“ But Your Grace, The Angels Will See Them.” Wandering around Gaudi’s Barcelona.
sitting on the terrace of my hotel on the La Rambla, Barcelona’s famous
pedestrian walkway. It’s just on seven a.m., and the city has yet to stir from
the previous night’s revelry.
Looking westwards, through a forest of spindly television aerials across the rooftops I have clear view of the soaring spire of the Barcelona Cathedral that appears to be striving to get closer to heaven, and once again, I remind myself that it has been too long between visits. Even though, one never actually ‘leaves’ Barcelona because, you are always vowing to return.
Barcelona is a city that has a particular allure given its rich history woven together by its fierce Catalan spirit of independence, in a way, it has always been almost a law unto itself.
My time here will be brief, far too short really to revel in Barcelona’ s delightful idiosyncrasies, generous hospitality and its charming charisma. I am here to check on the progress of the impossibly grand, Segrada Familia, Antonio Gaudi’s uncompleted masterpiece that, almost a hundred years after his death, is still under construction.
For many, Gaudi’s style of architecture can be an acquired taste; his structures, many of them built during a period of great prosperity and expansion, are lurid, and I suppose whimsical in a 'Mad Hatter's Tea Party' kind of way. Some seem inspired by a hit of a powerful hallucinogenic drug!!
His much - visited Palau Guell, built for a wealthy industrialist is a riot of swirly shapes; twisting columns appear like bones in bondage, wrapped tightly in wrought iron then painted in garish colours topped off with a roof that undulates like waves moving across an ocean.
Barcelona is peppered with his work, from the large lamps in the Placa Reial to several fountains and parks that have seamlessly woven their way into the daily fabric of life here, but really, it his masterpiece that truly dominates the city.
Stepping out onto the ‘Rambla’ you know it's high summer and therefore high season, given the number of tourists that cram into the Gothic Quarter each day, wandering aimlessly towards the waterfront, overseen by the statue of Christopher Columbus pointing optimistically towards the ‘new world,’ atop a 150ft column.
Segrada Familia can be reached either by the metro or a relatively short bus ride from the Gothic Quarter. By bus the journey is pleasant through leafy streets until, suddenly, without warning, there it is, standing like a castle in the sky showing off its wondrous, garish and outlandish features for all the world to see and marvel at.
It’s an impossibly huge structure which, when complete (in 2026 ?) will be twice the size of Saint Mark’s in Venice and sixty five feet higher than Saint Peter’s in Rome. The building is almost too much to take in from ground level as, with it’s “five longitudinal and three transverse naves, a lobe shaped apse, nine chapels and two winding staircases it's hard to know where to look. Designed to hold 13,000 worshippers, this is a truly one of the greatest cathedrals ever conceived and one of the wonders of the ‘modern’ world”. (Homage to Barcelona. Colm Toibin)
Elements of the construction are almost frivolous such as the carved appendages atop the naves, in various colours to me look like large bunches of colourful fruit giving the soaring towers an almost ‘carnival’ look.
While Gaudi was overseeing the project a visiting bishop once asked of him,” Why do you trouble yourself so much about the tops of the towers? After all no one will ever see them”. “ Your Grace,” he replied, “ The angels will see them.”
To understand the building one has to know a little about the man who, for the last forty years to of his life devoted himself to designing and overseeing what many at the time thought a monumental ‘folly’.
He was born sixty kilometers from Barcelona in the province of Tarragona to a family of artisans. By all account he was a fierce and patriotic Catalander, refusing to speak Spanish and seldom leaving Catalonia except once, to visit the walled city of Carcassonne in Southern France. He saw his work, in his early years as being political and later spiritual but essentially he was developing what he saw as indigenous Catalan architecture.
He graduated at a time when Barcelona was in search of new architects who would design ‘innovative’ buildings, and there seemed to be plenty of industrialists who indulged Gaudi’s outlandish sense of design.
One of these industrialists, Josep Maria Bocabella, a wealthy publisher who became concerned about the spread of revolutionary ideas in the city and saw the need to build a church to expiate these revolutionary thoughts.
By commissioning Gaudi, the project was begun that would take two hundred years to complete!
Gaudi threw himself into, what he realised would be his life's work, his legacy if you will. He became pious, embracing his faith with a zeal that bordered on obsessiveness. His manner of dress changed until he could have been mistaken for a homeless tramp as he trudged back at the end of each day to his squalid room on site. He embarked on extensive fasts, which debilitated him, yet he worked tirelessly, forever changing his designs, forever adding statues or inscriptions to the various facades.
It is a wonder that the project ever got this far as, in 1909 Barcelona revolted and churches and convents were burned and Segrada Familia posed an ideal target. The same events happened in 1936, ten years after Gaudi’s death when civil war erupted across Spain and anarchists broke into his workshop and systematically destroyed all of his drawings and models of the unfinished cathedral.
The architects and engineers who resumed work on the structure had basically nothing to work with except one small model that showed the completed structure. For sixteen years, between 1940 and 1956 no actual work on the cathedral was actually done while the architects searched for clues on how to finish what Gaudi had started.
At this time there was a groundswell of support to try and stop the project and to leave it in its current state as a monument. Fortunately, work did resume and slowly the towers once again began to reach for the sky.
Today cranes festoon the building and modern methods of construction have been employed meaning that progress is far swifter by the use of reinforced concrete. ( Gaudi probably turned in his crypt when that decision was taken!)
International donations have poured in over the years, supplemented by the hordes of paying visitors who flock to marvel at this work in progress, making the completion date of 2026 achievable.
When done I guess it will be a fitting tribute to Gaudi as well as Barcelona to have a cathedral that symbolizes everything the city stands for. I for one, hopefully will return to see it in all its glory, for as we know, one never really leaves Barcelona.
Paul v Walters is the best selling novelist of several novels and when not cocooned in sloth and procrastination in his house in Bali he scribbles for various travel and vox pop journals around the world. His latest offering Asset, will be released in late 2017.