Architect Antoni Gaudi Based His Design for Sagrada Familia on Leaves and Rocks
Like most visitors to Barcelona, Spain, Sagrada Familia Basilica was on my must see list, so I was surprised when an employee of the hotel where I was staying told me not to bother going inside. “Tickets are very expensive and there’s not much to see,” he said. If I hadn’t been convinced by his advice, the block-long line of people waiting to buy tickets sealed my decision; seeing the outside was sufficient. Two months later I returned to Barcelona during the off-season. The long lines were gone and I simply couldn’t resist the lure of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
At the passion facade I paused to examine the twin bronze doors that display snippets of verse from the New Testament, noting the differing heights of the raised letters, as if the artist wanted some words to stand out more than others. Blinking in the dim light, I made my way to the center of the nave and stood at the intersection of the Latin Cross floor plan. Soft light streamed through stained glass windows that wrapped the nave, bathing everything in rich shades of purple, green, gold, and pink. I craned my neck, tracing massive tree-trunk columns to the vaulted ceiling, where a canopy of stone leaves spread, as if protecting parishioners from the elements. A tingle ran up my spine as I soaked in the atmosphere of serenity and prayer. It felt as if I was looking at the church through the eyes of Antoni Gaudí, the famous Catalán architect responsible for the structure we see today.
When Gaudí died in 1926, Sagrada Familia was barely 25% complete but a few months before he was killed in a tragic trolley accident he was able to see the pinnacle of the St. Barnabas bell tower placed atop the Nativity facade. He looked at the colorful Venetian mosaics with which the pinnacle was decorated and declared, “Look at the top! Is it not true that it seems to unite Heaven and Earth? This burst of mosaics is the first thing that sailors will see when approaching Barcelona; it will be a radiant welcome.” By that time, the Catalán architect been working on the famous Barcelona church for 43 years and it barely resembled the Gothic revival design proposed by its original architect, Francisco de Paula del Villar. Only the crypt of the church was completed before Villar retired, one year after beginning construction. Gaudí took over and completely reinterpreted the style of the church.
Originally, Gaudí opted for a Neo-Gothic approach but over the ensuing years he began tinkering with new design ideas. As a youngster, he had suffered from bouts of rheumatism that delayed his schooling and kept him from playing with other children. Instead, his mother took him on long nature walks in the countryside. In his waning years, Gaudí credited these walks as having allowed him to capture “the purest and most pleasant images of nature, that nature that is ever our Mistress.” It was that Mistress to whom he turned for guidance in the design of Sagrada Familia. Using a magnolia leaf as inspiration, he experimented with parabolic design, a method of building curves from straight lines, testing his theories in the construction of a small cottage to be used as a school for the children of construction workers.
By 1915 he had begun to study the geometry of hyperboloids and once again, nature was his muse. He envisioned the interior columns in the nave and aisles of the church as enormous trees that created an overarching canopy of leaves, though which the sunlight could be seen in daytime and the stars in the heavens at night. After many years of research into the helicoidal growth of plants, Gaudí adopted this movement of growth for the design of his columns, using Oleander branches as a model. For exterior elements, Gaudí studied the crystallization of minerals like pyrite, fluorite and galena. He incorporated these polyhedral forms into giant fruit cones, colored with Venetian ceramics, that crown the Basilica towers.
Even now, 77 years after the architect’s death, Sagrada Familia is far from finished. Some claim it will be complete by 2026, some say even earlier, but signage at the church now claims the facility will be completed by the middle of this century. What is clear is that work continues at a lively pace. Three lemon-colored construction cranes towered over the church, laying stone elements in place, while workmen crawled around scaffolding that covered the yet to be completed Glory Facade. During his lifetime Antoni Gaudí insisted that, “The great book, always open and which we should make an effort to read, is that of nature.” But you can’t read the book of the Sagrada Familia unless you pay the 13.50 Euros (~$17.50 USD) to actually see the interior. In my opinion it’s well worth the price of admission. I left that evening feeling as if I’d read volumes.