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Living architecture

“The straight line is the one of man, the curved is God’s”, insisted the master

All cities want to have a symbol of their own that makes them unique and provides them with an unmistakable skyline. From the last 120 years, Barcelona has been stubbornly attempting to build a temple that is, basically, an idea or an ideal, depending on the approach. However, it’s undeniable that the Sagrada Familia has been gradually outlining the horizon of the city; and despite being under construction, it still is one of the major spotlights of the city for many people, some of whom come from the most remote countries. Like any other long-term relationship, the monument and Barcelona have been through different stages: from the most passionate loving moments to long periods of indifference, as well as episodes of public rejections. Currently, the temple and the city are living a happy reunion.

At two decades from the 20th century, Barcelona had its streets sensibly organized in the shape of a grid. During that constructive optimism period, the Spiritual Association of Devotees of Saint Joseph decided to build a temple devoted to Jesus, Maria and Joseph in order to praise the family ideal and, at the same time, the figure of its patron saint. The lack of money forced the Association to buy the lot in the outskirts of the city, or so were considered at that time. In 1882, and with the same spirit that the medieval cathedrals were built, the first stone of the temple that will become the Sagrada Familia was finally placed.

The first architect wasn’t Gaudi but Francisco del Villar, who left the work one year later due to his differences of opinion with the developers. The work was then entrusted –Gaudi was deeply convinced of the divine intervention of Saint Joseph- to the young architect, Gaudi, who accepted the offer only with one condition: full freedom to modify the final project. Little did he know that this allocation would condition the rest of his life.

Antoni Gaudi was born in Reus in 1852. His family’s business as cauldron artisans had been running for centuries and, as he used to declare, that explained his exceptional perception of the space and the shape. His great ability of perceiving the volume from a flat surface had passed on his family for generations through bending and modelling copper sheets. His craftwork knowledge would be later revealed, once his architecture studies in Barcelona had finished, as a practitioner.

His main works were provided by Eusebi’s Güell circle, who will become his unconditional patron. The buildings reflect the architect’s scrupulous observations of nature, his passion for geometry and the effect of the Mediterranean light; which he claimed as the ideal to stand out the architectonic volumes. He brilliantly synthesizes painting, sculpture and architecture, merging them into the metaphor of a habitable organism. The interior of some of his buildings is directly connected to the oneiric sense of the myth. The cavern appears to be the ritual space or the insides of a mythological creature. In other occasions he drives us into the deep waters, returning to the first living atmosphere. Gradually, he is imbued with the spirituality and mysticism of the ancient builders. His time in Astorga as a supervisor of the project of the Episcopal Palace enabled him to contact with the large cathedrals along the Camino de Santiago. This is the essence that pervades in the Sagrada Familia, and it isn’t hidden to those who visit it with sharpened senses.

When walking into the enclosure, the apparent chaos may be overwhelming. The area is usually shared by workers, groups of tourists and school trips who coexist without conflicts, immersed in a noisy cacophony. After this first impression, the temple commands the spectator’s sight and the privilege of assisting to the birth of a cathedral awakes the conscience. The space starts to rearrange in our minds and the symmetry of the two lateral doors guide us through the architect’s intention: the Birth door –personally supervised by Gaudi- is blossoming nature, the triumph of life. The curved line clearly prevails over the building: “The straight line is the one of man, the curved is God’s”, insisted the master. All the sculptural ornamentation has its motif in the stones’ language; sometimes its interpretation is universal, but in other occasions is Gaudi himself who creates his own symbols. In the base of the central columns stand two turtles: a tortoise and a pond turtle which, inspired by the Chinese mythology, represent the stability of the cosmos. They are the starting point of the vertical panoramic view of the façade. Flora and fauna appear creeping, ascending to the sky, and create niches which house sculptures that represent apostles, music angels and scenes from Jesus’ childhood. From this point, the four conic towers packed with overtures and inhabited by sculptured fauna, rise united as one. Different studies have tried to unfold the possible sceneries that inspired Gaudi when he designed the façade –the Montserrat Mountain, the Pass of Collegats or the rock buildings of the Middle East. A lot of visitors claim to recognise Arabic and Hindu sculptural elements, or even features from their own architectural tradition. Maybe the final aim is that the rock mountain becomes a big screen where our unconscious concept of collectiveness can be projected. Once again, Gaudi points out the right direction: “The originality is the return to the origin”, the reunion with that first seed, common to all the humanity.    

The symbolic door, and physically opposed to the Birth door, is the façade of the Passion. While the other one is orientated to face the firsts sun rays of the day, the Passion door is illuminated in the twilight, announcing the irrevocable outcome. Whereas in the Birth door we could recognise some stylistic elements from the Modernism –exuberance and sinuosity-, in this one predominates the expressionism and the angularity. The deep atrium intensifies the dramatic effect of light and shadow in the façade. It’s disturbing and sinister. Six leaning pillars push the roofing upwards which, in Gaudi’s project, was finished off by a line of column-bones. The distress transmitted in this architectonic composition is expressed by the tension of the stone brought to the limit, sharing the tragic dimension of the scenes represented. The sculptures sharing the frontal space are the recent work of Josep Maria Subirachs. Some of those, like the kiss of Judas or the Jesus’ face in the cloth of Veronica, omit the shape suggesting the volume only through its negative mould. The narrative structure doesn’t follow a lineal order; the spectator can choose between creating his own script with an evangelic flashback, or unravelling the storyline in the same way that the cryptogram placed in the left of the entrance is decoded. The main bronze door –created by Subirachs and Ramon Millet-, contains a waterfall of words that tell the passage of the Passion according to Saint John. At dusk, the golden letters “And what is the truth?” dazzle in the twilight.

The ascent to the towers is also a spatial riddle. A helicoidal line moves forward together with the spiral staircase which arranges the movement in sequence. The vertiginous perspective that can be perceived in looking into the central circle alludes to the mental notion of infinite. Furthermore, it is possible to go from one tower to another through small bridges. When wandering in the inside of the building it is easy to lose the spatial reference points, since the towers’ stairs of the right and left wings turn in opposite directions; suggesting the idea of a bending and vertical labyrinth, intriguingly changing. The openings and the balconies in the towers offer unique framings and perspectives of the architectonical space created by Gaudi, and act as an immense kaleidoscope which shows a new vision of the temple at each turn.

On the outside the top of the towers is covered with colour, produced by the vitreous ceramics. When the light reflects in the small polygonal mirrors, it is multiplied and the pinnacles appear as headlights. The openings, shaped as small projections, drill the towers pointing towards the floor; their mission is to project the sound of the bells towards the city. Each element falls into place and obeys to a strict function.

Gaudi’s methodology was mainly empiric. The mock-ups and the three-dimensional models replaced the usual plans and elevations of the architecture maps which, due to their inherent nature –they were two-dimensional –, didn’t work for him. Architecture is volume, space and time; too many dimensions to restrict them in a piece of paper. The strings and the sacks full of pellets –stereotactic miniatures reflected in a mirror –set aside compasses and squares. Suspended chains are used to obtain catenary arches, which would be applied for the design of the parabolic arches. This system of projecting the building arose some criticisms among the engineers and technicians; but was otherwise embraced with excitement by the artisans and workers under his charge, because, this way, the master’s instructions appeared materialised and with volume before their eyes. And then they started the structural calculations.

The undeniable passion of Antoni Gaudi for the geometry can be seen in the central nave, where it surrounds the space. He presents a new concept of columns: they appear slightly bended in those areas where the structural forces ask for distribution. Moreover, he also modifies their transversal section which evolves from the starry polygons to cylindrical shapes. The nave’s plan has the shape of the Greek Tau, whereas the elevation recalls a column-trees forest. Their crowns gradually open and branch out enabling them to easily support the ceiling, because each branch supports the exact weight it can bear. This is the major structural contribution of Gaudi, since this strategy prevents the use of outer buttresses, essential in the gothic cathedrals. That’s how the building deals with stability and becomes lighter. The vault is perforated by hyperboloids –a figure similar to a double horn-, and brilliantly solves the light intake, which is heavily projected by the upper apertures. This treatment of the roofing transforms it into the dead leaves of a forest or into a star shower, depending on the viewer’s perspective. He connects the ruled superficies –such as paraboloids, conoids, hyperboloids and helicoidals- with the flat surfaces; and with this union the shapes keep changing from ones into others. This evolution transmits the idea of living stones which are in constant movement, and where the materials –basalt, granite, porphyry and concrete- take part in the same rhythm, merging with harmony in a global space.

The Sagrada Familia is still under construction. Some say it is better that it always stays like this, so it remains in the status of the long-dreamed building. Meanwhile, anyone can imagine it to their liking; however, the construction works are progressing quicker and quicker, some experts state that it would be finished within twenty years. It was Gaudi’s will. He wanted to believe that his work would be continued by future generations; that’s why he started to build in vertical and left the necessary instructions in three dimensional models. We should be grateful. He is the builder of the living architecture, not only in the sense of the movement, but also as the owner of the intangible element we call soul.

The Sagrada Familia was the work of his life. He spent his lasts years absorbed in it, he even lived in the workshop because everything he ever owned was given on behalf of the construction. 

In the starts of the 20th century his commonly misunderstood point of view was the target of many criticism and aversion. However, some voices arose in his defence, such as Salvador Dali. He asserted, playing with the meanings in Catalan of Gaudi’s and his own surnames: Gaudi (enjoy) and Dali (desire), that both feelings composed the two sides of the same reality that identifies Catalonia, homeland of the two geniuses.

Nowadays, in the year 2002, the International Gaudi Year, the legacy of his knowledge is already a World Heritage. So now, the only thing left to say is: welcome and enjoy the show given by the architecture in action.

MIREIA VILALLONGA. Professor of the Fine Arts Institute.

Report done in June 1998 and June 2002. Sagrada Familia – Barcelona.

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