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Review: Gijs Van Hensbergen’s “The Sagrada Família”

Gijs Van Hensbergen’s inspiring account of the Sagrada Família begins with the following sentence: “Gaudí, possibly more than any other architect in history, has been totally misunderstood.” That sentence opens the prologue of his book. The first chapter, however, begins with this sentence: “Standing patiently in the long queue to enter Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Família is the best method of understanding its extraordinary appeal.” I remember saying to my wife that I didn’t want to wait an hour or more to enter the cathedral, standing in the long line, a position I’d taken after entering too many garish cathedrals in Europe and my continued revulsion at looking at still another painting or carving of Christ on the cross with the blood leaking out of the stigmata. I’d reached a stage where I was totally content to look at the outside of cathedrals, which I still admired, but couldn’t enter another one without becoming nauseous.

Once we entered the Sagrada Família, that opinion was totally transpired, and—after spending several hours inside—I told her I would never need to enter another cathedral because none could live up to the magnificence and the beauty of Gaudí’s masterpiece. Van Hersbergen takes us to the same conclusion, enters with us into the structure, acting as the best guide we will ever encounter: “To enter the Sagrada Família is like walking into a giant skeleton with its articulated joints swelling up to lift the vertiginous space even higher. Everywhere you look there are rhythmic abstract patterns. The mosaic detailing creates an atmosphere that is somewhere between Gustav Klimt and the neo-Egyptian style of the 1920s; a reworked echo of the Art Deco style. Up in the vaults starburst capitals seem like teeth almost literally chewing away at the space. But everywhere large patches of colour are cast onto the stone through stained-glass windows of an astonishing chromatic brilliance. Higher still, a clearer light is literally funneled and sucked in through domes whose elegant organic shapes are reminiscent of giant elongated egg timers pushing up and penetrating through the protective skin of the roof.” After that first descriptive entry, Van Hensbergen loops back to 19 March 1882, when the cathedral was begun. Between that date and our entrance today he tells an amazing story of endurance and resilience, overcoming innumerable obstacles during all those many years that threatened to destroy the Sagrada Família, plus the shifting evaluations of Gaudí’s work.

Early in the book, Van Hensbergen also brings up Gaudí’s tragic death, in 1926: “run over by a tram en route to the ritual of his daily confession…” but not identified for hours or given proper medical attention. He’d been living the life of an ascetic, often begging on the street for funds to complete the cathedral. At his death, “Only the unfinished Nativity façade could give a true impression of what he hoped to achieve.” Nor was Gaudí the original architect but the second, after earlier disputes with the authorities and the deaths of some of their leaders. He reworked and rebuilt some of the initial work, determined to create a “bible in stone.” As Van Hensbergen will later explain, Gaudí’s vision was to celebrate “the humble working man and the value of handcraft, and one that at its very core professed its religious reverence for nature.”

That vision began in “Gaudí’s architectural kindergarten”: “radically different, organic and almost entirely devoid of straight lines…. For Gaudí, a dried-out snake skeleton, bending slowly round, might give a master class in articulation. Trees, it appeared to the novice eye, seemed to shoot out their branches in apparently random patterns; while ants worked in teams lifting staggering weights; and far out at sea cloud formations, if you learnt to read them, signaled oncoming storms.” From his childhood spent in the wilds, Gaudí captured the “Great Book of Nature,”  replicating—often by casting actual objects—what he could use in the Sagrada. An emaciated donkey was chloroformed so that casting could be made for the nativity, the assumption being that Mary did not ride a plump donkey. Dozens of other objects were similarly cast from shells and birds and other natural objects. For one scene of “slaughtered baby innocents…actual casts of stillborn children [were] provided by a medical friend of Gaudí’s; the resulting images are as poignant as a death mask yet somehow more affecting and real.”

Van Hensbergen dispels the common belief that the cathedral cannot be called Gaudí’s because when he died so little was completed. Again and again he refers to the exhaustive details (notes and drawings) that survived Gaudí’s death and how they were fulfilled by a series of later architects who were faithful to his plans. Those who say that the cathedral is not true to Gaudí’s intentions have never looked at the plans. By 1925, the first of the four towers was completed, so Gaudí lived to see that. His funeral was the “nearest thing to a state funeral that Catalonia had ever seen.” Fortunately, Gaudí was still at the height of his fame, though that would decrease measurably in the years that followed. In part this was due to the politics of the era. Barcelona was a ticking time bomb. Anarchist activity increased significantly, especially anti-church activities. Many other churches were, in fact, destroyed, some of this happening before Gaudí’s death. And then there were also the on-going financial difficulties, in part related to the political unrest.

By 1930, the three other towers were completed, and by 1933, also the gigantic Cyprus tree inside the structure. But by 1936, the Sagrada Família also succumbed to the anarchists, on July 20. “”Within hours, more than fifty years of work went up in smoke as Gaudí’s drawings, correspondence and photographic archive were put into the flames. The thousands of man hours dedicated to complex calculations for the Sagrada Família, perished in minutes….” Plaster models in the studio were smashed, “carpentry workshops and expensive machinery was vandalized and the buildings set on fire.” The cathedral was in total disarray and for a time abandoned, as the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s troops marched victoriously along. “Barcelona was effectively doomed.” Hundreds of thousands of Catalans fled the city. (It’s unsettling to read that the terrorists in Barcelona a month ago planned to blow up the Sagrada.)

It took until 1952, before a peace agreement was worked out between Spain and the Vatican and the anti-religious fervor would begin to turn around. By 1956, Gaudí was beginning to gain respect in the academic world, though his stature would still shift in the following years. Van Hensbergen states that by the 1960s, American interest in Gaudí’s work contributed to the slow alteration of his stature. By 2002, “Gaudí studies turned a corner and became mainstream.” Part of the success of the reconstruction of the cathedral was due to income from public interest, and the fees that were charged for entry. By that time, computers had confirmed Gaudí’s calculations made decades earlier, calculations that Gaudí had made in his head, asserting the architect’s total brilliance.

Today, it’s impossible to think of Barcelona without immediately thinking of Gaudí, and not simply the Sagrada Família but all the other buildings and parks he designed throughout the city. Van Hensbergen places Gaudí at the “central position in the formation of a Catalan cultural identity that celebrated the sacred trinity of craft, creativity and Catholicism.”

This is a spellbinding narrative.

Gijs Van Hensbergen: The Sagrada Família
Bloomsbury, 204 pp., $27

 

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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