Obsession In Stone
A celestial vision slowly takes form
More than mere structures, the works of Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi delight the senses and ignite the imagination. His constructions--such as the tile-encrusted, undulating benches of Parc Guell and the otherworldly, wavy facade of the La Pedrera apartment building--are alive with movement. Sprinkled around Barcelona, they have come to symbolize the creative spirit of the city.
None has more mystique than his masterwork, the quirky cathedral called Sagrada Familia. A fantasy world of spires and stone stalagmites, it is still unfinished after more than 100 years, slowed mostly by money shortages but also by political turmoil and the challenge of turning Gaudi's vision into stone. The structure and its epic story have fascinated art historians, drawn wayward souls back to God, and spurred admirers to call for Gaudi's elevation to sainthood.
The architect was inseparable from his creation. The gloomy, eccentric genius spent his last years living in the crypt of the Sagrada Familia. "He worked, ate, slept, and, in the end, was buried inside of her," says historian and Gaudi expert Daniel Giralt-Miracle. "He never had a family; he was married to the Sagrada Familia. The relationship was, in his case, a very obsessive passion."
Gaudi took over the project in 1882 and turned a plan for a conventional Gothic church into a unique illustration of ardor. Art historians have described his style as a mix of art nouveau, surrealism, cubism, and neo-Gothic--"a wild stylistic kleptomania," says Gijs van Hensbergen in his book Gaudi. More than anything else, he was inspired by nature. Twisting columns of basalt, granite, and porphyry rise in the church's interior. Branching at the top, they create the illusion of a stone forest, with light filtering from above as through leaves.
Gaudi illustrated his ideas with models more often than on paper. "Nature was Gaudi's model, and nature doesn't make projects on paper," explains Joan Bassegoda, curator of the Sagrada Familia. He was known to experiment with weights and string to calculate the stress on arches, and his structures, improbable as they appear, have held up well.
Even so, "it's not so simple to build a Gaudi structure," says Jordi Bonet, 78, the architect in charge of the Sagrada Familia project for the past 17 years. "Skyscrapers are easier, with their straight lines and vertical columns." Thankfully, advanced computer programs, which allow Gaudi's complex geometric forms to be analyzed and turned into construction plans, are doubling the rate of progress, says Bonet.
Patience. The temple is now 60 percent complete. Eight of 18 spiraling towers are built; the tallest, 170 meters high and capped with a gigantic cross, is scheduled to be finished in 20 years. But it could take 40 years or more to complete the project. The pace of work depends largely on the generosity of the public, whose donations--about $ 10 million last year--fund the construction.
A smaller campaign is afoot to turn Gaudi into a saint. Over 500 devotees worldwide claim their prayers were answered after they appealed to the monkish, austere architect. There are letters from a man in Chile who says he was cured of cancer, a girl in Switzerland whose lost architecture school project magically re-appeared, and--perhaps as a nod to the rock-carved appearance of the Sagrada Familia--testimonials from dozens of believers who passed kidney stones.
When might the faithful begin to pray, officially, to St. Gaudi for cures or advice on building a sturdy outdoor deck? Chuckles Josep Manuel Almuzara, the architect leading the beatification process: "That's even more difficult to answer than the question of when will the Sagrada Familia be completed."
This story appears in the June 30, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.