Gaudí, the City Poet

Mingyue Chen

Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí designed seven buildings in Barcelona, which now have become the city’s tourism branding. Gaudí’s artworks are eye-refreshing for people who get tired of those box-like tall buildings in the concrete forest. His architectures feature vivid color and textures, organic and natural design, and religious imagery. Among his outstanding works, the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia is the most attractive to the public. One of the reasons is the Sagrada Familia has been constructed for a very long time. Gaudí took over the design of the Sagrada Familia in 1883. He spent more than forty years, almost half his life, realizing his ideal of building the buildings of God. Surprisingly, the Sagrada Familia is still under construction nearly a century and a half later. In this essay, I will focus on the story behind the Sagrada Familia: What kind of person Gaudí was, why did it take so long to build the Sagrada Familia, and what did Gaudí leave to Barcelona and the world.

Gaudí was born in the city of Reus in Catalonia in 1852. His hometown had cultivated his appreciation for Catalan culture: he was very proud of Catalonia’s creativity, ingenuity, and innate art and design. Before Gaudí arrived in Barcelona, ​​a significant urban transformation occurred there. In 1860, the Barcelona government approved the urban plan “Exiample” to demolish the old city walls and expand the city for a growing population. The government adopted the first urban plan designed by urban planner and politician Ildefons Cerda. After demolishing the city walls, Cerda redefined Barcelona with a grid-like structure. He believed that shaping space, including wider roads and equal distribution of buildings, could create a modern utopian society. Cerda’s urban plan ultimately transformed Barcelona into a fundamentally modern city. (Illas, Edgar, 2012) Cerda’s urban project had a significant influence on Gaudí’s youthhood. At sixteen, Gaudí moved to Barcelona to study in the Convent del Carme, where Gaudí started a project to restore Poblet Abbey with two classmates, Eduardo Toda and Josep Ribera I Sans. Their project transformed the monastery into a utopian social phalanx. Gaudí later studied architecture at the  Llotja School and the Barcelona Higher School of Architecture and ​​graduated in 1878. From Gaudí’s early experiences, we can see that Barcelona’s modern urban development process had a significant influence on Gaudí.

Gaudí’s architectural path was inseparable from the Barcelona city beautification movement of the 1880s. Gaudí’s first project was a lamppost for Plaza Reial in Barcelona. Later, he gained wider recognition in Casa Vicens. At the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1878, Gaudí showed his display case for the glove maker Comella. Its functional and aesthetic modernist design impressed Catalan industrialist Eusebi Güell, who subsequently commissioned some of Gaudí’s most outstanding works: the Sagrada Familia. The Sagrada Familia Church began as a project of Josephines, a group concern citizens, in 1866. The purpose of the Sagrada Familia was to fulfill the demand of the increasing working class. Because of the dissatisfaction with original architect Francesc del Villar’s building materials, the client group recommitted the well-known young architect Gaudí to take charge of la Sagrada Família. (Burry, Mark, et, 2008) By then, Gaudí had already completed a building and had some other designs onging well. During the period Barcelona was preparing for the World’s Fair, the elites in Spain greatly projected their expectations of the modern city in Barcelona’s city planning. Barcelona should have modern technology and wide roads, and the reinvention and re-expression of medieval Catalan culture. Many elites build many landmark buildings on the city’s central axis to make Barcelona a great city in world history. It is not difficult to imagine how the Sagrada Familia carried the elites’ dream of a great modern city.

Gaudí was a persistent and innovative man. Gaudí believed that building the Sagrada Familia was the most important project in his career. He wrote in a notebook, “The most important commission an architect can receive is a large cathedral project….” (Burry, Mark, et, 2008) After taking over the Sagrada Familia, Gaudí first drafted a project in 1885. But at this time, it was not clear to people what the Sagrada Familia would look like. Since the construction of the Sagrada Familia progressed very slowly, Gaudí faced doubts from donors and financial problems. However, the thirty years old Gaudí maintained a transparent, fixed idea of how the Sagrada Familia would have to be and even decided to spend his whole life finishing his project. After undergoing the budget issue, a sudden large donation in 1892 prompted Gaudí to define the Sagrada Familia by starting the construction of the Nativity façade. It was when he transformed this typical medium-sized church into a stunning high-rise Gaudí architecture.  

Gaudí’s work is not limited to a particular existing form. He combines a variety of styles to express his pride in Catalonia culture. Gaudí’s work was strongly influenced by local Catalan Gothic architecture and Catalan Modernism. From the architectural structure aspect, Gaudí follows the Catalan Gothic buildings. The most typical Catalan Gothic architecture has long halls, high vaults, and heavy buttresses. (Beddall, Thomas, 1975) It is different from French Gothic, which used complex silhouettes. Catalan architecture was more economical in decoration, often close to austerity. Catalans love simple prisms. Their arch ribs are relatively simpler than those found in northern France. Gaudí followed the Catalan style, using innovative geometry and space to define form., In his final plan of the Sagrada Familia, Gaudí combines French ornamentation with Catalan interior static load-bearing structure. In addition to his unique innovations in structure, his buildings are poetic in the language of architecture. In Gaudí’s work, rich ornamentation, organic patterns, and geometric forms derived from nature construct a unique poetic discourse rooted in Catalan ancestry. His architecture evokes people’s sense of nature and the surroundings by defamiliarizing everyday talents. The organic undulations in these buildings represent the power of freedom embraced by art. Researcher Charles Jencks considered Gaudí’s buildings as “ecstatic architecture.” He believes that Gaudí’s architecture transcends language’s practical and technical requirements and brings people a strong and mysterious emotional experience. (RAVENTÓS-PONS, ESTHER,2002) The verticality and movement of the towers of the Sagrada Familia underscore this transcendent spiritual experience. Gaudí was a very religious man in spirit, and he dedicated his last moments to the Sagrada Familia, which he considered a divine building. He poured this obsession with faith into constructing the Sagrada Familia and built it slowly and ascetic. His vital freedom and spiritual detachment made the Sagrada Familia a complete symbol beyond architecture. Even though the Sagrada Familia is not yet complete, it already has emotional significance as a great artwork.

Why is the unfinished Sagrada Familia important? In the article, You Done Me: Posthumous Works and Secondary Institutions, authors Sondra Bacharach and Deborah Tollefsen analyze the definition of when a work of art is done. They commented that if the original author commissioned work, the work belonged to the original author. Still, if someone changed their original idea or just went ahead and finished it without a commission, a new work would start. (Sondra Bacharach and Deborah, 2015) On a day of work at a central church in the Sagrada Familia, Gaudí was struck by the No. 30 tram and lost consciousness while passing the Catalan Parliament Avenue. At that time, he was in rags, and passersby thought he was a homeless man. In the end, Gaudí died because of no immediate medical treatment. When Gaudí was alive, the cathedral was only 15 to 25 percent complete. After his death, the Sagrada Familia continued to work under the direction of his assistant, Domènec Sugrañes I Gras. Gaudí once said, “This church was not built by one person alone. Maybe another architect should have built it after I’m gone.” Because Gaudí has said that he wants others to continue his work, the progress of Domenech Sogranes I at Sagrada Familia can be considered a continuation of Gaudí’s will. When the Spanish Civil War broke out on July 20, 1936, Gaudí’s studio burned down and broke this commission. Domènec Sugrañes I Gras died of despair two years later, and Gaudí’s commission in the Sagrada Familia is partially ended here. Construction on the Sagrada Familia began again in 1954. The newly restored Sagrada Familia was only 60 percent complete to Gaudí’s original expectation due to the destruction of Gaudí’s work. The design of the new Sagrada Familia was based on the reconstruction of the building that burned in the fire and a modern makeover. At this moment, the Sagrada Familia is no longer only a work built in succession to Gaudí’s will. It also represents the expectations of modern Barcelona people for the Sagrada Familia. 

Gaudí,  the last architect of Gothic architecture, left a rich cultural heritage to modern architects. Today, the Sagrada Familia construction team uses cutting-edge technology to follow Gaudí’s design footprint and build this century-old masterpiece. The current chief architect of the Sagrada Familia is Jordi Faulí I Olle, whose Ph.D. focuses on the vaulting of the Sagrada Familia. Engineering was undertaken by ARUP Design and Engineering, the engineering firm responsible for buildings such as the Sydney Opera House and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. In addition, more than 20 architects, mostly Catalans, and 200 workers were involved in the construction. (Burry, Mark, et, 2008) In 2019, the Sagrada Familia had 4.7 million visitors, making it the most visited monument in Barcelona. But it was closed at the beginning of 2020 due to the Covid-19. 

The goal of completing the cathedral by 2026 to mark the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s death has been abandoned, as tickets are the primary funding source for the ongoing construction work. “We can’t estimate when it will be done because we don’t know how tourist numbers will recover in the next few years,” Fauli said. (AFPRelaxnews, 2021)

The construction of the Sagrada Familia also faced conflicts with the citizens. When construction on the Sagrada Familia first started, it was surrounded by open spaces not yet been incorporated into Barcelona. But today, the busy Avenue de Mallorca cuts through the planned entrance, with apartment blocks standing where the stairs and park are. About 150 of the roughly 3,000 residents likely to be evicted each month marched along the south side of the church. They accused the city of Barcelona of failing to protect the rights of its residents. “I know that the Sagrada Familia will be happy if we drive everyone out and raze the buildings on the streets of Mallorca,” Barcelona’s deputy mayor said. (Time, 27 June 2019) But she doubts that this also makes Barcelona a place for tourism. Although the commit of the Sagrada Familia has agreed to pay an additional 36 million euros as compensation over the next ten years, the issue has never been truly resolved. No one has an idea of ​​​​what Barcelona should look like under an accelerating onslaught of tourists. Like the reconstruction of Notre Dame, the inauguration of the Sagrada Familia has sparked a heated debate about the appropriate role of this iconic historic building in the modern city. (Time, 27 June 2019) Now, think back to the time Gaudí started to work on the Sagrada Familia and the reason people initiated the Sagrada Familia construction. Gaudí’s unfinished Sagrada Familia is like a question mark across the century, questioning whether the modern development made Barcelona become the utopia people once imagined.


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