Barcelona is one of the great cities of the Mediterranean, and Barcelona’s most noted architect is Antoni Gaudí i Cornet.  It is worth visiting Catalonia and the cities of Barcelona and Reus just to see Gaudí’s work.  Eager visitors head for his masterpiece, Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família (Holy Family), which the Holy Father, Benedict XVI, has made a basilica for its artistic merit.  Every tower in this many-towered building has its own religious significance.  Gaudí was commissioned to take over its design and construction in 1891, but cranes still frame the skyline alongside the not-yet-completed building.  He died in 1926 at the age of 73, after being knocked down by a streetcar, and is buried in his own great church.  A man of immense piety, Gaudí was a consciously Catholic architect devoted to the making of this unique church.

Gaudí’s architecture is both traditional and modern.  He draws on the Gothic Baroque and Mudéjar traditions of Spanish architecture and was greatly influenced by the thinking of John Ruskin, William Morris, and the British Arts and Crafts Movement.  Gaudí always tried to transcend these earlier styles and to introduce something new and modern.  He was dissatisfied with the bulkiness of Gothic buildings, which need flying buttresses to prop up the weight of tall towers and high walls.  He wanted a building congruent with tradition but with towers and walls that support themselves.  His towers, seemingly full of holes, are hollowed out to reduce their weight, and the subtle, unusual geometry of the supporting columns better distributes the load.  Gaudí was inspired in his solution of these problems by suspension bridges whose parabolic shape enables them to support the weight of a long and heavy railroad or freeway entirely from the sides, without extra central pillars.  He studied other conic sections, the ellipse and the hyperbola, always trying to find elegant ways of holding weight at a height.  His goal was to transcend the architectural tyranny of ruler and compass, of rectangles and circles, of the vertical and the horizontal.  Gaudí was equally intrigued by nature, by the way plants or bones are shaped and formed to support their forms effectively.  It is this organic quality that gives majesty to his Sagrada Família, which seems at first to be irregular but is, in fact, drawing on forms of geometry more complex than most church architects of his time were used to.

It is a wonder that this unique church survived.  During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), most of the churches in Barcelona were burned and destroyed by the mob or by the ill-disciplined militias of the left, who were not merely anticlerical but antireligious.  George Orwell, who was an officer in one of the leftist armies fighting in that war, wrote in his Homage to Catalonia,

For the first time since I had been in Barcelona I went to have a look at the cathedral—a modern cathedral [he means La Sagrada Família, not the cathedral], and one of the most hideous buildings in the world.  It has four crenellated spires exactly the shape of hock bottles.  Unlike most of the churches in Barcelona it was not damaged during the revolution—it was spared because of its “artistic value,” people said.  I think the Anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance, though they did hang a red and black banner between its spires.

Orwell here shows not merely a crass lack of aesthetic judgement but political naiveté.  We still rightly admire Orwell for his love of freedom and his savage attacks on the Soviet Union and its supporters, notably in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.  These greatly offended many of his fellow leftists, who did not wish to be reminded that the society they praised as a “new civilization” was, in fact, a vicious tyranny.  During the Civil War, Spanish communists, acting under Soviet orders, ruthlessly seized power from and sought to eliminate the less-organized anarchists and assorted Marxists, in whose militias Orwell was serving.  Neither then nor later could Orwell see the menacing aspect of the egalitarian, popular socialism of his own comrades.  When Orwell reports that churches in Catalonia that had earlier been gutted by fire were now being demolished, he does so in an utterly matter-of-fact way.

The most likely reason for the anarchists’ unusual restraint regarding La Sagrada Família was not an aesthetic one.  They were likely paying tribute to Gaudí’s reputation as a strong Catalan nationalist.  Gaudí saw his famous Sagrada Família as a statement both of his religious beliefs and of his Catalan identity.  The Spanish Civil War was a continuation of much older intersecting conflicts, and one of these was between the centralizers, who wanted a single, uniform language to prevail throughout Spain (castellano, the Spanish of Castile), and the defenders of local identities and languages, notably Basque and Catalan.  Catalonia was the most economically advanced part of Spain, and the bilingual members of its bullish commercial elite wanted political autonomy for Catalonia and equal status for the Catalan language.  In 1883, Gaudí had attended a meeting of Catalan nationalists in the French Catalan-speaking region of Rossello (Roussillon), which defied the central government’s line.  In the 1920’s Gaudí was on two separate occasions roughly treated by the police when taking part in demonstrations in favor of Catalan autonomy; in the second, in 1924, he was protesting the banning of the Catalan language by the central government in Madrid.  The Catalan anarchists who hung their flag from the towers of his church would not have wished to destroy a building widely seen as a major achievement of a distinctive Catalan culture.

Nonetheless, they did smash all of Gaudí’s models for the future development of the unfinished building and destroy his studio.  Because of the complex three-dimensional geometry of his buildings, Gaudí preferred to make and test models of each structure and detail that he wanted, rather than to rely on two-dimensional drafts.  In smashing his models, some of the anarchists sought to prevent the completion of Gaudí’s church.  They failed: Today, the church is being completed, as a team of researchers is busily reconstructing Gaudí’s studio models.

Gaudí had been affected by an earlier wave of attacks on churches by violent leftists in Barcelona’s “tragic week” of 1909.  During that brief insurrection the mob had put up barricades, destroyed churches, and even dug up the bodies of nuns and stacked them outside St. Felix, the church of the Capuchin sisters of the Convent of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  Gaudí feared they would attack Sagrada Família, which was already in the course of construction; they did not, but they did burn down the church of Sant Pacià (a fourth-century Barcelona bishop who famously wrote, “Christianus mihi nomen est, catholicus vero cognomen”), whose altar and furnishings had been designed by Gaudí.

To stand outside and look at the towers of Gaudí’s church or to be in the nave gazing up at the intricate vault is a unique aesthetic experience, and one not to be missed.  Sagrada Família is a work of genius by an intensely religious man whom many in Barcelona would like to see beatified.  He still needs a miracle.  But then, it is a miracle that Sagrada Família has survived and will one day be completed—perhaps in 2026, a century after its creator died.