Part 2: fearful unwillingness to explore medieval masonry techniques. There’s not a single Gaudí building I don’t like. For a discerning person like me that’s saying a lot, since no one could accuse me of being a wide-eyed fanboy prone to flights of acritical enthusiasm. If I really disliked one of his projects I’d say it, but I don’t. Even the Sagrada Família, one of the biggest architectural conundrums of the past century, is still a fascinating melange of form, technique and ideas—there is nothing that explains Gaudí better.
Most of what bothers people about the Sagrada Família has little and everything to do with Gaudí himself. Little, because what he accomplished in his lifetime—the backwards crypt below, the curved section behind the apse, the Nativity façade—is stylistically consistent with how any neo-Gothic church was supposed to be, whether by Gaudí or not. The floorplan, a stubby Latin cross, has hardly varied either, including the project for a massive, main façade jutting over carrer Mallorca (traffic will literally run under it). True, as Gaudí advanced the details were increasingly pushed to expressive extremes; his fascination with botany, fauna and sea invertebrates flourished, but it was still mostly surface texturing on top of a medieval idea.
In contrast, most of what has come since is a direct consequence of one of his most dearly held principles: Gaudí encouraged the creative freedom of his collaborators. All his endeavours were collective efforts, where many artistic hands had their say, much in the spirit of the Gothic churches that inspired him. In this Gaudí was not alone amongst his contemporaries in the Catalan modernista style, something best visualised at the Casa Amatller, right beside Casa Batlló. A small plaque lists twenty-some contributors to the Puig i Cadafalch building, with masters in wrought iron, stained glass, Roman-style ceramics, coffered ceilings—for the style to have flourished Barcelona had to have a generous offering of such talents, and then the architects had to trust and remunerate them.
There is more to the principle, since with the Gothic inspiration came something else: since projects took unbearably long, they would not be finished by those who started them. Continuity was ensured by the longevity of the Church and not by the life of any one author. This would mean, inevitably, a mutation of style and mood, something inexpert eyes cannot always perceive. In contrast, at the Sagrada Família, the deformative effects of most post-Gaudí additions are gratingly obvious.
In June 1990 the art magazine Artics organised a demonstration against the emerging Passion façade, commissioned to the sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs. The gist of the argument was that the new addition was not true to the spirit of Gaudí, with its angular granite figures looking like Imperial Stormtroopers, playing the part of Roman soldiers as they tortured the Saviour. Subirachs had the irritating habit of using counter-relief, where dominant features are imbedded rather than standing out; the effect is downright corny. Nothing about the façade expresses even the most minimal pathos related to the Crucifixion. The protesters insisted that Subirachs, and all those trying to finish from where Gaudí had left off, were betraying his vision. What they wanted was all new construction on the monument to be halted, preserving the original core as a permanent half-ruin, in homage to the genius.
I seriously doubt a single devout Christian has found solace amongst its pillars.
What I’m saying is that they were wrong, at least on that count. It would have made much more sense to complain about building methods that Gaudí would never have accepted, as those in charge have allowed steel reinforcements, poured concrete filler and machine-cut stones. What is really inconsistent with Gaudí is this fearful unwillingness to fully explore medieval masonry techniques.
Methods aside, the continuity of the building is consistent with the master’s perspective, as it is with his Christian values. So is the concept of a choral composition, regardless of what we think of any detail. I recognize that it’s mostly a mess. Most of what I feel when visiting the monument is irritation, and I seriously doubt a single devout Christian has found solace amongst its pillars. But that doesn’t mean it does not make sense (mostly). Of course they should push on to the bitter end. If it must be reviled (and I think it will be), let it be because of the woeful aesthetic choices that have gone into it, choice of contributors included. This is more a comment on the pitiable bad taste of our generation than anything else. It’s not Gaudí’s fault that those tasked with finishing his basilica are a bunch of boors.