Gaudi's Sagrada Familia

GAUDI’S MASTERPIECE – The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

“I do not know if we have awarded this degree (in Architecture) to a madman or a genius. Only time will tell”

These words were spoken by Professor Elias Rogent (1821-1897) in 1878 and the student was Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926), the architect who designed the remarkable church – the ‘Sagrada Familia’ here in Barcelona.

Before you read the words below, take some time to look at some trees that are close by to you and study some twigs and leaves from that tree or some others nearby and then read what we have written here on these pages.

All trees are anchored to the ground by their main trunk and root system and they all vary in size, shape, bark textures, colours and other ways with some trees having massive buttresses and others none. Every tree, even of the same type varies. No two trees are identical.

Trees then have branches, each branch extending from the trunk, and then smaller branches extending from the main branches themselves. Then the leaves are smaller again, with each leaf having its own unique structure, shape and colour. Much like humans themselves, trees and nature have their own imperfections – the result of storms, floods, volcanic eruptions, human and animal contact, but these imperfections also have their own visual identity and symmetry.

There is an amazing symmetry to what you are seeing here -from the smallest leaf or bud of a flower to the mass of a tree trunk. It is the miracle of life and nature – and we see it in the infinite variety of shapes, textures, colours – every plant different to another and each uniquely created to take account of other plants, its location, the sun, soil, water, air, light, temperature and other factors.

You may have heard of the 80:20 Rule – where according to this rule 20% of your time or effort results in 80% of the results. There are also Fibonacci numbers and sequence, as well as Pareto’s Principle of Spatial Sparsity and what is called the Golden Ratio Rule 1: 1.618 – the divine proportion.

When you look at nature, people, animals, buildings, design and everything around you – what you see are ‘proportions’ – size relationships between the various parts of what make up the whole and in nature the proportions follow the Golden Ratio.

In most cases where something is visually jarring to the eye, it is because the proportions are not following the sequence of number ratios set down in the Golden Ratio Rule. Look at the size of your finger nail, compared to your finger, your arm, your body – and think of each in proportional terms, one to another. There is a proportional ratio that each of body parts have, just as there are in nature.

It was this inspiration of nature and the genius of nature and creation, as well as Gaudi’s artistic fervour coupled with his understanding of the story of Christ, Christianity, Bible stories, engineering, architecture, mechanics, design, geometry and mathematics that inspired Antoni Gaudi’s design work and the Basilica de la Sagrado Familia is his most amazing creation, though there are other examples of his work close by in Barcelona too.

Gaudi was, as his professor said was, “either a madman or a genius” – and you can decide, but certainly he was an inspired artist, designer architect, whose belief in the genius of nature and God drove him to spend his life working on his creations. He was still working and living on-site in his studio at the time of his death in 1926 when he was hit by a tram on the streets of Barcelona. Antoni Gaudi is buried in the Crypt here in the Basilica, but after his death, his models, work and drawings were followed by a succession of other architects and workers.

Sadly, most of his models and drawings were destroyed by fire during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) with only some surviving and it has been left to others to interpret these drawings and models and re-generate them – today using 3D printing and Computer modelling as well as modern building techniques to complete his work. Today some of the intricate stone work is laser cut off site and then assembled on-site, and while Gaudi has been dead since 1926, the workers on-site still work for Gaudi.

Many modern buildings invariably use 90⁰ and 180⁰ degree angles almost exclusively and no others but in nature there are infinitely more angles and shapes.

In Gaudi’s building he uses a geometric shape called a ‘hyperboloid paraboloid’ structure to create rounded curved shapes, these shapes also having great structural strength too. Gaudi’s use of these hyperboloid shapes enabled architects and modelmakers to then re-envisage much of the drawings and models that had been destroyed as they understood the structure he had used. There are hardly flat surfaces in the building.

A Hyperboloid paraboloid structure is best understood if you think of a saddle on a horse. The saddle has two sets of curves – a convex one and a concave one – a double curved surface which gains strength from its shape but also looks visually quite complex and yet stylish too. The curves of a saddle run front to back and side to side, and this same principle applies to a building.

It is this shape that Gaudi used in the design of the Sagrada Familia. He did not invent this shape, but perhaps his father and grandfathers both being boiler makers helped him understand more about shape, strength and weakness points in created curves and rounded surfaces.

THE SAGRADA FAMILIA – in English means ‘Sacred Family’

The construction of the Sagrada Familia began as a Gothic Church in March 1882 under the architect, Francisco de Paulo del Villar y Cozano, but Antoni Gaudi took over the role of chief architect in 1883. It was Gaudi’s vision that you see today and even though over 130 years later it is still not complete, it stands out as one of the most intriguing and inspiring constructions in the world.

Imagine the discussions he must have had during his lifetime, showing his models of the building and explaining to the churchmen, officials and benefactors, that the building would take over 130 plus years to build! Perhaps Gaudi never told them how long it would take to build and he may not have known either, but at the time of his death, the building was only about 5% complete.

The building is due to be completed in about 2026, although this may change but it is already in use with large number of tourists visiting as well as religious services being conducted here. Pope Benedict XVI blessed the Basilica in 2010 in front of a congregation of around 6500 people.

The purpose of the building the Sagrada Familia was to create a place for ‘the atonement of sins’ where people holding Catholic faith could come, worship, pay their respects and be blessed. It has been entirely paid for through donations, and is officially called a ‘Expiatory Temple’, with an ecclesiastical foundation set up in 1895.

If you can come to Barcelona to see the Sagrada Familia, bring a pair of binoculars or a large lens on your camera so that you can see some of the intricate design details of the towers. Of course, you don’t have to, but it helps to see some of the small details that are high up.

There are three Facades (faces) each depicting the life of Jesus Christ – the Nativity Facade, representing the birth of Christ; the Passion Facade representing the death and resurrection of Christ and the Gloria Facade, representing the salvation of Humanity. The Gloria Façade will be the main entrance.

While most of the overall Basilica are complete, other parts are yet to be built, and no doubt a guided tour will tell you more about the building and the challenges that they have faced in its construction. Buy your ticket on-line to avoid queues at the entrance or a Barcelona Card for 72, 96 or 120 hours of transport including to the Airport. These cards allow you to travel on the Metro and buses, as well as giving you access to discounted entrance prices to many of Barcelona’s main attractions

If you think back to nature and imagine walking through a forest, you will see the trees but also see and feel the shafts of light that penetrate the canopy – the dappled light of the forest. What you see inside the Sagrada Familia is also an interpretation of the forest with its tree columns, filtered shafts of light coming from above, many creating dappled light colours as the light diffuses through the canopies and stain glass windows.

The floor of the Basilica is of cork, which also softens the sounds, and again if you think of a forest walk, this also adds to the connection.

Stonemasons traditionally designed churches with what are called ‘Crockets’ on the steeples – decorative stonework that looks upwards to the heavens, designed for God to smile down upon their work.

In the Sagrada Familia, there is also have a similar connection to God and you can easliy imagine God sending down his muted shafts of beautiful light to the people within. Gaudi is often created as being ‘God’s Architect.

There are 18 high tapered, conical shaped towers that are or will rise above the building, each tower different to the others, with the highest tower – the Jesus Tower designed to be 170 Metres high (558 Feet). Each tower has been named after an Apostle Disciple or Evangelist with one tower also named Mary.

The overall structure is designed, like most large Christian churches, Basilicas and Cathedrals, in the shape of a cross with the interior able to hold up to 8000 people and the choir section able to hold up to 1100 singers. Every year around an estimated 2 to 3 million people visit the Basilica, so pick a time with less crowds if you can. There are tour groups and commentaries in different languages to explain the story of the Basilica, and you can make up your own mind as to whether you join one of these tour groups of just wander and take in the atmosphere.

The Sagrada Familia is not the only building that showcases Gaudi’s work, but it is his most famous and notable work. There are many other buildings in Barcelona where you can see Gaudi’s work – Bellesguard, Batiló House, Vicens House, Santa Teresa School, the Gϋell Pavilions, Gϋell Palace Park, Antigas Gardens, Miralles Property Fence and others.

Some of these properties can only be seen from outside as they are privately owned, but probably the easiest way to see some is to take an organised tour. The highlight and easiest to see is the Gaudi House Museum which is in the Palau Gϋell Park which covers an area of 17 hectares.

The Gaudi House Museum and Gardens is where Gaudi lived between 1906 and 1925 and here you will see lots of his work including his ceramics, steel work, furniture that he designed and the great garden park around the home. The Museum is located at Ctra del Carmel 23A and the best way to get there is via the Metro – Line L3 Lesseps station and look for the signs to walk to the Museum and Park entrance. There are also tours to take you here too.

Hopefully the information we have written here will help you enjoy your time seeing the Sagrada Familia. There is a lot more to see too in Barcelona – one of the great cities in Europe and we have also written other pages here on this website about the city.

ALSO bear in mind that the queues to enter the Sagrada Familia can be long and in summer also hot as you stand in the sun. It is certainly best to pre-book a ticket and even so, enter at a time that you hope the crowds will be smaller.

May the queues be short and your travels long…

Geoff Stuart

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