July 12, 2015


Gaudí's Great Temple (Martin Filler, JUNE 25, 2015, NY Review of Books)

In Sagrada Família--the book of the illuminating exhibition recently held at the City College of New York's architecture school, curated by George Ranalli and Fabian Llonch--the architectural historian Judith Rohrer writes that the expiatory temple (originally meant to house pharos-like searchlights in its pinnacles) was intended to "serve as a beacon of faith, proclaiming the revived piety of the Spanish people, while atoning for the sins, both public and private, of a modernist, materialist age." The strain of deep conservatism implicit in that formulation--which brings to mind the militant antimodernism of Pope Pius IX, who died shortly before the Sagrada Família's inception--makes one understand why proletarian radicals did not necessarily view this costly exercise in spiritual advertisement as a social improvement program.

The new church was dedicated to the Holy Family because Saint Joseph was a carpenter with whom the city's laborers might personally identify. But empathetic feelings among that target audience were perhaps undermined when the architect's iconography for the Temptation portal (one of several thematic groupings that in addition to the Nativity include the Rosary, the Way of the Cross, and the Crucifixion) revealed a figure of a demon proffering a workman a spherical Orsini bomb--the handheld weapon favored by fin de siècle anarchists.

Thus despite the populist appeal of the Sagrada Família's exuberant forms and idiosyncratic decoration, a severely critical undertone lodged in some people's minds. Lingering resentment took a violent turn when in 1936, during the Spanish civil war, Republican rioters broke into Gaudí's old studio and destroyed his plaster models for the church. (The CCNY show included twenty-one newly made plaster maquettes, some of them full-scale renderings of building details.) Indeed, as late as the 1960s, when my wife, Rosemarie Haag Bletter, a graduate student of Collins's, did research in Barcelona on Gaudí's lesser-known contemporary Josep Vilaseca, she was habitually quizzed by different factions about her attitude toward the completion of Gaudí's building, a political litmus test under the Franco regime, which looked upon gaudísme as a seditious cover for Catalan dissidents.

This was a tricky question to answer in any case, because Gaudí certainly realized that no one designer could live long enough to see such a grandiose endeavor through to completion. And although he left detailed instructions for parts of the structure still unbuilt during his lifetime, he expected (and accepted) that other designers would put their own, likely quite different, stamp on the structure, as happened with cathedrals such as Chartres, with its mismatching Early Gothic and Flamboyant spires.

"Great temples were not the work of one architect," Gaudí observed, but as the CCNY exhibition and catalog indicate, those in charge at the Sagrada Família today have drawn on his work to the exclusion of all other possibilities. To be sure, a highly skilled, deeply dedicated group of architectural, engineering, and decorative arts professionals has been directed since 2012 by the Barcelona architect Jordi Faulí (who spent the preceding two decades as an associate on the project). The team is hewing as faithfully as possible to the letter of Gaudí's vision, but one wonders about the spirit.

As a visit to the Sagrada Família today indicates, there is such a thing as being too conscientious, an impression confirmed by the excellent color photos in the recent New York show. Employing the most advanced computer imaging technology, it has been possible to reconstitute elements once thought irretrievably lost after Gaudí's models were shattered. Yet the newest portions of the Barcelona landmark utterly lack the tactile quality of the parts of the Sagrada Família carried out while Gaudí was alive. The sense of an artist being physically involved is conspicuously missing from the most recent additions there.

Posted by at July 12, 2015 8:18 AM

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