and plans call for its completion around 2026. The site has already been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site (one of seven projects designed by Gaudi, all in Barcelona). Currently the 48,000-plus square foot church attracts more than 2.5 million visitors each year from all over the world and it is the top attraction in Barcelona.
While there is no doubt about the grandeur and awe inspiring beauty of Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi would almost certainly remind you that first and foremost his creation is a house of worship intended for the glory of God.
For more information about Antoni Gaudi and Sagrada Familia, click over to these websites: