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Guidepost cover, 14 January 1972



14 January 1972

Lightning strikes jaggedly down a tortured sky. Its eerie blue brilliance, flashing across the rain-lashed    Barcelona rooftops, reveals suddenly four towering spires that have been standing high in the darkness over the city.

The towers are parts of a strange structure and they are extremely tall. They have been there for a long time, huge and silent, as immovable up there in the blackness with a wild gale beating against their sides as they have been on any sleepy summer afternoon.

Tomorrow, when the storm clears, their solid, still-wet sides will gleam in the fresh sun and their high polychrome tops will sparkle with brightly fragmented colors.   But the four towers will still be reaching, in this same way, for some unseen aspiration far out beyond the small changes from rain to sun or from night to day.

Gaudi portrait (1878)

The four stone towers are nearly all there is of a great man’s dream.   The man is dead, some thirty-five years now.   But the enormity of his genius survives in the growing might of this dream. The four towers are the east façade of what will someday be Antonio Gaudi’s remarkable Expiatory Church of the Holy Family, La Sagrada Familia.

La Sagrada Familia will probably go down in all the texts as the crowning masterpiece of this strange man.  But to those who knew Antonio Gaudi it is fare fit for debate whether the man made the masterpiece or the masterpiece made the man.

Unlike many a poverty-ridden artist, Gaudi, the son of a simple copper-smith’s family of Tarragona, was recognized very early in his career as an architect of extraordinary ability, and he took full advantage of the doors to wealth and prestige opened to him by this talent.

In 1910 when he was fifty-eight and he had been working on La Sagrada Familia for more than 25 years, the temple began to exert its powerful influence on the life of the talented sophisticate of Barcelona society. Gaudi then became a poverty-ridden artist for the final sixteen years of his brilliant career.

Gaudi in a Corpus Christi processsion, 1924. “He became very religious, poured over the scriptures which provided his themes for temple adornments, and lived modestly as a celibate.”

He began refusing all private commissions to turn his attentions exclusively to work on the temple. He became very religious, poured over the scriptures and liturgical books which provided his themes for temple adorn ments, and lived modestly as a celibate for years.

He grew so dedicated to the erection of his temple that he devoted his mo ney to it, seldom keeping more than carfare on his person and allowing his personal attire to deteriorate to the point where he was more than once mistaken for a tramp. He was even deaf to the storms of praise and protest that raged over his work on La Sagrada Familia.

And storms there were. A group of intellectuals once attempted to put a stop to Gaudi’s unusual temple.   But an indignant Barcelona, which had been won over by the strangely beautiful structure slowly rising on what was then the outskirts of the city, blocked the opposition.

The people had seen how the temple’s beginnings were fulfilling the wondrous expectations of the architect’s creative imagination.  It was not simply the towering dimensions of the future temple that impressed them, although this was imposing enough.  The four towers now completed, soar to more than 350 feet.   The central dome, dedicated to Jesus Christ, will arch to a height of more than 560 feet.

Nativity façade and belfries

And eight more towers like the presently completed four will be built. The present four top the east facade, or the facade of the Nativity.  Of the coming eight more, four will be for the facade of the Passion of Our Lord on the west front.   The other four will reign over the main facade on the south which will develop the theme of the final judgement, the summary asagrada nd the end of man’s life.   Thus, there will be twelve towers in all, each representing one of the apostles.

Besides these, there will be four domes surrounding the central dome and each one will be dedicated to one of the evangelists.   Over the presbytery will be yet another huge dome dedicated to the Virgin Mary.   The church of La Sagrada Familia, whose sixteen chapels, three facades, two sacristies, one crypt and one cloister will cover double the area of Venice’s St. Mark’s, will rise more than 65 feet higher than St. Peter’s of Rome.

Yet it was more than the church’s awesome proportions that won the admiration of the people of Barcelona.   The startling architectural style was something never seen before Gaudi.   And within those twelve towering belfries was to be a vast and strange assortment of bells.

There will be enough high and middle-toned bells of several types to play a concert.   Besides the ordinary bells, some sounded by percussion, and others by air as in an organ, and they will be played by means of an electric keyboard.

The sound that someday issues from the temple towers, however, will be no less brilliant than the many colors Gaudi was unafraid to introduce into the temple’s design.  And the sculptures that will adorn the temple’s heights are also the product of Gaudi’s hand.

If the intellectuals had missed the promise of Gaudi’s work the people of Barcelona hadn’t his work went on.   Gaudi, himself, completely ignoring the arguments that boiled over the merits of his strange new architectural style, had problems of his own.

La Sagrada Familia in 1905

Having accepted the Gothic style as a basis for the architecture of the temple, he resolved to introduce modifications that would eliminate difficulties inherent in purely Gothic architecture.   He wrestled for a long time with these problems but the result has been acclaimed by some as the most important step in architecture since the XII century.

The previous major innovation was Gothic architecture’s pointed arch ways, or ogives, as they are called.

Ogives, which are sometimes diagonally situated in the construction greatly minimized the great massiveness necessary in the classic Roman system of arches.   The rotunda of the Roman Pantheon, for example, has a round vault more than 140 feet in diameter and walls more than twenty feet thick.

Although Gothic architecture’s light ogival construction eased these difficulties, it had drawbacks too.  There are objections to Gothic architecture’s characteristic need for flying buttresses, counterforts and dead weights on the key stones of the arches.

Gaudi, attacking these problems, at first, devised a way out of the need for counterforts and flying buttresses in La Sagrada Familia.   But he was not satisfied.  It was not until he devised his new solution of the weight distribution on the arches that the full flower of his genius blossomed.

Gaudi’s mystical forest

In his mystical forests of parabolas, hyperboles and tilted columns, whose mosaic capitals reach out like the branches of geometrical trees, one finds a surprising expression of an elementary architectural principle.   It is the principle that form must follow function, a principle forgotten for many centuries by Western civilization and just then being rediscovered by the great architects of Gaudi’s life time.

Curiously enough, the initial idea for the temple which became Gaudi’s obsessive pre-occupation was originally another man’s dream and a quite different dream at that.   When José Maria Bocabella y Verdaguer passed through Loreto, Italy, on a trip to Rome, he so admired their basilica that he determined to build a duplicate in Barcelona.

Bocabella solved the main financial problem when he procured very cheaply the temple site which was then far from the center of the city.   That was in 1881.   Gaudi was commissioned to work on the temple only several years later after the diocesan architect, Francisco del Villar, resigned from the project.


Villar resigned in a clash with Bocabella’s personal adviser for the temple, another architect, Juan Martorell.   In view of the circumstances, Martorell declined the opportunity to take charge himself and recommended the promising young Antonio Gaudi.

Gaudi at first made only minor alterations which would not be construed as significant changes in the original plan.   In 1891, the year the crypt was completed, Bocabella died.  Then, as the years progressed, Gaudi and the temple of the Sacred Family both developed.   By the time Gaudi died in 1926, both he and the temple had become drastically different from what they had each been when they started.   And each owed the change mainly to the other.

Today, the work goes on.   But progress is slow.   It is not only the financial problem of the construction.  Skilled hands are painstakingly reconstructing Gaudi’s only record of his work, the plaster models smashed in the wrath of the Civil War.

This work is being done in a room — under the east facade beneath the soaring bell towers of the Nativity front. It is being done with great care, for this is the stuff of a frighteningly powerful determination.   And overhead, the bell towers stand through the years like tall sentinels, naked to the night’s rain and wind and all the brightness of the summer day.   However irretrievably gone the dreamer, they are the immutable shape of his dream.


Images via Wikimedia Commons
>1878 Gaudi potrait/Pablo Audouard Deglaire (1856-1919). PD in Spain, USA, etc: author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.
>Gaudi in procession/Author unknown. Source: Gaudi by Maria Antonia Crispi. PD in Spain, USA, etc. 
>Nativity façade/Francesca Hyanna19, CC BY-SA4.0, cropped
>Sagrada Familia in 1905/Baldomer Gili i roig (1873-1926). Source: Museo d’Art Jaume Morena. PD
>Gaudi’s forest/Andrew Moore, CC BY-SA2.0
>Bocabella, 19th century painting. Uploaded by Alex Clapés. Source/Photographer: https://www.gaudidesigner.com/es/sagrada-familia-don-josep-maria-boccabella_333.html. PD