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Formal Analysis of Sagrada Familia
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Sagrada Familia is one of the most popular sights of Barcelona. The formal analysis of the church aims to demonstrate how combining the big size of the object with a great amount of detail and decoration creates the unique style inherent only to Gaudi. A detailed examination of the temple shows how the architects aspirations such as glorifying the Sacred Family and conveying his belief that God and his design can be found only in natural forms and the nature itself have been achieved through the use of different imitation techniques and the mixture of motives.
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The natural environment of the church’s location is the first argument to support the idea that Gaudi intended for Sagrada Familia to become one the main Christian temples in Spain. It is placed in the center of the city and in the middle of the plain on which Barcelona is located. It was also the place where representatives of the Spiritual Association of Devotees of St. Joseph lived, thus Christian ideas were respected there, and the building site represented the model of a Christian community where everyday hard work was honored.
One of Gaudis ideas was for the church to become a settlement: at first for the workers and later for the clergy. This proves that the Christian idea of taking care of others was important for the architect. He created a small building of a parish school near the church. It is still there, although not the original building which was burnt twice and later recreated based on Gaudis sketches. The planning of the school had the simple form of a rectangle, but the roof was created with the help of a complex placement of beams that resembled an unfolded deck of cards, which created the wavy form and served as a good draining system. Gaudi himself later lived in one of the rooms at this school, and today it is a part of the Sagrada Familia complex.
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The spatial dimensions of the basilica are impressive 110 meters long and 80 meters wide, which is rather close to other Spanish churches (Funes). Regardless of that, even for a big city like Barcelona it occupies a lot of space. Although the temple is still not finished, it is already possible to see its magnificence and greatness. It was planned that the church would be seen from any part of the city. To reach this goal Gaudi designed 18 towers, with their height varying from the lowest being 98 meters tall to the highest being 170 meters tall. The size and height of the church as well as its vertical design support the idea that Sagrada Familia is a powerful intermediary between the Earth and mortal people on one hand and God and Heaven on the other.
The building’s decoration requires a special mention. The Nativity facade and other parts of the temple that had been finished while Gaudi was still alive include many elements inspired by the natural forms. For example, the apse finished in 1895 includes decorative gutters of downpipes and pinnacles of small towers, which are decorated with patterns of snails and lizards. The first of the four towers above the Nativity facade built in 1918 has the outer shell composed out of brickwork in the form of a honeycomb with asymmetrical windows that go up spirally to the top. From a distance it is reminiscent of a seashell. The form of the spiral staircase inside the towers was inspired by a type of a sea snail (Funes).
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Gaudi not only wanted nature to be depicted on the walls of the church, he wanted it to become a part of the temple. The towers were to be used as bell towers as well. Gaudi experimented with the form of the bells to achieve better sound, and the whole construction of the towers was also supposed to work as a huge organ. It was expected that the wind blowing through the holes in the towers would sound like a real choir. Today the towers contain about 84 common, tubular and percussion bells (Funes).
Another way to see Gaudis admiration of nature is to take a look at the supporting columns inside and outside the church. He used paraboloids, helicoids and other complicated forms in his designs. All these forms were borrowed from nature elements and then used to create the designs of the columns and other geometric decorations of the Sagrada Familia (Glancey). If we look at the vault of the church, the columns resemble tree branches spreading across the ceiling and walls. From a distance the form of the Nativity facade and its towers remind a castle made of sand, because the details seem less carefully defined. The silhouettes of birds, animals and figures on the lower levels are cut accurately while the edges of the upper sculptures are slightly blurred, as if beginning to melt (Waugh).
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Another important feature of the church is the deep Christian symbolism, understanding which requires carefully looking at every sculpture and detail. Sagrada Familia was dedicated to the Holy Family since Saint Joseph was worshiped by the local community and the people could identify with him (Filler). The towers dedicated to apostles, evangelists, Mary and Christ represent the idea of the pillars of Christianity. The apostles towers are decorated with a mosaic of shields, cross and spheres that symbolize the mitre and also with the initial letters of every apostle’s name. There are inscriptions such as Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus and Hosanna. They also include the sculpture of every apostle the tower is dedicated to, the writing Apostolus and the name of a particular apostle. The evangelists towers will be decorated with the symbolic figures that represent them a lion, a bull, an angel and an eagle. The tower of Mary will be crowned with the symbol of a morning star, the Christs tower with a cross meant to produce lighting beams that will be seen from any place of the city as a symbol of eternal light.
The complex of towers shows that Gaudi had profound knowledge of Christian symbolism and understood what the temple had to represent. The goal behind the three facades was to tell the story of the life of Jesus Christ as it is told in the Bible, and anyone who walks around the church can clearly understand the story even if they have never read the Bible or are not familiar with Christianity. Spreading the knowledge and understanding of the Christian tradition is one of the church’s purposes, and Sagrada Familia fulfills it perfectly with the scenes of the Annunciation, the Massacre of the innocents or the Escape of the Holy Family to Egypt.
Another goal Gaudi wanted to achieve was to show that nature and God are equally important. This idea is expressed by the Nativity facade, where the sculptures of the saints and images of the Holy family are surrounded by numerous small figures of shellfish, lizards, salamanders and flying birds. Animals represent the important notions of Christianity. The two turtles at the basis of the columns symbolize stability, the figure of a pelican is a symbol of the sacrifice of Christ, the cypress tree represents the Tree of Life and the dove on it symbolizes peace and the Holy Spirit. The pierced heart of Christ is surrounded by flowers and bees that feed from it. All these elements show that for Gaudi, nature and God were united, and he wanted to convey this idea to all the visitors of the church.
It is possible to say that the architect has reached his goals, but only with the Nativity facade, since it was the only one finished while he was alive. Many of his guidelines were lost during the Civil war, and Gaudi had only outlined the instructions for some parts of the temple (Cilento). The Passion facade, in contrast to the detailed decoration of the Nativity facade, is very simple, thus it is very easy to distinguish between the old and the new parts of the church.
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The decoration of the newly built facade is distinguished by exaggerated roughness, the figures are depicted in a very schematic way, as if cut out of wood. At the center of the facade, the figure of crucified Jesus is placed on a small bridge between the towers of St. Bartholomew and St. Thomas. Beneath we can see a scene of Christ walking up to the Calvary. Numerous details describe the last days of Christ. One of them is the so called magic square in which the sum of numbers in its every line, column and diagonal equals 33 the age of Christ when he died. This square is placed right behind the sculpture group called The kiss of Judas, and in this way one element of the facade explains another.
The towers of the Passion facade, finished in 1976, remind a spindle, thus echoing with the style of the towers of the Nativity facade. Like in other towers, there are spiral staircases inside which the visitors can use to climb to the top. Other elements of the Passion facade that can be considered close to the stylistic forms of Gaudi are the six leaning columns outside the church, which support the pediment and remind tree trunks, just like the columns inside.
Although Gaudis idea to tell the story of the life of Christ on the walls of the church has been embodied and the Passion facade describes the events of the last days and death of Christ, the way it is depicted largely differs from the style of the Nativity facade. The architect who worked on this project after the death of Gaudi, Josep Maria Surbirachs, turned away from the detailed decorations of art-nouveau and completed the building in the neo-gothic style.
This change seemed radical to many spectators and provoked negative reaction. The fact that the church is still being built changes the understanding of its context in the history of architecture, and the death of Gaudi brought forth disputes concerning whether the building should be continued since no one could imitate the designs of the author and the style would inevitably change. Some believe that the construction should be stopped (Schwab). Martin Filler states that the nave of the Passion facade seems fake, jarringly slick, that the polished stones of the floor remind the floors of the offices from the 1980s (Filler).
Critics also emphasize the radical change in style. The work of Surbirachs differs from naturalism present in the style of the Nativity facade. It is closer to expressionism, and switching to another style is believed to have been dictated by Surbirachs’ desire to meet the expectations of Spanish critics (Funes). Rowan Moore emphasizes that Gaudis architectural design was organic, living and responsive, and the structure included fusion and integration of forms, while the work of the following artists seems fixed and lacks life (Moore).
The formal analysis of Sagrada Familia allows to assume that its great size and height is intended to make the spectator feel small and tremble before the idea of the almighty God. The numerous decorations show that Gaudi has put all his skill into making the temple the most significant and beautiful symbol of Christianity that would glorify the Holy Family. The harmonious combination of elements of nature and the religious motifs convey Gaudis idea of the unity of God and nature, and the current controversy surrounding the building does not diminish its value for the history of architecture.
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