What is it?
Extraordinary cathedral in the centre of Barcelona by Spanish architect, Antonio Gaudí (1852 – 1926), who dedicated the last years of his life to its design and construction. Work on the project continued after his death, but was halted during the Spanish Civil War and for many years after. It resumed again in the 50s and is still underway, the new works as close as possible to Gaudí’s original designs, despite many of the drawings and models having been lost to fire during the war.
Sophisticated computer-modelling techniques are now used to determine the shapes of Gaudí’s complex curvilinear forms, including by the SIAL group at RMIT. At times, the team are required to base their modelling on as little as a grainy black and white photo of a scale model, the only remaining documentation left of any kind.
Current predictions for completion of construction are sketchy at best, though range from 20 to 50 years.
What do we think?
We have visited La Sagrada Familia twice, once in 2009 and again late last year. Despite familiar signs of construction both within and without the building – scaffolding, cranes, workmen and the occasional high-volume power tool in action – on both occasions we were no less than awed by this singular creation. The cathedral’s external form, with its grouping of cone-shaped spires reaching high into the sky, dominates the surrounding urban fabric. Its facades are impressive, embellished with images of nature and the Christian story, repeated motifs in Gaudí’s work. It is impossible to miss the building from any approach.
However, Gaudí’s true genius lies in the interior of the church, in particular in the logic of its structure. Columns rise up towards the roof, branching and branching again, at each point growing more slender and delicate. The surfaces of the columns twist along their length, morphing from a smooth circular cross-section to a many-pointed star. Gaudí drew inspiration from natural forms but did not mimic them, instead squeezing them through the sieve of creation and abstracting them into unique, spectacular entities.
Employing the art of the ruled surface to build complex curvilinear forms through simple techniques, there are no ninety degree angles in La Sagrada Familia. The interior is an organic wonderland in every direction – coloured light trickles in through its many stained-glass windows, dappling the nave of the church as though we are traversing an ancient forest with trees so tall and old that they have petrified to stone and metal.
What did we learn?
While we dutifully visited Gaudí’s other works around Barcelona, we were glad we did so before visiting La Sagrada Familia – while they are certainly interesting, they pale in comparison to the cathedral’s extraordinary vision. Only with it was Gaudí given free reign to fully explore the boundless potential of his visionary structural ideas, its scale and full-block site alleviating the usual constraints of planning and context.
But what of lessons for the contemporary architect? They are certainly not lessons in form – Gaudí’s work is unrepeatable. His vision was so singular that it can and should never develop into a common way of building. More relevant is his approach: his impassioned drive to create something new has proven so successful with La Sagrada Familia that 130 years after its inception, we found ourselves amazed by it despite being jostled by hundreds of other gawking visitors and despite it being still under construction.
We can only imagine how powerful a building it will be once complete.
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