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Antoni Gaudí: What does his architecture stand for?

Almost everyone agrees that Antoni Gaudí's work stands for something. But what?

By Contributor / June 25, 2013

A tourist walks on a tower of La Sagrada Familia cathedral in 2002.

Santiago Lyon/AP

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La Sagrada Família, Barcelona’s most unusual-looking basilica, is an amalgamation of contradictions. Its towering pillars look as much like an old forest’s trees as they do like the beacons of a fictional Martian kingdom. Its facade looks like either a fern-rimmed window into an idyllic dream world or a spider’s cloying web turned hard and cruel. 

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This is the nexus of the work of Catalonia’s most loved architect, Antoni Gaudí, who is honored in a Google Doogle today and whose brobdingnagian construction looms large in Catalonia. Almost everyone agrees that it stands for something. But what that is, exactly – well, that’s more difficult. 

When Gaudí was killed in 1926 – hit by a tram – La Sagrada Família was just a quarter completed. And as often happens with unfinished work, when much has been left unsaid, decades of imaginations have engaged in a tussle over just what the basilica stands for – and just who gets to decide.

Gaudí received the commission to build the church from a bookseller who hoped it would express atonement for modern sins and celebrate a certain version of Catalonian pride. When that money was gone, Gaudí, himself a Roman Catholic mystic, spent the last fourteen years of his life collecting the funds to send the basilica's spires rising toward the sky, jutting upward like the natural world in which he saw God's brilliance. From the beginning, it was an exercise in contradictions: the Catholic church and personal spirituality; Catalonian nationhood and a universally-available natural world; a political statement and something that could transcend earthly clutter.

For a time after Gaudí's death, La Sagrada Família stood for nothing good, possibly an embarrassment. The basilica was too pious, too Catholic, it was said. Since the Catholic Church was aligned with Francisco Franco's fascist movement during the Spanish Civil War, anti-clerical anarchists who saw the basilica as affiliated with a Catholic establishment that no longer represented who they were burned what was left of Gaudí’s plans for the basilica. But then the basilica was also too fanciful, too wildly modern. George Orwell opined during the war that it was a great shame that it had only been the plans for La Sagrada Família, not the whole building, that had been torched: “I think the Anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance,” he wrote. The basilica, it seemed, could do nothing right.

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