The independent Catalonian spirit has fostered much innovation in many areas, but nowhere is it more obvious and available than in art and architecture. At the turn of the century the style of the day was Art Nouveau, or as it was called in Spain– Modernista and Catalonia – Modernisme. Some of the world’s greatest proponents and practitioners were in Barcelona.
We have always been attracted to the Art Nouveau style, and have actively searched out examples wherever we travel; Paris, Brussels, Prague, and many other cities have excellent examples of the widespread influence of the movement. But nowhere that we have traveled has had such a richness of Art Nouveau like Barcelona, and especially in its architecture.
As a reaction to 19th-century designs dominated by neoclassicism, Art Nouveau evolved out of the English Arts and Crafts Movement. It was also fueled by a fascination in Japanese wood block prints of Hiroshige, Hokusai and others that swept through Europe in the late 1800s. It embraced the use of stylized organic forms as a source of inspiration and derived directly from the natural world.
The Art Nouveau style influenced architecture, graphic art, interior design, and most decorative arts including jewelry, furniture, textiles, household silver and other utensils and lighting, as well as the fine arts. According to the advocates of the style, art should be a way of life.
Nineteenth century Art Nouveau-style architecture reached its greatest heights with the spectacular works of Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926). His conceptions were a series of architectural achievements, as were those of his contemporaries, like Lluís Domènech i Montaner and others in Barcelona.
The most well-known Gaudi structure is the Expiatory Temple of the Sagrada Família. The distinctive church has been under construction since 1882. Gaudi was appointed head architect in 1884, and the building is expected to be completed in 2026.
I had heard of Gaudi and had seen photos of the church when I was a student. At the time it reminded me of a kind of an elaborate sandcastle. I even imagined that the term “gaudy” (garish and flamboyant) must have derived from the architect’s name and his structure.
Frankly, I didn’t know what to expect, and wasn’t even sure it was going to be worth the trouble it took to get tickets. Approaching the Sagrada Familia has been described as looking “too much like a tacky theme park- part-sandcastle, part-spaceship”. Yet as I walked through the “Nativity façade” I entered a space that was more remarkable than I could have ever imagined. Soaring columns resembling massive tree trunks rose and branched to support the ceiling that was covered with a geometric canopy of stylized leaves and stars. The modern, massive, arched stained-glass windows glowed brightly with all the colors of the rainbow illuminating the interior with the hues of the heavens.
The crowd of people inside the church was milling about quietly except for the collective buzz of astonishment at the incredible space. The magnificence of Gaudi’s vision was obviously based on the natural world. In his designs one could imagine the structure being inspired by forests, animal skeletons, shells, seeds and myriad other structures from nature. Indeed, he once said “originality consists of going back to the origins.”
Gaudi was killed in 1926 after being hit by a tram in Barcelona, and after his death, his close collaborator Domènec Sugrañes took over the management of the works until 1938.
Major elements were completed in 1930 and in 1933. However, in July 1936, after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, revolutionaries set fire to the crypt, burned down the school and destroyed the architect’s workshop. Original plans, drawings and photographs were lost and many large-scale plaster models were smashed. The Civil War and World War II essentially stopped construction until the 1950s.
Though Gaudi’s original concepts were known, without the resources that were destroyed construction on the Sagrada Familia became more difficult and controversial. Work often depended on assumptions about how the great architect had originally planned the remaining elements.
Since 2010 work resumed and a completion date of 2026 has been projected. Structural calculations and modeling, aided by computers, contributes directly to completing it faster. Decorative details that once had to be crafted by skilled workers are now produced by fast-moving computer controlled technologies working from digitally created patterns, while structural problems that would have required arduous modeling and calculations can now be worked out with the click of a mouse.
While the results are still controversial, and there are many problems yet to be overcome, the structure is a magnificent monument. It speaks volumes to the artistic and architectural style of Modernisme, and the genius of Antoni Gaudi and his vision and faith.
Regardless of one’s beliefs or faith, Sagrada Familia is a structure that is simply inspiring. It was far more of an extraordinary experience than I had ever expected.