La Sagrada Familia – The Flower of Modernismo

La Sagrada FamiliaThe unfinished La Sagrada Familia is scheduled to be completed in 2026. But will the proposed underground tunnel for a high-speed train, which may shake its foundations, be completed before the cathedral is finished? Amid the massed Gothic cathedrals of Europe, La Sagrada Família rises like a breath of fresh air—the exuberantly un Gothic masterpiece of the great 20th-century architect Antoni Gaudí. Begun in 1882, this church is the glorious flowering of Gaudí’s signature style: modernismo, a romantic, voluptuous Catalonian offshoot of Art Nouveau that flourished in Barcelona from about 1890 to 1910.

But when Gaudí died in 1926, La Sagrada Familia (the Church of the Holy Family) was still far from done. Two portals were later completed, in startlingly contrasting styles by two different sculptors—the stark, blocky figures of the Passion facade and the more fanciful, Gaudí-like Nativity facade—but the Glory portal, the transepts, and several of its 18 spiky mosaic-crowned spires are still unfinished. The joyous flowerlike vaulting of the central nave wasn’t completed until 2000. With no government or church funding, the project depends on tourism revenues and private donations; its projected 2026 completion date is seriously in doubt. And now, to cap it all off, an underground tunnel for the new high-speed train from Barcelona to Madrid has been proposed to be drilled only 4m (13 ft.) from the cathedral, shaking it to its intricately engineered foundations.

As it expanded beyond its historic core in the late 19th century, Barcelona offered a virtual blank slate for a gifted crew of architects eager to express their Catalan identity—and Gaudí stood head and shoulders above them all. (Other examples of his style can be found along the Passeig de Grácia and out in the northern suburbs at Parc Güell.) Their modernismo rejected monumental symmetry and went instead for forms found in nature, with lots of handcrafted decoration. Gaudí in particular loved drooping masses, melting horizontal lines, and giddy spirals. This cathedral erupts skyward with clusters of honeycombed spires, looking more like encrusted stalag-
mites than like traditional Gothic towers; its arches are neither pointed Gothic nor rounded Romanesque, but tapering curves of a certain Star Trek–ish flair. (Gaudí’s versions of flying buttresses are definitely Space Age struts.) Sculpted figures seem to grow organically out of its portals and arches; brightly colored fruits and flowers sprout from the fanciful pinnacles. La Sagrada Familia’s rose windows really do look like roses, its fluted columns like flower stalks, rising to a vaulted ceiling pattern that looks like nothing more than a field spangled with daisies.

Gaudí’s original plans were only discovered in 1950; with those in hand, the directors of the ongoing project hope to execute the cathedral just as he intended it. But unlike Europe’s Gothic cathedrals, which took leisurely centuries to complete, La Sagrada Familia is in a race against time. Will that high-speed train beat it to the finish line?