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Heresy Or Homage in Barcelona?

4 minute read
Margot Hornblower/Barcelona

“The Sagrada Familia is . . . the reflection of the soul of the people. Woe the day that it is halted!” — Catalan poet Joan Maragall

“It would be a betrayal to even think of finishing the Sagrada Familia . . . without genius. Let it remain there, like a huge rotting tooth.” — Catalan painter Salvador Dali

Sensual, spiritual, whimsical, exuberant — few buildings so symbolize a city as Barcelona’s unfinished Sagrada Familia: the Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family. Architect Antoni Gaudi’s masterpiece dominates the skyline of Catalonia’s capital, attracting 700,000 visitors a year. Its art nouveau stonework, its mosaic-encrusted bell towers and its warped geometry brilliantly mock the banality of much modern architecture.

But how can an interrupted work of imagination be completed decades after its creator is gone? In the years since Gaudi’s death in 1926, such admirers as architects Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius and artists Joan Miro and Antoni Tapies have demanded a halt to construction, which has been under way in fits and starts since 1882. Continuing to work on the building, contends architect Josep Anton Acebillo, is “like adding arms to the Venus de Milo.” Nonetheless, the building continues to be financed privately — and enthusiastically — by contributors ranging from Catalan nationalists to Japanese businessmen to American tourists.

As Barcelona seeks international celebrity in playing host to the 1992 Summer Olympics, the smoldering controversy over the Sagrada Familia has flared anew. Last summer 200 Barcelona artists and intellectuals issued statements deriding new sculptures for the church by Catalan artist Josep Maria Subirachs as “boorish” and “kitsch.” Protesters circled the church in a candlelight procession. Religious objections have also arisen: traditionalists are holding monthly prayer sessions, inveighing against the stark nudity of Subirachs’ Christ.

Subirachs’ austere, squared-off style is the antithesis of Gaudi’s ornamented surrealism. “My work has nothing to do with Gaudi’s,” says the sculptor, 63. Although Gaudi left a 1911 sketch of the Passion facade, Subirachs changed the arrangement of the sculptures and added controversial touches like a macabre skull below the crucifix. He gave his Roman centurions helmets playfully copied from Gaudi-designed chimney pots on a nearby building. Subirachs denounces his critics as “hooligans, snobs.” Ironically, Subirachs in 1965 signed a letter protesting the basilica’s continuation. But when offered the sculptural commission, he changed his mind “because I was given complete freedom.”

The quarrel is entwined in Catalonian politics. A symbol of the Catholic right, the church was sacked by anarchists in 1936, during Spain’s civil war. Gaudi’s drawings and plaster models went up in flames, but molds and photographs survived. Architect Jordi Bonet, who supervises the construction budget, says the opponents are “people who don’t want a church as the emblem of our city.” Moreover, Subirachs has publicly scorned the abstract artists favored by city hall in its Olympic building binge — and the disdain is mutual. Says poet Joan Brossa: “Gaudi was avant-garde, but Subirachs is retro-garde.”

On the side of completion, however, was Gaudi himself, who told his biographer, “All particularly grandiose churches have taken centuries to complete.” Devoutly religious, the aged architect begged for alms when contributions dwindled. Gaudi deliberately sketched only an outline of the final facade. Citing St. Peter’s in Rome and cathedrals in Cologne and Reims, he said, “Another generation will collaborate, as is always the case with cathedrals that have facades not only by several authors but also in various styles.”

Architectural education is also a factor. “Gaudi invented a new system of architecture,” says Catalan professor Joan Bassegoda. “Instead of the geometry of rectangles and circles, he took his structures from nature, studying what forms allow trees and humans to grow and stay upright.” Hyperbolas, parabolas, helices and helicoids, the curving, open-ended forms Gaudi used, were calculated so precisely that computers have shown his measurements to be perfect. Today computer-driven diamond saws are cutting Gaudi-designed inclined columns to support the nave, replacing Gothic architecture’s flying buttresses. “We’re still learning from Gaudi’s genius,” says Bassegoda.

With Olympic-era Barcelona featuring such sleek modernist architects as Richard Meier and Arata Isozaki, the Sagrada Familia, now 40% complete, may be maligned by some as an old-fashioned ugly duckling. But its admirers have faith that it will yet grow into a swan. Eventually, its central spire will climax in a gold cross reaching at least 170 meters toward the sky, making it Europe’s tallest church. At the current construction rate, that will not happen until the 21st century. But as Gaudi once said, pointing heavenward, “My client isn’t in any hurry.”

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