The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry
I’ve got a confession to make. If you’d asked me a year ago how fussed I would be to visit Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, I would have probably shrugged “not very”. You see (to borrow Paul Hollywood’s Great British Bake-Off vocabulary), until I saw it in the flesh, I thought it was ‘all style and no substance’.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved Gaudi’s work, his vision and approach to design, but had always questioned what all the fuss was about over his unfinished basilica. When I actually did find myself in Barcelona last October for a birthday surprise, his designs scattered across the city remained top of my ‘to-do’ list, however my cynicism still lingered over the hype surrounding the Sagrada Familia; and not just from an architecture student’s perspective, but from my personal stance as a Christian too. Even if I was prepared to be won over by how the aesthetics of the architectural design, my doubts still very much remained that its primary function as a place to worship God might still get lost in the plethora of tourist wrappings.
My doubts dominated as we stepped off the bus, but during the hour that it took to enter, little by little an excitement began to slowly rise up as I was able to start to take in the beauty of Gaudi’s craftsmanship and stare face to face with his carvings of the holy family, his depictions of biblical characters and evocative scenes from Jesus’ life. As the anticipation mounted, I found I couldn’t shake the realisation that if Gaudi had found a way to tell the Gospel from the outside of his church, there might actually be something even more special and profound to discover inside.
However, it wasn’t until we passed the barriers, walked through the gates and entered the basilica itself that everything changed. A momentary adjustment to the dimmed interior echoed the gradual diffusion of background noise and my gaze uncontrollably rose up to follow the myriad of vast columns I found before me; it was as if I was walking in an endless forest of them. Gaudi had managed to use reinforced concrete and make it almost other-worldly, so majestic and beautiful did that verticality appear. Turning my head in admiration I could feel something within my very being crying out in awe as I was captivated by the magical patterns of stained glass and the shafts of colour transforming the ceilings and side walls, the columns and the capitals, the visitors and the volunteers. My skin prickled and my eyes strained to take it all in. It was then that I knew then that my cynicism of Gaudi’s unfinished work was most utterly and sincerely unfounded. All that seemed to matter was my being in that beautiful space, being able to soak up every drop of atmosphere and marvel at this physical manifestation of one man’s worship. Surely I said to myself, Gaudi had to have been a Christian to have produced such a building: had to have strove to glorify God in what I can only describe as one man’s embodiment of using your God-given talents to the best of your ability, to exalt not yourself, but God Himself.
Attempting to experience Gaudi’s architecture on a purely visual basis is like cooking a gourmet dinner but only judging its aesthetic and not bothering to take a bite. The spiritual aroma of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia entices you from the moment you go inside. To turn your mind to the riches of the spiritual realm as you inhabit the forest is to really sink your teeth into his masterpiece.
It is often remarked that Gaudi was ahead of his time in terms of architectural design, material selection and physical construction, that I wonder how much thought has been given to the buildings that he could have produced with the technology available to us today. Considering his ability to produce such a profound spiritual experience in the 20th century, what could he have created with present (or even future) technology? What would he have sent to a 3D printer? What would his concrete have evolved to? Most excitingly, what spiritual contribution could he have made in an age where more and more people are putting God in a box, or denying His existence all together? Whenever I remember my reverie inside the Sagrada Familia, I am left with the question “if only?”