Gaudí’s Masterpiece: La Sagrada Família

Spend a whole day in Barcelona viewing yet another giant church? My father (the architect) recommended it as something different. Something truly worthy of traveling to. Antoni Gaudí agreed. His vision was far different from any others’. Now, his legacy endures and evolves.

La Sagrada Família is an architectural masterpiece: it’s monumental, it’s gothic, it’s provocative. And regardless of what you believe, this is an outpouring of artistry unmatched in modern times.

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Cranes, scaffolds, nets: welcome to construction

Begun in 1882 under a different architect (Gaudí took over in 1883), it keeps emerging and changing, due to original plans burning in a fire, a civil war, two world wars, dozens of artists, and endless civic debate over what Gaudí really wanted. It may be the largest church in Catholicism upon its completion–it’s allegedly scheduled for 2032–though that may shift.

ENTRY

Hearing how long lines can be, I leave my hotel early, though I’m not close, and choose to walk. After getting lost, a flagged taxi finishes the last few blocks, but the ride takes far longer than I hoped. Upon arrival, I’m quickly deducing the unlikelihood of seeing anything: “We can only admit guests for two more entry times today, and your wait is three hours” says a patient usher to an unhappy queue stretching a block around the church’s perimeter. Wish I’d been able to purchase tickets online for timed entry, without wait. Sigh.

‘Hordes of whores’ stand in line. I am now one. An hour passes. The line barely moves. I consider what I could be doing instead of waiting to see this Frankensteinian building–after all, I AM in Barcelona, so the list is long and enticing: more beautiful art and architecture (more Gaudí too), tantalizing tapas and wines, supreme people watching, or exploring areas unknown. Alas, I am forcing patience. This better be something. Something seriously awesome. Another hour. The line moves some, but it doesn’t look promising. Then, after a mere 2.5 hours, the line convulses and we lurch forward–so quickly that I don’t have my Euros ready for the cashier–something I find annoying about others in line. Ha.

Upon entry, it becomes clear it’s worthy of every second waited: I am dumbfounded by the sheer scale of the four main towers, let alone the rest of the building’s sprawling exterior. Natural forms mixing with classical forms. Color. Pattern. Texture. I’m in for a treat.

DESIGN

“Man, it’s f*cking weird.” A U.S. tourist points to carved serpents slithering over the façade. I find it a bit Escheresque–which is to say I find it amazing. I’m blown away by its sheer dimension, its jaw-dropping scope, gauge, abstract. Unlike anything I’ve seen, it seems at once mechanical and ethereal. Bizarre meets familiar, as wholly different styles combine to forge this testament to religion, art.

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Lizards, snakes, oh my

However, there are so many cranes, scaffolds and nets covering the exterior, it’s a puzzle to discern what’s going on. Buttresses, columns, pediments, statues, animals, gargoyles–all in various stages of development. It’s massive by any standard of cathedral–and it’s not technically Barcelona’s cathedral–classified a basilica.

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The huge, finished ‘Nativity’ façade
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Towers above
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Stone window detail

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Stars hang from oozing sky above

Considered ‘Modernisme‘ in style, construction was planned for hundreds of years. When Gaudí died in 1926, only 15% – 25% had been completed–after 44 years. War and politics took their toll. And, size: its towers soar so far above anything in the city, it can be seen from almost anywhere. And, its main tower is not yet built–it will be far taller.

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A simple model showing finished basilica; brown structures are complete
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Soaring towers
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Cubist statues by Josep Subirachs on ‘Passion’ façade

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“Subirachs’ Square” next to his sculptures

The façades are disparate yet have harmony; Josep Subirachs designed the ‘Passion’ façade and statues to marry with much older/different façades. Elsewhere, stone meets glimmering glazed ceramic tile in wild patterns and colors; statues glower. Immense bronze doors summon entry with a hammering of giant words emblazoned upon them. Carvings everywhere. And it’s only 40% complete? Holy smokes. This church is going to be gigantic.

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A massive bronze door is hammered with words

Melted exteriors and interior balconies remind me of LSD-inspired art from the Grateful Dead era. Bizarre for a church. Common for Gaudí.

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Unique interior and railings bathed in light

Inside, the main hall is gargantuan, dwarfing most cathedrals, with massive columns, towers, statues. At once simple, the design is a complex of light, shadow, texture, pattern. Every aspect is considered. Most reminds me of Parisian art nouveau. Stained glass colors most the vast interior, bathing guests in a rainbow. The 200′ height of the central vault is impressive. Hundreds of guests mill around, bumping into one another looking up. Some are praying in the middle of the melee. Guards occasionally bark at errant guests wandering afoul. I take it all in. The amount of effort and love is clear. As an artist, I am in awe.

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The vast main nave and altar
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Electric batcave design
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Gaudí designed the columns to look like giant trees branching
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Rose window

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BUT WAIT–THERE’S MORE

Filing slowly through the main gallery, down to lower areas, we glimpse the crypt. I miss an opportunity to climb a tower due to timing and reservations. No matter. There’s so much to see here, it’s easily replaced by a plethora of additional areas.

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The crypt, part of original gothic architecture
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Giant models in the studio

We pass the studio, where models are built and tests conducted. Just that area is the size of many small businesses. Staff is working on the next steps in an almost unending list of tasks. Famous artists work out their interpretation of Gaudí’s vision. Computer models. Dozens of drawings. Endless work and rework.

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A huge model of the finished ‘Nativity’ façade
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An artist works on a computer-aided drafting system while another pulls an injection mold
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A study by Josep Subirachs

Gaudí’s studio still stands in the shadow of the church. A testament to a man’s sense of duty, honor and religion, he lived on premise. It too has an interesting abstract design. Yet very humble, like the man himself. Which makes me ponder: what masterpiece is still inside each of us? What possibility could we each create?

IF YOU GO
La Sagrada Família is a spectacular place, whether you’re religious or not. Anyone who visits Barcelona, Spain for more than a few days owes it to themselves to see Gaudí’s grand artistic spectacle. Building continues, and is scheduled to be complete by 2032. Sometimes, areas are closed due to construction. And, be warned: lines for tickets are very, very long. Exercise extreme patience. Now, you can reserve online and avoid the lines altogether. Plan your visit so you won’t waste all your time in a queue. Go early. Or late. But DO go.
All images and content copyright ©2017 Eric Schadel. All rights reserved.
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