Friday, August 18, 2017

Gaudís Post-Mortem Masterpiece

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Cathedrals of centuries past were no simple things to construct. Without the advantage of modern technology found in steel girders, heavy machinery, and composite materials, erecting a façade out of stone often took decades to complete. Throw in political upheavals, fires, and a war or two, and the process could be drawn out to several centuries.

For the architect, obtaining a monumental commission of designing such a façade came with the near-certain guarantee that it would be a life’s work and that others would finish the plans after death. While the Pisa Cathedral [of leaning tower fame] took only 31 years to build, the Cathedral of St. Stephen of Metz in France took 332 years to erect and the Cologne Cathedral in Germany dragged its construction through an agonizing 632 years.

Most modern buildings, by comparison, are erected near the speed of light. The gargantuan, mod-squad Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles, for example, took only four years to build.
Less than half of the final 18 spires
of La Sagrada Familia have been
erected thus far.

But then there is Spain, and the haunting genius of Antonio Gaudí. In a throwback to the days of meticulous workmanship, deep pockets, and lack of deadlines, Gaudí’s building is still under construction, but in a style unlike any other. The Basilica of La Sagrada Familia [The Holy Family] is an Art Nouveau masterpiece, even though the style went out of fashion more than 100 years ago. Gaudí was only the second architect commissioned to work on the project. Construction began in 1882 under Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano. Gaudí took over the project a year later, and oversaw work until his death in 1926. Since then, seven different architects have handed off duties. Completion is estimated to be near the year 2028 – 146 years after the basilica’s construction began.

Were it not for Spain’s deep love of her native son, Gaudí, there would not be such devotion to the original genius of the architect’s design. It is difficult to look at the structure and all its detail without wonder and amazement. One must put aside reservations on function and worship, and simply admire the fanciful mind of a man who architecturally ignored the notion of a straight line and wholly embraced the fluidity and essence of Art Nouveau. We should also be thankful that his predecessors did their utmost to preserve Gaudí’s concept.
Detail of the Nativity façade.

If one looks at the façade from afar or glances at a model the completed basilica, it is obvious that it follows the general notion of a large cathedral. Upon closer inspection, however, all similarities dissolve. Eclectic flavors of Baroque flamboyance,  Gothic tracery, and natural forms are combined in a colossal structure wound tightly by whimsy. Yet there are sculptural groupings of Biblical figures that somehow bring the visitor back to the familiar. Other figures, however, go in an altogether different direction, leaving the viewer to expect the unexpected.

Religious preferences aside, I still would find it extremely hard to worship in the space, for all its wonder and fancy. It is simply too much to behold. Perhaps that wonder is, in part, the point of this architectural gem, but Gaudí takes us past the Divine and brushes awfully close to Disneyland. You may wonder, indeed, if there is a ride inside the building, and the answer is: Sort of. Tracks were laid beneath the structure so that the mass transit system can stop at La Sagrada Familia. Adding to other innovations built into the basilica, the tracks will be cushioned so that parishioners will take no notice of movement below the floors.
A view of La Sagrada Familia's 150-feet nave ceiling.

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