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Patience Is a Virtue

Barcelona's signature architect, Antoni Gaudí, broke ground on the fantastical Sagrada Familia more than a century ago. Now the builders of this deliriously twisted church claim they're just...about...done.


1950 -The Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia (Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family) in Barcelona. It was designed by Antoni Gaudí in the late 19th century, and its construction continues more than a century later.

Viewed from a distance, the four main towers of the Sagrada Familia stretch above Barcelona like a giant drip sandcastle on a beach. But the closer you get, the more intricate the conical monoliths become, until you find yourself overwhelmed by this mind-bending masterwork of the late Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. If the style hadn’t already been given a name — Modernisme — it might be called Gothic Psychedelia, Absurdia Nouveau or bizarchitecture.

A monument to Gaudí’s outsider genius, this church, still incomplete after some 125 backbreaking years, also measures the patience and tenacity of generations of his countrymen. Some Barcelonans love the church, others not so much, but even its detractors have (mostly) learned to accept its role in the city’s history and skyline: Paris has the Eiffel Tower, London has Big Ben, and Barcelona has the Sagrada Familia.

Which raises the question, What’s taking them so long? Even Notre Dame, completed in 1345, was polished off in 180 years. Exactly where all that time went is a story nearly as complicated — and as fascinating — as Gaudí’s architectural schematics. But first, some breaking news: According a recent announcement from church builders, Sagrada Familia might actually, possibly, be nearly done.

“I wish Gaudí were alive to hear me say this,” says Jordi Bonet, the director of architecture since 1985, when he took over from his father, Lluis. “But we expect to finish the interior by 2010.”

Completion of the interior means that the church will finally be more than a breathtaking stop on an architectural sightseeing tour. For the first time in its history, Sagrada Familia will host a Catholic Mass in its main nave. (Gaudí, who was a devout Catholic, would surely approve.) After the interior is finished, the final spire — the lordly 550-foot-high “Tower of Jesus” — will soon follow. Of course, “soon” is a relative concept.

Some historical perspective: When the cornerstone was laid, Chester A. Arthur was president of the United States, and Queen Victoria ruled England. Since then, Barcelonans have witnessed the invention of the earthmover, the hydraulic jackhammer, penicillin and the automobile. As buildings have been raised and razed all over Spain, and indeed, the world, Sagrada Familia has remained wrapped in generations of scaffolding and cranes, which have become almost as integral to the church’s profile as Gaudí’s spooky style elements.

The stumbling blocks to Sagrada’s progress are myriad. They began to crop up the moment Gaudí first set pencil to drafting paper. “Gaudí worked on Sagrada Familia for 43 years, and during his last 12 years, he worked on nothing else,” the 83-year-old Bonet says. The architect oversaw every aspect of the construction — from the drawing to the masonry — until he was killed in a 1926 streetcar accident that happened as he was walking to the job site.

Gaudí designed the church with 18 towers — 12 for the apostles, four for the evangelists, and one each for the Virgin Mary and Christ. Each completed tower, and practically every crevice of the church, is adorned with intricate geometrical designs and sculptures. The interior spaces are buttressed by forms that Gaudí culled from nature, thus resemble towering animal bones or the articulated trunks of massive trees. His renderings were so dynamically puzzling, the builders couldn’t figure out how to realize them.

“Gaudí invented a new system, his own, to calculate architecture,” says Bonet. “We’ve since learned that it is possible to make this church, but Gaudí did these calculations without computers or the technology we have today.”

The challenges didn’t end with geometry. Disease epidemics, labor strife and chronic gaps in funding (the church has been constructed solely through private contributions) persistently slowed construction. And then, in 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out; building ground to a halt. General Francisco Franco’s army attacked Barcelona three years later, and during the ensuing street battles, parts of the church were destroyed, along with the studio housing much of Gaudí’s planning work.

In a display of typical Catalan fortitude, building recommenced when the war ended, with designers painstakingly redrafting the damaged plans.

Then came inevitable political complications. Notes Jordi Falgàs, director of the Fundació Rafael Masó in Girona, “The building has always been in the middle of a controversy.”

The most recent kerfuffle erupted last year, when a group of prominent architects, artists and critics — including the heads of the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, the Miró Foundation and the Tàpies Foundation — penned an aggrieved manifesto demanding that construction cease.

“Work should have ended when Gaudí was killed in 1926,” it declared. The central complaint is that the church bears little resemblance to Gaudí’s original vision. “What stands out,” the statement continues, “is the mediocrity of technicians and developers who are well meaning but… who are once more using Gaudí to leave their personal mark on the building, to the detriment of the original work.”

The group’s quest is distinctly quixotic. The Sagrada Familia has vanquished stauncher rivals by far over the years. In 1965, another group of intellectuals led a similar movement. Like the authors of the recent manifetso, Bonet says, “They argued that the church should be left as it stood at the time of his death, out of respect for his genius.” Construction went on. In 1990, another group protested, to no avail, when contemporary sculptures were placed on the church’s grounds.

“These are extreme preservationists,” says Edward Keegan, a Chicago architect who teaches at the University of Notre Dame. “They are all about hero worship and the 20th century’s ‘cult of the genius,’ which says that you can’t touch the master’s work.”

But Keegan points out that cathedrals regularly took decades to build and thus required several designers. “Only in the last 100 years have we become interested in the sole architect as a genius creating a quickly built masterpiece,” Keegan says. “Let’s face it, now we build entire cities in 10 years.”

Ironically, Gaudí himself would have objected to extreme preservationist ideas. “I know that the personal taste of the architects who follow me will influence the work, but this does not grieve me,” he wrote. “I believe it will even benefit the church. It will mark changing times within the unity of the overall plan.”

The intelligentsia aren’t the building’s only critics. Housing rights activists are fighting plans to demolish a block of public housing to make way for a boulevard leading to the church’s main gate (part of Gaudí’s original plan).

The project also faces a potentially devastating new structural problem: The city is excavating a tunnel for a new high speed train that will pass below the main façade. Although Spain’s Ministry of Public Works assures the church that the digging is too deep to disturb the foundation, engineers are concerned.

After a century’s worth of setbacks, the city is understandably excited to see the church complete, and not just because it will mean an end to all those unsightly cranes. “For better or worse, the Catalan people consider the Sagrada Familia their own,” Faulí says. “Just like Gaudí’s personality, which was grand, the building contributes to their identity.”

Not all architectural historians share the public’s love for Gaudí, whose singular vision has limited his influence. “Gaudí was considered a mere footnote to the Art Nouveau movement,” Keegan says. “First there was Paris or Vienna or Brussels for the real Art Nouveau, and then there was this guy in Barcelona who did something kind of similar.”

Some of that negative sentiment derives from the fact that Gaudí was a religious zealot at a time when the art world was quickly turning away from religion. (He’s currently being considered for beatification by the Roman Catholic Church.)

Falgas defends Gaudí as a “master without a school,” whose influence extended to Dalí, as well as Pablo Picasso, who had a studio across from Gaudí’s Palau Güell and later, George Lucas, who used the menacing chimney- tops of Gaudí’s Casa Milà to help draft the stormtroopers’ helmets in Star Wars.

The best way to appreciate Gaudí, Keegan says, is in context. “The most important thing is not to go to Barcelona thinking you have to see this one thing by this one guy,” he warns. “Within a five-block radius, you can see other buildings designed by his contemporaries, and you can begin to understand that he is not this bizarre little footnote.”

Now if only we can just finish his church.

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