Barcelona's Sagrada Família: Gaudí's 'cathedral for the poor' – a history of cities in 50 buildings, day 49

Giles Fraser arrived in Barcelona not expecting to like Antoni Gaudí’s monumental creation – famously derided by George Orwell as ‘one of the most hideous buildings in the world’. But then he went inside ...

“On arriving in Barcelona,” wrote W H Auden in 1937, “I found that all the churches were closed and there was not a priest to be seen.” That was a typical piece of English understatement. The priests had been shot. Bodies of nuns had been exhumed and displayed in the street. Almost all of the city’s 58 churches were burned and many demolished. Barcelona’s medieval cathedral, set in the heart of the city, only survived by coming under the direct protection of local government.

Given the rich history of Catalan anti-clericalism long predating the Spanish civil war, it is remarkable that the Expiatory Temple of the Sagrada Família (to give it its full name) has now become the number-one tourist attraction in Barcelona, with some 3 million visitors annually. And even more remarkable given that the original idea for this astonishing project came from Josep Maria Bocabella, a wealthy Catalan publisher who was keen to challenge the spread of revolutionary ideas and to raise a temple to expiate the sins of leftist political ideology.

As a fashionable yet deeply conservative Catholic architect, the young Antoni Gaudí was the obvious choice to imagine this counter-revolutionary philosophy into stone. The project is slated for completion sometime in 2026 – Gaudí was appointed chief architect in 1883. “My client is not in a hurry,” he famously insisted. His client, of course, was God.

Inside La Sagrada Família: ‘It is the most astonishing space with immediate emotional punch.’
Inside La Sagrada Família: ‘It is the most astonishing space with immediate emotional punch.’ Photograph: Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images

Famously, when Gaudí was run over by a tram in 1926 just a few streets from his beloved building site, his body was mistaken for a beggar’s. Over the final 12 years of his life he had dedicated himself exclusively to prayer, to long periods of fasting, and to the construction of La Sagrada Família. Living in squalor amid peeling wallpaper, his clothes held together by pins, he came to adopt that very Catholic veneration of poverty. His great project, on which he worked obsessively, was to be “a cathedral for the poor” – and yet he forged his reputation building extravagant villas for Catalan millionaires and courting wealthy patrons. This intimate relationship between money and the church was precisely what fuelled the Catalan suspicion of the clergy.

But Gaudí saw no contradiction. In his world, the poor were an object of prayer and not a subject for politics, especially not revolutionary politics. Indeed, it was a sin to threaten the established order. One sculpture on the Sagrada Família depicts the devil handing a working-class revolutionary an Orsini bomb. “A church [is] the only thing worthy of representing the soul of a people, for religion is the most elevated reality in man,” said Gaudí – words repeated by Pope Benedict XVI when he said the first Mass in the Sagrada Família at its dedication on 7 November, 2010.

I admit, I arrived in Barcelona not expecting to like the Sagrada Família. From the outside, it looks too much like a tacky theme park – part-sandcastle, part-spaceship. George Orwell called it “one of the most hideous buildings in the world”. Long queues of ice cream-licking tourists snaked round the street from the ticket office. Today it was full, they told me – but I could buy a ticket for tomorrow. There was a 15-minute window in the afternoon. So having time to kill, I decided to go see the real Cathedral of Barcelona instead, as (though it may be referred to as one) the Sagrada Família is not actually a cathedral.

Gaudí was appointed chief architect in 1883; the project is slated for completion in 2026.
Gaudí was appointed chief architect in 1883; the project is slated for completion in 2026. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty

And what a contrast. There were no queues, no shoals of gawping flesh. Inside, the organ was being practised. Singing could be heard from somewhere within the cloisters, and a beautiful stone fountain of clear drinking water offered a welcome refreshment, while 13 white geece wandered freely in the centre of the cloister. This was beauty on a human scale. Many people were even using it as a place to sit quietly and pray. Grand yes, but perfectly at one with the narrow medieval streets that surround it.

Like the Sagrada Família, its construction spanned three centuries, from the 13th to the 15th. Unlike the Sagrada Família, which was set to be the tallest church in the world, it didn’t feel like a work of overbearing ecclesiastical triumphalism – the craftsmen who made the cathedral were anonymous. Today, Gaudí has become almost a cult in himself, and many now lobby for him to become a saint.

Little wonder the Sagrada Família has not always been quite as popular with the people of Barcelona as it has been with tourists. In July 1936, revolutionaries set light to the crypt and broke their way into the workshop, destroying Gaudí’s original plans, drawings and plaster models, leaving the next generation of architects with an enormous puzzle of how best to proceed.

It took them 16 years just to piece together the fragments of the master model, and controversy has followed its construction ever since. Some, like Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, thought it should have been left alone as a folly. Others insisted that the use of new materials – reinforced concrete rather than stone, and now 3D printing – cheapened Gaudí’s original ideals. The new build, some argued, was a shoddy job, badly executed.

The Judas Treason by sculptor Josep Subirachs.
The Judas Treason by sculptor Josep Subirachs. Photograph: Alamy

With all these cavils running around my head, I passed through the door of the nativity façade – and almost at once, any doubts were expelled. It is the most astonishing space with immediate emotional punch. The scale and colours of the interior are truly magnificent.

Bone-like columns twist their way to the ceiling, branching out from ellipsoid knots, reaching upwards, creating the impression of being in an enormous forest. Vast geometric stars decorate the ceiling, punctured by open hyperboloids, sucking in the light and all suggesting the canopy of heaven. The greens, blues, yellows and reds of the light coming through Joan Vila Grau’s stained-glass windows create a dappled effect with constantly shifting patterns illuminating the stone, decorated by grapes, cherries and flowers. “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork” is how Psalm 19 described creation. Gaudí and his successors just copied it – the latter with quite a lot of help from the latest computer modelling software.

Magical and fantastical, witty even, the outside is fine for fridge magnets. But it’s the inside where the full abundance of Gaudí’s biomimetic theological aesthetic is made complete. Everywhere you look, the details have been attended to with such meticulous care and attention; everything has a meaning in line with a desire that the building should be a teaching tool, from which the entire history of the church could be read.

But it is the dizzying verticality that creates the strongest impression, as if the world is tipped up towards heaven. All of which – stone, light, verticality – are the central ingredients of the medieval cathedral too. Indeed, for all its contemporary decoration and geometrical wizardry, it is still a remarkably traditional building.

But for all this, I will always remain suspicious of the glamour and allure of big expensive Christian buildings – and the way they can easily become an end in themselves, rather than a way of pointing beyond their walls. Indeed, can anything as architecturally flashy as the Sagrada Família ever really point beyond itself? This is precisely why iconoclasm and the smashing of stone representations of God has long been a part of Christian history. Of course, this comment reflects my own experience of the conflict between St Paul’s Cathedral and Occupy.

For some, a church building is – and should only ever be – a glorified rain-shelter. After all, Christ had little truck with the Temple of his day. And the early church did pretty well out of meeting in each other’s houses. But when the Roman Empire absorbed Christianity into itself, thus creating Christendom, it bought off the Jesus movement’s radical, almost anarchist-like instincts with a fancy building programme. Now Christendom is almost dead, churches like the Sagrada Família feel like the effervescence of a bygone age. If Christianity has a future, it won’t be because of places such as these.

• Which other buildings in the world tell stories about urban history? Share your own pictures and descriptions with GuardianWitness, on Twitter and Instagram using #hoc50 or let us know suggestions in the comments below


Giles Fraser in Barcelona

The GuardianTramp

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