I have never had the fortune (whether good or bad, according to some) to see this structure.

But I have learned a great deal of it through the art critic Robert Hughes' "Shock of the New" BBC television series from the 1970s and his eponymous book on "Barcelona".

The cathedral is amazingly complex and organic, heaving spires into space, and also enclosing space with curves teeming with forms.

Its design broke down and reconstituted the image of a Western cathedral into the Catalan influences of Antonio Gaudi's personal history and the era of modernism in which he lived. This included influences from Art Deco, Dadaism, Futurism and so on. But Gaudi never fell into any particular school of art, was a truant to them all, and pursued a vision so strange that it stands there, unfinished yet somehow complete.

The building work on La Sagrada Familia was restarted several years ago. It's a strange thing, walking round a cathedral that is a building site, when you are more used to ones that have been crumbling for over 500 years. Standing under the open sky, between the giant spires that lean across you, it's a shock to think of the scale of a religious building in this era. (Though perhaps it's being finished now because of its architect, not its original purpose.)

It's a glorious structure, one that causes vertigo from the ground, or from the lofty, delicate walkways between the spires. It's a crazy jumble of details, from the doorway arch covered with hundred of little enthroned saints, to the pillars sitting on giant turtles, to the way that the stones look melting candlewax from a distance. The level of detail is astonishing. It's a giant treasure box.

It's fantastically ugly, and astonishingly beautiful. If you go down into the crypt you can see the model made for the monastery that he designed outside Barcelona, using bags of sand and string to work out the loads and angles for the arches, showing his unique approach to architecture.
The idea for the Sagrada Familia came from a rich Barcelonese publisher called Josep Maria Bocabella, who was worried about the growth of revolutionary ideas in Barcelona. He set up a religious society dedicated to Sant Josep, patron saint of workers and the family, and in 1882 started the building of a church dedicated to the Holy Family (Sagrada Familia). The official name of the church (it is not a cathedral) is Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família. The title Temple Expiatori (expiatory temple) indicates that the building of the church is meant to atone for sin and to appeal for God's mercy on Catalunya.

The construction started under Francesc de Villar, who planned a rather conventional neogothic structure. In 1883 Villar was replaced by Antoni Gaudí. Up to 1909 Gaudí worked on other projects beside the Sagrada Familia, but from 1909 on he dedicated himself entirely to the church. As he worked on it, he developed ever grander and more original ideas for it. The ground plan is the basic Gothic cross-shape with an apse. The finished church will have 18 towers: 12 for the apostles, 4 for the evangelists, one for Maria and one for Jesus Christ. There will be three facades: the Nativity facade on the north-east, the Passion facade on the south-west, and the Glory facade on the south-east. The central tower (dedicated to Jesus) will be 170 meters high, halfway between the Nativity and Passion facades, above the crossing.

When Gaudí died in 1926, only the crypt, the apse walls, one portal and one tower had been finished. Since his death the building has continued under other architects (most of them modernistas). By 1930 three more towers had been added, finishing the Nativity facade. In 1936 anarchists burned and smashed everything they could in La Sagrada Família, including the workshops, models and plans. In the 1950's work restarted, using restored models and photographs of drawings.
As of May 2001, the Nativity facade is finished, and the Passion facade almost. The nave (started in 1978) is also almost completed. The new work is done with modern materials (concrete instead of stone for the new towers, for example).

After raising the money to buy the land for the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia, Josep Maria Bocabella asked the city council to recommend an architect. They recommended Francesc de Villar, who started work along with consultant architect Joan Martorell, whose assistant was the young Antonio Gaudí. Bocabella thought that de Villar's estimated costs were rather high, and he asked Martorell what he thought. He thought they were rather high, too, and de Villar went off in a huff. Since it was Martorell's statements that led to de Villar leaving, he did not want to take over the job, and suggested that it be given to Gaudí.

Meanwhile, Bocabella had had a dream. He dreamt that the man who finished the church would have blue eyes. Martorell had brown eyes, Gaudí's were blue.

Gaudí completely redesigned the building, while making use of the foundations that had already been laid for the apse. One radical change was in the orientation of the church: nearly every other church in Europe is built on an East-West axis, with the altar at the east and the main doors at the west. Thus the congregation when facing the altar is facing the rising sun and also facing Jerusalem. La Sagrada Familia is on a North-South axis, with the altar and apse at the north. The reason for this is to be found in the symbolism of the church's three façades: the façade of life, with imagery of plants and animals, the birth of Christ and his early life, faces the east, so the sun shines on it in the morning, in keeping with its theme of beginnings. The façade of death, with imagery of the passion, faces west, towards the setting sun, at the end of day. The southern, principal façade, lit by the glory of the midday sun, is to be the façade of the glory of Jesus. Its symbolism will address the life of men and what is to come after.

Bocabella's intention was to provide a church for the people paid for by the people. The construction work has therefore been financed entirely by voluntary donations. This explains its slow progress until recent years. At present, only technical constraints determine the speed of construction, which is expected to be finished in twenty to forty years, depending on the speed of relevant technical innovation. The difference was made by the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, which led to a huge increase in the number of tourists visiting the church. It is now the most visited building in Spain, attracting more visitors even than the Alhambra or Escorial. And every visitor makes a voluntary donation in order to enter.

In Gaudí's lifetime the apse and much of the façade of life were finished. Only one of the façade's towers had been finished when he was run over by a tram in 1926; the rest were finished in 1929, while the decoration was completed in 1933. When I first visited the church in 1989 the future nave was hinted at by the first couple of metres of many of its pillars and work was proceeding slowly on the façade of death. As of last Thursday the façade of death was long finished, with stark sculptures by the prominent Catalan sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs, and over fifty workmen were working full time to finish the vault of the nave. When that has been done serious work can start on the main façade.

The highest tower, representing Christ, will be 170 metres tall. This is three metres lower than the summit of Montjuic, the highest point in Barcelona. Gaudí said it had to be lower than the mountain because man should not try to outdo God. It will still be a lot of stone. To carry the immense weight, the four pillars at the crossing (where the transepts cross the nave) are made of porphyry, the hardest rock after diamond.

The profiles of the towers and arches are catenary curves. They pass all their weight down to their own foundations, and the structure stands alone without buttresses. Gaudí was no lover of mathematics, and to avoid having to solve cubic equations to draw the curves he made upside-down string models, hanging bags of lead weights from the strings to represent the load the arches and vaults would later bear, and then copied the curves of the strings.

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