Gaudy Gaudi: Architecture as Art

{We have returned from our journey to greet a few weeks of re-acclimation, culture shock, and the pile of household chores that need our attention including getting a skunk out of our house!  Needless to say, I have been a bit behind on the blog and want to finish up a few posts before the New Year.  My thanks to all who have been following, I hope these last few posts will be worth the wait.}

When we added Barcelona, Spain to our list of destinations while in Europe, I immediately put the Sagrada Familia Basilica at the top of my list of must see sites.  I have been looking at pictures of this unique church for years, and often described it as “Salvador Dali does a cathedral.” (I am a huge fan of Dali’s surrealism, but one look at the exterior of this church should convince you that this isn’t just another run of the mill ecclesial building).


It has been under nearly continuous construction since the foundation stone was laid in 1882.  Initially planned as a traditional basilica dedicated to the Holy Family (Sagrada Familia), in the hands of the chief architect Antoni Gaudi, it became one of the most unique churches in the western world.  Some love it, others hate it, but few forget an encounter with this fusion of art and architecture, form and function.  Gaudi was known for his unconventional use of curve and non-linear surfaces and there are examples of his work throughout Barcelona.  Perhaps the most famous area is the Park Guell where he experimented with a number of architectural innovations and design that would later be incorporated into parts of Sagrada Familia, his magnum opus. Park Guell is known for its curved surfaces and bright tiles.


Ordinary flat surfaces of the walls are given wave-like texture and covered by mosaic tile.


Archways are fit with stone to make the rocks seem organic rather than static.


Even the hallways themselves take on a fluid character.  It is amazing to see something that looks so solid take on such a fluid “feel”, I marveled at how it was even possible to construct such “leaning: walkways.


I remember a civil engineering friend from college tell me how challenging it was to construct bridges with continuous curve, and yet everywhere I looked in the park there were signs of Gaudi’s defiance of architectural convention and perhaps even the laws of physics.


All of this was prelude to his greatest work, the Nativity facade of the Sagrada.  Here he incorporates symbolism and structure to tell the story of the pre-ministry years of Jesus using the same fluid dynamics of stone he perfected around other sites in Barcelona.  It almost seems as if something once considered “solid as a rock” is in a stage of melting like butter left on the counter too long.


Gaudi completed the design for the entire basilica in his lifetime, but was only able to oversee the construction of the crypt, and this nativity facade before his untimely death in 1926.  Workers ever since have been trying to follow his vision and example in the rest of the building.

The centerpiece of the Nativity facade is the doorway depicting the birth of Jesus complete with all the characters of Christmas time, the shepherds, the wise men, the angels singing, the star, the barnyard critters and of course the Holy Family in the center.


Looking closer at the detail, it is interesting to note how Gaudi embedded symbolism from the local region into the iconic scene.  Barcelona is located in the Catalonia region of Spain which has been known for its fiercely independent traditions and identity.  The shepherds are dressed as traditional Catalonian shepherds would dress so that the people can see themselves in their basilica.


The door to the left of this entrance depicts life of the Holy Family shortly after birth of Jesus.  One image shows a soldier slaughtering innocent children on Herod’s order to kill all male children in the region in hopes of eliminating the threat Jesus posed.  This might seem a bit garish in many public art settings, but is very much in keeping with the Spanish religious artistic tradition of emphasizing the suffering of Christ and his followers.


Another image from that doorway reminds visitors that the Holy Family were refugees early on taking shelter in the land of Egypt to avoid this persecution.  Images such as these have profound implications for the followers of Jesus as they consider the plight of contemporary immigrants and refugees fleeing from persecution and sometimes the same sort of genocide depicted in these stones.


The doorway to the right of the Nativity entrance depicts events in the life of Jesus before he took up active ministry.  It reminds the viewer of the importance of listening to and learning from young people (Jesus in the temple at center), and that Jesus was an ordinary worker like so many who will pass by these doors before he began his ministry (see a young Jesus working as a carpenter in the lower right).


Even the pillars on either side of the doorway are embedded with symbolism and significance.  They stand on the backs of turtles (an image for stability and foundation that speaks to not only the Catalonian tradition, but can be found in memorials and stories from Korea to indigenous North America, and even Dr. Seuss’ Yertle the Turtle, as well).  In this case, Gaudi used two different species of turtles, the one closest to the sea is a sea turtle found in the waters of Barcelona’s coast, the other (under the pillar on the mountain-side of the entrance) is a tortoise found in the mountains surrounding  the city.


Together these images flesh out a humanity of Jesus before all of the preaching and parables, the passion and resurrection.  The symbols of this Nativity facade brilliantly weave together local identity and universal themes, the divinity and humanity of Jesus.  They invite the visitor into the story and into the building where one is immediately transported to another dimension that appears to pause both time and space.


The roof is supported 60 meters overhead by a “forest” of columns (52 to be exact matching the number of weeks in a year).  Everything in the building is based on units of 7.5 meters or a multiple of that.  So the columns are 7.5 meters apart, the central nave is 15 meters wide, the transept is 30 meters wide, the overall interior is 90 meters long etc.  Everything is done with intention and detail even as the fluid nature of the structure seems to defy the precision we often associate with sharp angles and flat surfaces.


Art and architecture come together in a merger of form and function throughout the building.  One of the biggest challenges of building such a large structure with huge open space is to keep the walls from falling in.  In the past, cathedrals were built with flying buttresses which the characteristic arches on the outside of most of the cathedrals I have shown in previous blog posts to prevent the building from collapsing.  Gaudi incorporated the buttresses into the interior by putting them at the top of the columns.  This had never been done before, but it allowed him to eliminate those arches from the outside of the building while still holding up the walls for this cavernous interior.


The result of this fusion between buttress and column not only served to hold up the walls and roof, it allowed Gaudi to add an artistic flare to the building as the columns now look like the trunks and branches of trees in a forest.  Flares on the ceiling appear as the canopy above and the outside organic life of a forest is brought inside and set in stone.  My friends in the environmental movement often tell me that nature is their cathedral and they would rather worship God outside among the trees and mountains (this can be done at places like the Grotto in Portland);  I wonder what they might think of this mixture of the mountains and the images of a forest inside a building flooded with light from the glass windows all around.


The architecture in this building does not stop with the stone, it is enhanced by all of the light coming in through the walls of stained glass windows.  In the morning the sanctuary is flooded with the cool and calm colors of blue and green from the east wall.


Late in the afternoon the space is awash in the warm colors of reds and oranges and yellows from the west wall bringing the sunset images inside into this organic setting.


Unlike the stained glass of so many other cathedrals with clear images of saints and stories, the glass in Sagrada Familia is abstract.  There are names representing places all over the world in the small circle panes halfway up.  These are supposed to make visitors feel welcome and connected to the space.  It is at once a basilica for the people of Catalonia (as evidenced by the local touches mentioned above), and for the people of the world (as evidenced by the names and abstract patterns in the glass walls).


Gaudi did not live to see his vision completed.  In 1926 while crossing the street he was hit by a tram and killed.  According to his notes, he did not expect to see this building completed in his lifetime even if it hadn’t been so abruptly ended.  He sketched out the rest of the building and then encouraged the future artists to add their own touches and use the most advanced technologies to complete the vision.

The Passion facade (the entrance opposite the Nativity entrance) depicts events in the last few weeks of the life of Jesus culminating in his death on the cross.  Gaudi sketched out the symbols, but work did not begin on that facade until 1954.  The artistic style seems much different from the figures on the Nativity side.  It reflects a Europe that has just emerged from years of the Spanish Civil War and the devastation of World War II.  The figures are much more stark and angular, a post-war austerity and somberness fitting of the scene it depicts.


This basilica is still a work in progress.  When completed it will have 18 towers, and one more entrance.  The plan is to finish it by the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death in 2026.  The model below shows how much still needs to be done.  The gray parts of the model are already completed, the yellow parts of the model are in Gaudi’s original design and under construction.


I would have been perfectly happy to see a cathedral that looks like it fell out of a Salvador Dali surrealist painting, but what I encountered at Sagrada Familia in Barcelona was so much more than that.  It was a building that embodies the dreams of a visionary and the identity of the people; the story of a faith and the inspiration of aesthetics that defies words. Some might think it is gaudy and a visual assault, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I see it as a brilliant landscape that is ever evolving while remaining true to the Gaudi vision that created it.



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I am a professor of Political Science at Colorado Mesa University on sabbatical in the fall semester 2018. I study public land policy and a wide variety of other subjects. Currently I am studying about European Landscape Policies while on sabbatical. That is the focus of this blog.

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