Antoni Gaudí: What does his architecture stand for?

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

Santiago Lyon/AP
A tourist walks on a tower of La Sagrada Familia cathedral in 2002.

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. 

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.

But as La Sagrada Família was restored to Catalonia’s collective imagination, especially after Barcelona declared all of Gaudi's buildings historical monuments in 1952, it was admired for exactly the reasons that it had once been maligned: its piousness and its imaginative eccentricity – and, those combined, its Catalan-ness. Gaudí’s basilica, designed during an era of upheaval and innovation, and when art was political and the rebellious artistic attitude was inextricable from bubbling Catalan separatism, was invited to stand for Catalonia itself: both progressive and devout, at once praising the individual genius and the nation’s collective soul. It neatly resolved cultural contradictions into something tangible, something proud.

Still, calling La Sagrada Família a symbol of Catalonia is also fraught. Construction on the basilica is ongoing, dividing Barcelona over how Gaudi’s vision is best treated. Would he have wanted his unfinished project completed in a way that might be untrue to his original, unknown plans, but true to his belief in the collaborative imagination? Or does finishing his design make it inauthentic, not Gaudi at all but something masquerading as his genius?

“To try to finish this temple nowadays is no longer about following his exact plans,” Narcís Serra, a former mayor of Barcelona, told the New York Times in 2010. "From the point of view of respecting his work, it would have been much better to stop at the point when we were no longer sure that this was exactly what he wanted."

And then, in reply:

“Even when he was in charge, there were 40 different sculptors working for Gaudí, and of course he inspired them, intervened and commented on their work — but it remained the work of several different sculptors,” Jordi Bonet, the architect who has been in charge of constructing the Sagrada Família for almost three decades, also told the New York Times.

And so La Sagrada Família has been asked to stand for many things. It has stood for God. And it has stood for modernity. It has stood for democratic art. And it has stood for the individual genius. 

It has stood for being Catalan, and all that that has variously meant. 

It has stood for being human, and all that that has variously meant. 

So Gaudí remains controversial, a catalyst for vexing, abstract questions about the nature of authenticity, about the purpose of architecture, about the making of national identity. And what he might unequivocally stand for these days is something as abstract as those questions: the imagination itself. Gaudí’s work invites an appreciation of all the possibilities that architecture presents to the human mind and of the mind’s seemingly unbounded capacity to grapple with them. This is a work that has asked us – from intellectuals, to Catalonians, to tourists – to reflect on who we are and why we are, and that jolt to the imagination might just be, in the end, what it stands for.

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