The "Extraordinary" Church of Gaudí

Interview With the Chief Architect of Barcelona’s Holy Family

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By Patricia Navas

BARCELONA, Spain, NOV. 4, 2010 ( One of the secrets of the success of the Holy Family Church of Barcelona, which receives between 8,000-10,000 visitors a day, is its novel architecture, according to the chief architect of the project, Jordi Bonet.

This Sunday, Benedict XVI will consecrate the church, known mainly by its Spanish name, Sagrada Família, and proclaim it a basilica.

The church, which is considered the masterpiece of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí (1852–1926), has been under construction since 1882. While it’s not expected to be completed until 2026, the church opened for public worship and tours in September.

«There is nothing like it in the world,» Bonet indicates in the following interview with ZENIT. «The people who come must think that they will see something extraordinary.»
ZENIT: In what state will Benedict XVI find the Holy Family Church?
Bonet: We are working as much as possible, finishing things to leave it all just right, and we await him.
The church is already covered. It is not just the central nave, but the totality of the space that the church occupies, which includes, in addition to the latter, the lateral naves, the transept, the apsidal chapels, the ambulatory.
The church can be consecrated only when the structure is completely covered, so that the wind and water won’t get in.
For example, the cathedral of Barcelona had been consecrated since the 14th century, but the spire that culminates with the statue of St. Helena was finished in 1901.
ZENIT: What remained to be done during the last month before Benedict XVI’s arrival?
Bonet: We had to pave the area of the facade of Glory. Finally, we have received the porphyry, the stone that Gaudí chose for the four supporting columns of the highest part of the church, the dome dedicated to Jesus Christ, 170 meters [557 feet] high. It comes from Iran and is the most resistant stone in the world.
ZENIT: And what remains to be done to finish the structure completely?
Bonet: We are lacking almost 100 meters [328 feet] to raise the tower dedicated to Jesus. Also lacking are the domes dedicated to the Virgin and to the four Evangelists and the four towers of the Glory Facade dedicated to Peter, Paul, Andrew and James.
This will take years, but the interior of the church will be practically finished. However, not all because, for example, the stained glass windows of the side naves will be inserted as we receive the corresponding donations.
ZENIT: Do you have problems with funding?
Bonet: We are all right in this aspect: We receive donations from all over the world. The promoters of the Holy Family, The Spiritual Association of Devout Followers of St. Joseph, began to pay for everything themselves, but then the people of Barcelona joined them, the Spanish, people from outside Spain. For example, the holy water fonts come from the people of the Philippines.
It is lovely to see that there are people from all over the world collaborating.
ZENIT: What does it mean for the Building Association of the Holy Family that it is Benedict XVI who will consecrate the church?
Bonet: It is an honor that the Pope is coming to Barcelona. The Holy Family is a church of the universal level.
Deep down, Gaudí was a pious man of faith, and brilliant. The works he did he was always doing as an experiment that could serve for the Holy Family.
He applied there for the first time in the world a quantity of elements that he discovered in nature, which can be used in architecture: forms of double curvature, enormously resistant, that can be made with a Mediterranean technology: the Catalan vaults.
These new forms arouse true admiration in all those who visit the church. It is natural that the Pope wished to be present and to intervene in its consecration.
ZENIT: How many people visit the Holy Family?
Bonet: It’s difficult to give an exact answer: between 8,000-10,000 people a day. It’s a unique case in the world, so many visitors to a church under construction.
The people who come must think that they will see something extraordinary. A few months ago, the Pope’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, visited the church and he wrote in the golden book of the Holy Family: «I have admired the Dante of architecture.»
ZENIT: Where do you think the secret of its success lies?
Bonet: The architecture is very novel, there is nothing like it in the world.
Gaudí said that he wanted to surpass the Gothic. That is why there are no great buttresses or flying buttresses, but it has inclined columns. He designed the naves of the Holy Family as a forest, in which light enters from above.
ZENIT: When was construction of this emblematic church begun?
Bonet: The first stone was placed on St. Joseph’s day in 1882. The crypt was finished by Gaudí himself, who was not the first architect of the church. The first was the diocesan architect Francesc del Villar.
The crypt having been finished, such a large donation was received that the Spiritual Association of Devout of Saint Joseph decided it should be a monumental church, and it went from one to 18 bell towers.
Gaudí realized that it would take centuries to build, and that he would not see it finished. That is why he left his ideas modeled in mock-ups, which were rescued from the fire in his study in 1936.
From research work, we have found the geometric laws that Gaudí had thought up.
He said that architecture had to be alive, and that life is shown with color and movement. With the help of geometry, he produced this new architecture with forms of double curvature generated by straight lines.
Later this was used, for example, in the Cathedral of Brasília, which is an enormous hyperboloid, and in the Philips Pavilion by Le Corbusier, which is a [cluster of nine hyperbolic paraboloids.] Gaudí, I repeat, was a genius.
ZENIT: Do you think that in the construction of the Holy Family they are being faithful to that original idea?
Bonet: Of course. We have mock-ups of 1:10 scale. Ask any architect if they make buildings on this scale. But he did it because it was something so new, and he needed the architects and donors to understand.
The mock-ups have been restored and we have found all the geometric laws that enable us to do exactly what he wanted.
ZENIT: Has the construction of a tunnel near the foundations for a high-speed train damaged the Holy Family in some way?
Bonet: Yes, it has damaged it and will probably damage it in time, because the reactions of the subsoil are not immediate.
They have made us waste much time and since the year 2007 we continue in litigation against the perforation of this tunnel, but the courts have yet to pronounce themselves.
They have made us spend much energy and time, fighting against something that seems incredible that could be done, thinking that technology can do everything.
It certainly can do valid things, but sometimes it is mistaken, and we think it is folly.                          
ZENIT: When do you think the church will be finished?
Bonet: I don’t know. If I said anything, I would be telling you a lie. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the world. More than 10-12 years, certainly. When he was asked this question Gaudi answered: «My client is not in a hurry.»

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