Sagrada Familia: The Divine Creative Freedom of Architect Antoni Gaudí
Updated: Oct 5
A celebration of science and spirit.
I’ve started a little tradition for myself. I never leave La Sagrada Familia Cathedral without sitting down in a pew and meditating, specifically on what it means to live a sacred life.
I’m not a religious person, but I think a sacred life means looking up and around at your surroundings, lifting your face to the light, and connecting with the work of someone who had something profound to say, whether that be God’s own work or that of some charming old architect who died in 1926 with faith in his heart — a faith that takes both attention and intention and can be practiced in moments exactly like this.
“The great book, always open and which we should make an effort to read, is that of Nature.” — Antoni Gaudí
I wrote last week about how many churches in Europe, by design, were built to be places of fear, guilt, and pain, with depictions of martyrs mid-murder and Jesus looking down at you like you personally betrayed him. There’s a heaviness to those churches. They’re beautiful, but they’re challenging to contend with.
“Gothic art is imperfect, only half resolved. Its stability depends on constant propping up by the buttresses: it is a defective body held up on crutches….The proof that Gothic works are of deficient plasticity is that they produce their greatest emotional effect when they are mutilated, covered in ivy and lit by the moon.” — Antoni Gaudí
La Sagrada Familia isn’t like that. At least, not any part of it that Gaudí himself had a hand in designing. His pillars don’t need any arching because they’re modeled after trees, which concentrate weight at the base. His church is experimental, playful, unapologetically ostentatious… and yet, somehow humble? It welcomes those who are curious about the world around them, those who revel in their senses. I’d go so far as to say it’s a place of worship for the devout hedonist.
I have to tell you, it’s tough to find pictures of Antoni Gaudí’s work that do it justice. Google’s a mess of under-saturated pictures that distort the scale or can’t get the light right, so before I moved to Barcelona, I didn’t understand the big deal about this guy. That’s why I’m going to do my best to explain in a way I wish someone had for me. Because, guys… this guy is a big deal. We love him. We love him so much all we want to do is gush.
Antoni Gaudí is not just a Catalonian architect, he is THE Catalonian architect. (Sorry to my homeboys Josep Puig i Cadafalch and Lluís Domènech i Montaner, who came in a close second and third.) You cannot go anywhere in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain, without running into something Gaudí has touched with his “Be boring no more!” hands. This guy sneezes and his handkerchief cuts off its own harsh corners.
“The straight line belongs to men. The curved one to God.” — Antoni Gaudí
There’s a very persistent myth that Gaudí’s name is where we get the English word “gaudy”, meaning, “vulgarly or cheaply showy, implying a tasteless use of overly bright, often clashing colors or excessive ornamentation”. But the word itself has been around since the 15th century and Gaudí himself is of the late 19th and early 20th so, really, he was just living up to his name.
Bright colors and excessive ornamentation is exactly the reason we adore his work. Among many other reasons.
If you’re on your phone, don’t you dare scroll through without using those pinching fingers and zooming in on the details in these photos. I scoured the internet for photos that transcended the travel brochure. The whole experience of Gaudí is in the details.
In fact, I dare you to find the turtle in this photo. Comment when you’ve found it.
The story of Antoni Gaudí, much like that of his buddy Jesus, benefits from starting with his death.
In 1926, Gaudí was hit by a tram and lost consciousness in the middle of the street while a bunch of taxi drivers stood over him and argued over who had to be the one to bring him to the hospital. They’d mistaken him for a beggar.
At the time, he’d been designing and living inside what was to be the most unique, most ambitious cathedral anywhere in the world — La Sagrada Familia. He’d long-ago stopped shaving or wearing his fancy suits because why bother when you’re a man in your 70’s, highly respected, and completely devoted to your divinely-inspired masterpiece? That’s a time for sweatpants if there ever was one.
It’s a sad story. I’ve heard different things from different sources, but some people speculate that he would have survived if they’d figured out who he was sooner. He’d have been treated with the urgency a famous architect would have received. The mistaken identity isn’t the sad part of the story, though. In a kinder world, obviously, the beggar would have been saved.
I like to think Gaudí was the type of person who would have saved the beggar.
As tragic as his death was, Gaudí never intended to live to see the completion of this particular project. La Sagrada Familia was meant to be massive beyond technology’s ability to finish in his lifetime.
“There is no reason to regret that I cannot finish the church. I will grow old but others will come after me. What must always be conserved is the spirit of the work, but its life has to depend on the generations it is handed down to and with whom it lives and is incarnated.” — Antoni Gaudí
Can you imagine that? Starting such a colossal project and knowing for a fact that you’ll never see the end result? That takes incredible forethought.
Unfortunately, he didn’t plan for all that forethought to be stolen and set on fire about a decade after his death, in a civil war that would see the destruction of too many Catalonian buildings and artifacts, as well as the suppression of their language and literature. I’ve talked about this before in my article about eccentric Catalonian sculptor and collector, Frederic Mares, who secretly hoarded like a mad hero during the war. He couldn’t save everything, though. Many of Gaudí’s plans for Sagrada Familia were lost forever.
After the war, the city of Barcelona pieced together what they could and took on the completion of the church, hiring new architects who have remained as true as they can to his original intention while adding their own signatures. Ticket fees fund the project and the plan was to complete the church by the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s death (2026), but the pandemic sorta hit those plans with a tram.
The outside of Sagrada Familia looks like a giant sandcastle until you get up close enough to see the astounding detail. That was Gaudi’s gift and genius. He took inspiration from nature and no detail was ever too small or too large. The assemblage of so many beautiful pieces is meant to replicate a walk in nature. The closer you look, the more wonders you see. The science is the miracle.
“Nothing is invented, for it is written in nature first.” — Antoni Gaudí
The inside of the church feels entirely different from the exterior but still takes inspiration from natural forms and phenomena, just like all of Gaudí’s works. Spiraling staircases replicate the architecture of a seashell. The massive stone pillars have knobs on them like the scars of a tree where the branches have fallen off. It all may look otherworldly, but every inch of it is an homage to Earth.
This was Gaudí’s take on every project he ever did, from apartment complexes to private homes to public parks. Gaudí’s philosophy was that (don’t say it) Heaven is a place on Earth. (I said it.)
“Originality consists in returning to the origin.” — Antoni Gaud
Gaudí used rib cages as the inspiration for support beams and unevenly-blown glass to imitate the movement of being underwater. In his work, you can discover scales, feathers, leaves, and waves if you know what you’re looking for. It’s a celebration of life.
I’ve been to Sagrada Familia 6 times now. It never gets old. And it’s not something you can just walk straight through. You notice something new every time you go.
My mom pointed this one out to me: There are four central pillars, meant to represent the four authors of the gospels — Mark, Mathew, Luke, and John — and they’re situated like a “fairy ring”, a naturally-occurring phenomenon where redwood trees grow in an almost perfect circle from the roots of a fallen tree. The fallen tree, in this case, being Jesus.
Mmm, that’s good symbolism.
And it fits so well because the only thing I can compare the great hall itself to is the giant redwood forests in California (the set of Endor for my Star Wars fans), where trees with trunks so big you could drive a car through them rise 380 feet (115 meters) into the air. When the project is finished, the tallest tower will reach 557 feet (170 meters), just below the height of nearby Montjuic, Barcelona’s most prominent hill. It was Gaudí’s express wish not to surpass the height of God’s own contribution to the city skyline.
If you have the time to sit in a Sagrada Familia pew for long enough, and I’m talking hours, you have the privilege of witnessing the light from the stained-glass windows change the tonality of the entire church. Cool colors to the East and warm colors to the West project onto the cream and white pillars. The pillars may look monochrome in artificial light, but the type of stone Gaudí used to make them varies, which results in the light reflecting in an endless variation of colors.
What this means is that the rising and setting of the sun is the paintbrush with which Gaudí chose to paint his masterpiece.
It’s as if it’s breathing in and out, every day.
This is a love letter to Gaudí, but his work is a love letter to us. It reminds us that what’s sacred is literally all around us. A sacred life is one that, to the best of your abilities, you’ve made an homage to what you love most. Like Gaudí, you’ve experimented and taken risks. You’ve gone back to the source. You’ve surrounded yourself with people who share your passions and inspire your craft. You’ve opened your heart to your own mortality.
And I know… I know, right now, with the pandemic, with the monotony of life in lockdown, it’s hard to feel that sense of magic or bother with a grateful ritual. But I started writing this article in kind of a shitty mood and, in writing it, I’ve put myself back there. I feel a bit floaty.
Attention and intention.
If you’re hungry for more Gaudí, I highly recommend checking out this film I stumbled upon from 1972, The Unfinished Vision. The English dubbing is terrible and it’s an entirely fictional depiction of the last 48 hours of Gaudí’s life, but it has incredible cinematography of his buildings (something about shooting them with actual film makes them sing) and it uses a lot of his own words to describe them.
(Article originally published and in The UX Collective.)
Want to read more? Visit www.KatlynRoberts.com
Here's what people are saying about this article over on Medium:
"Found the turtle! This was a great article, I love your style of writing. Thank you, hope to see Sagrada Familia one day!" - Keegan Sentner
"Found not just one, but two, more or less where the classical Chinese temple builders would also place their turtles :-) Thank you so much for the article - I have always loved Gaudi and have used every single opportunity to go to Barcelona and extend my visits beyond meetings to give me at least two days to just walk, visit Gaudi buildings, relax in his park or overcome my fear of heights on the roof top of Casa Batlló - he has always exceeded expectation, given us challenges and all-encompassing beauty. Thanks again for reminding me and others." - Inge E. Knudsen