Friday, May 27, 2011

Gaudi and the Architecture of Sagrada Familia

Gaudi and the architecture of Sagrada Familia have been mentioned several times in this blog. For those who don't already know, Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926) is Spain's greatest architect. In Barcelona he is treated like a saint. His monk-like lifestyle and single-minded devotion to God and architecture did not discourage such appreciation. To this day, Gaudi has many admirers and followers.

Gaudi's most famous and most important work is Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Under construction since 1883, he devoted the final decades of his life to this enormous structure.

Gaudi's work is usually lumped-in with the art nouveau style (modernisme in Barcelona) popular at the turn of the nineteenth century. It is understandable how Gaudi's florid, exuberant forms are categorized in this manner. His architectural excesses were dismissed by Frank Lloyd Wright as "architecture with a laxative." This was mistranslated in Spain at the time  as "architecture with a suppository." Either way, it suggests the effusion of architectural decoration that leaves no surface unaffected. To many this exhurberance is excessive.

In my opinion, this focus on the surface characteristics of Gaudi's architecture misses the point of his genius. Rather than being among the first of the art nouveau architects, he is better understood as one of the last of the Gothic architects. Gothic architecture swept through Europe in the thirteenth century. It emphasized a new verticality in architecture, using exoskeletons of flying buttresses to reduce the mass of exterior walls. It also featured vast quantities  of stained glass that introduced  unprecedented amounts of light into the interiors of great cathedrals. Gothic architecture was essentially a structural revolution that replaced the traditional architecture of the day to become the new modern. Gaudi, at heart, was also mostly concerned about structure. Where Gothic architects used flying buttresses to resolve the structural weight of their immense cathedrals, Gaudi introduced angled columns to pick up the gravitational forces of heavy roofs and towers.

Gaudi's Sagrada Familia is still an unfinished building. The largest and tallest spire, at the crossing of the transepts, has yet to rise to the heavens. However, what is currently built clearly reveals the intensity of structural expression behind the architectural forms. Many of his earlier projects were, in retrospect, experimental prototypes for Sagrada Familia. But on this work alone,  Gaudi qualifies as one of the greatest architects of the twentieth century.

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