I recently made a pilgrimage to Barcelona to see Gaudi’s masterwork, the Temple of the Holy Family, or the Eglisa de la Sagrada Familia, a building which has fascinated me for decades.
I first saw the Church back in 1975. It had been a-building since the late 19th century, and when I first saw it, it was in a poor state. It had several of Gaudi’s trade-mark towers, a bit of apse, and some sorry-looking, weathered fragments of wall which could have been an abandoned building project, or the remains of an ancient ruin. So far as I could see, the entire work-force consisted of two men, a wheelbarrow and a dog, and I decided that they could scarcely maintain what was there, never mind complete the project.
The 1992 Barcelona Olympics gave the project a huge boost, and I saw it again soon afterwards. The transformation was dramatic. The site was packed with cranes, heavy equipment, men in hard hats, and all the noise and bustle of an active construction site. But there was still a long way to go.
Today, large parts of the structure are complete, with a nave, side aisles, transepts and so on. There are walls on all sides, and the entire space is roofed. Yet more needs to be done, especially on the South-East Front, and while the roof is in place, the huge central tower is only partly started. The interior is still filled with the noise and activity of a building site, but there is already extensive and stunning stained glass in the windows.
The Sagrada Familia is, depending on your point of view, either the grotesque nightmare of a designer who, if not intoxicated with narcotics, at least appeared to be hallucinating; or, alternatively, a mighty triumph of the human imagination, a splendid sui generis concept that bears no comparison with anything else in the world. I subscribe to the latter view.
The weekend before my visit the Sunday Telegraph ran its “My Kind of Town” feature on Barcelona, and said “There’s no need to go inside the Sagrada Familia; you can get great views from the outside”. They could scarcely be more wrong. Yes, there are great views from the outside, but the inside is stunning. Gaudi was inspired both by geometry and by natural forms. His forest of elegantly sculpted columns divide like tree branches to support the roof, and use profiles and contours that are entirely unique to this church. There are lifts up the towers allowing access to the narrow spiral staircases between their double walls, with amazing views across the city. No description does it justice: you have to see it.
The church occupies a city block in a square grid layout, and two adjacent blocks (NE and SW) are given over to public parks, one with an elegant lake. But sadly the other two (NW and SE) are covered with undistinguished but multi-storey modern buildings. The SE front of the church is already extending into the roadway, so the finished SE front will be only yards away from five-storey buildings. I just wish that the City Fathers of Barcelona had the courage, and the money, to take over those two city blocks and convert them to parks and plazas to complement the Church.
When I first saw the Church in 1975, I thought it would never be finished. Now, I have some hopes that I may live to see the day.