Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Sagrada Familia (Church of the Holy Family)

The 328-foot-tall (100-meter) spires of the Church of the Sagrada Familia dominate the skyline of Barcelona, the chief city of Catalonia, in northeastern Spain. This unique church, which, in the tradition of the medieval cathedrals of Europe, remains unfinished more than a century after it was started, is one of the great pieces of world architecture. Its fantastic forms defy our vocabulary and confound any attempt at stylistic classification. It marks the fin de siècle rejection of historical revivalism—perhaps it is the last true Gothic church—but unlike the willful forms of the contemporary Art Nouveau (a category to which some historians have consigned it), it is respectful of the past in its local context and the broader sphere. To repeat, it is unique.

Around 1874, José María Bocabella y Verdaguer (1815–1892), the proprietor of a religious bookshop and cofounder of the reformist Society of Devotees of Saint Joseph, initiated a proposal to build a votive church, the replica of the basilica at Loreto, Italy. Members of the society were solicited for funds, but the money raised was not even enough to buy land in Barcelona. At the end of 1881, 5 acres (2 hectares) of land were bought in the city’s outlying “new town” on the Muntanya Pelada, near the Gran Via Diagonal. Changing his mind, Bocabella commissioned the diocesan architect Francisco del Villar y Lozano, who produced a church of neo-Gothic design. The foundation stone was laid about a year later, but the building had not progressed far when del Villar fell out with the administration and resigned. Bocabella’s son-in-law offered the lapsed commission to Juan Martorell, technical supervisor of the project. He declined, recommending his 31-year-old erstwhile assistant, Antoni Gaudí y Cornet (1852–1926), a fiercely nationalistic Catalan, who took over in November 1883.

The son of a coppersmith, Gaudí studied at Barcelona’s Escola Superior d’Arquitectura, graduating in 1878. Not a particularly good student, he nevertheless established a busy practice. His early work, particularly the Casa Vicens (1878–1880) in Barcelona, attracted the attention of the wealthy industrialist Count Eusebio Güell, who became his patron. For Güell he designed, amongst other works, the Palacio Güell (1885–1889) and Park Güell (1900–1914). Both are fine examples of the sensuous, free-curving, and richly decorated architecture for which Gaudí became admired by his European contemporaries. Of course, he brought the same celebration of form to the Sagrada Familia.

Francisco del Villar had quit the project when the walls of the crypt, the chapels, and part of the pillars of his prosaic church were built. The crypt is therefore neo-Gothic, structurally and esthetically, but Gaudí modified it as much as he could and surrounded it with a moat. Completing its vaulting in 1887, he turned to the apse (he preferred to finish one section of the church before addressing the next). Although he was constrained by the completed foundations, Gaudí otherwise abandoned del Villar’s design and replaced the neo-Gothic buttresses with sloping columns. In 1893, with the apse still incomplete, and in the face of criticism (because others believed that the west front, facing the city, was more important), he turned his attention to the east front, where he wanted to celebrate Christ’s nativity. Gaudí proposed four 330-foot-high (100-meter) towers for each front of the Sagrada Familia. The towers of the evangelists on the east facade are the last built under his supervision; their tips, glorious with glazed color ceramic, were finished after his death. The huge Portal of the Nativity, enriched by sculpture, is the only one of the four planned portals completed in his lifetime. All these elements eloquently express the spirit of Gothic architecture while celebrating their own ebullient originality. In 1917 Gaudí completed designs for the west front with its Portal of the Passion of Christ. The south front was to have the Portal of the Last Judgment. Space does not permit a description of the church; in any case, words would fail to create an image. The building that one of Gaudí’s friends called “a marvelous, budding flower” must be personally experienced.
Because the project was privately financed, building work was intermittent. After 1908, Gaudí committed himself exclusively to the church as designer, construction supervisor, and fund-raiser. Becoming increasingly reclusive, he eventually moved to accommodations on the building site. He became obsessed with the idea that his church could redeem Barcelona from what he saw as the evils of secularism. In 1922, the architect Teodoro de Anasagasti Asensio proposed that the church become a public work, to be financed by the state. On the afternoon of 7 June 1926, Gaudí was struck by a trolley car while crossing a street near his beloved Sagrada Familia. He died in the hospital three days later without having regained consciousness. He left only sketches of the overall project, as well as drawings and scale models of various parts. Supervision was taken over by his associate Sugañes, who completed the east portals in 1935; he was working on the vestries when the Spanish civil war broke out, and he died in the conflict. In 1936 an anticlerical mob overran the Sagrada Familia, burning the plans and destroying the models. Further building activity was halted until 1952, when architect Lluis Bonet rebuilt the models.

In the face of debate over whether the church should remain uncompleted as a monument to Gaudí, construction began again in 1979, closely following his plan. Funded by private donations and the sale of tickets to increasing numbers of visitors—there were 1.2 million in 1999—the work proceeds. The main nave has been under construction since 1986 under the supervision of architect Jordi Bonet. It is expected that the church will be covered with its very complicated irregular vaults by 2010, although the exterior of the roof will still be unfinished. The construction council is optimistic that the Sagrada Familia will be completed in only fifty years.

Since 1992 there has been a movement among Barcelona’s Catholic hierarchy to effect Gaudí’s eventual canonization; it was given fresh impetus in 1998, and in April 2000 the Diocesan Beatification Process was officially opened. The city of Barcelona has declared 2002 the International Year of Gaudí to commemorate the 150th anniversary of his birth.

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