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Gaudí’s Sagrada Família: tribute to Nature of a modern anti-modern

Lack of meaning, short attention span, atomization… The modern world can feel senseless. With an endeavor spanning several generations, Barcelonians aren’t just laying bricks but building a civilization-scale basilica —and perhaps finding the elevated sense of things.

The summer of 2012 was hopeful and enjoyable to us for several reasons. It didn’t feel as warm and humid as it can get in Barcelona in July, and we were taking full advantage of our apartment’s big terrace in the Gothic Quarter, the old city’s core. Plus, our third child was about to be born in mid-August.

Taking advantage of the debt crisis in Southern Europe, we had already bought an apartment in another city area, much closer to Parc Güell and Parc del Putxet: both on hills perching over the city; the former tourist-infested, the latter calm and frequented by locals. But our days there had yet to come; those would be our last months living in the Old City, and I wanted to take advantage of the walks and errands within the Roman and core medieval areas.

Andreu Nin i Pérez, a translator of the Russian classics into Catalan, politician, and union leader; his Trotskyism got him killed in 1937 under strange circumstances; image with his partner and children

Our son was born on August 19th, 2012, and a friend visiting from the US was glad he had been born at a hospital by the sea, unequivocally called “Hospital del Mar,” no less. What an excellent way to come into the world, she thought, to be born on the beach of Barcelona.

There are few memories of our trip there. We arrived at the hospital by bus, a mere few stops from our home. It was a bright day, and people were enjoying their meals by the Moll de la Fusta, Barcelona’s old harbor, and all along the Barceloneta seashore.

Walkable towns before it was cool

Living on a street several hundred meters away from traffic, let alone congestion, we didn’t hear cars or smell their exhaust. Though we wouldn’t know what we had until we missed it, for the new apartment was on a busy street in the bourgeois Putxet neighborhood.

The back of the apartment we would be leaving behind in a few months opened to the interior of an old city block, and the terrace extended towards its center, perching over the recreational area of one old Elementary and Middle school.

It took several seconds to cover the walk from the very end of the terrace to the other end of the house, on the street side of the apartment; narrow and long, it felt like a huge place to our kids, they would later recall. Our then-very-young two daughters would explore the place as if it were a country home: on the terrace, they’d plant things, collect flowers and kumquats, do little forts underneath the wooden hammocks’ backrest, and hide treasures on the antique wall planters that decorated a private courtyard on the outdoor terrace’s side, a place to sitting over the generous apartment below where we had the laundry room.

The apartment’s two bedrooms and living room had doors leading to this outdoor area, and Barcelona’s Mediterranean weather allowed us to keep them open for most of the year, every single day. The back of the apartment opened to the old block’s interior, a microcosm that reminded me of George Perec’s book on the life of the inhabitants of a fictitious apartment block in Paris. It was a mosaic of that part of Barcelona, blending old inhabitants with different types of newcomers, from students to economic immigrants, professionals, and transient people.

Tripi (slang for “acid trip”)

The school that shared the big space inside the irregular medieval city block we inhabited, facing our apartment and those of other people (including one apartment that Picasso had used as a studio in 1899, when living in Barcelona before moving permanently to Paris) had its main entrance on Carrer Avinyó. At the time of Picasso, Avinyó was a narrow, bohemian street with all the illicit human commerce of port cities, including absinthe, opium, illegal gambling, and prostitution, which later concentrated almost exclusively on the other side of the Ramblas in the so-called Barrio Chino, rebaptized as Raval by the city.

The anteroom of World War II

The square at the bottom of the block had always been noisy and fairly conflictive, if safe. It’s the Plaça George Orwell, a square dedicated to the author of Homage to Catalonia, which, for years, featured several Big Brother-ish surveillance cameras. Such things used to concern people; though, who is worried about this when people willingly record themselves to post for free on the Web, enabling 24h tracking just to gain clout on platforms sharing intelligence with oppressive regimes.

I remember Kirsten reading Orwell’s testimony on the Spanish Civil War on her trips back and forth between New York and Barcelona, right when she had not moved yet and was still working as a TV freelancer. Back then, she produced and shot a documentary on the Darfur humanitarian crisis, which collected a review by Nick Kristof in the New York Times, and another piece on The Da Vinci Code on the whole Mary Magdalene conspiracy and its relation with Catharism, the pseudo-gnostic Southern French sect. The Cathar Country isn’t far from Barcelona, so we had met once in the walled medieval town of Carcassone while she worked on it. She wanted to know more about Barcelona, and I benefited from that fresh perspective of things seen and known.

Nobody called George Orwell Square by its name but Plaça del Tripi (slang for “The Acid Square”), perhaps because of its non-figurative statue by Leandre Cristòfol, leading people to joke about the artist’s state when he had created it in 1935. Unlike Avinyó, the square and surrounding streets connecting it to the Ramblas lacked other shops than mostly bars and little party dens, some of which I had visited as a teenager but now represented mostly a noisy nuisance and an opportunity for some to sell soft drugs to youngsters coming to Barcelona on the weekend from metropolitan Barcelona and all over Europe, thanks to the low fare aviation boom. As we became parents and more interested in using the city center early in the day, we realized it would be challenging to remain there long.

George Orwell and Eileen O’Shaughnessy with members of the ILP (UK’s Independent Labour Party) unit on the Aragon Front outside Huesca, 13th March 1937

Published in 1938, Orwell’s book is still the best peek into Barcelona’s powerful anarchist movement and the deception of twentieth-century totalitarianism, from Stalinism to fascism and its derivatives (Nazism or the local Falangism), bringing a detached point of view to the kaleidoscope of conflicts taking place in that moment and place: modernity vs. traditionalism, totalitarianism vs. democracy, central nationalism vs. regional nationalism, secularism vs. confessional State, Anarchism vs. Marxism. Barcelona was the place where one of your friends’ grandfathers or great-grandfathers was a teacher of Esperanto or an anti-clerical libertarian, and also the place where Romanticism—as a reaction against modernity—had never waned.

Swimming across the wide river Ebro

Interestingly, our neighborhood’s public library was named after a Catalan Trotskyist intellectual, Andreu Nin, a fine translator of Russian literary classics into Catalan who followed Trostky’s fate, assassinated by Stalinist foreign agents (Putin hasn’t invented anything, really). A friend of mine who visited from Israel and to whom I ended up renting my bachelor apartment told me once: “Biblioteca Andreu Nin. this is an odd place if you name your public buildings and landmarks the way you do.” I asked why. Well, those people had lost the real war in the modern world, fought by many idealists who engrossed the International Brigades, some of whom had come from all over the US (like Arthur Miller’s best friend, killed in Spain; or my neighbor’s father, finally settled as a professor in California, who had swam across the Ebro river to save his life after the decisive battle won by Francoists nearby). Which war, I asked. The “War on Nuance.”

Nin had been assassinated in 1937 and Trotsky in 1940, whereas Francisco Franco died in bed after ruling Spain for decades. In a way, the idealist internationalism represented by Nin died with the Stalinist purges of the POUM (Andreu Nin’s decentralized left-wing party, the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) during the Spanish Civil War.

My friend knew Andreu Nin because he had grown up in and studied as a kid in Eastern Europe right before the Iron Curtain collapsed and his family decided to emigrate. Most Catalans or Spaniards wouldn’t know about him, I thought.

Besides a never-ending, confusing soup of party acronyms and compromised loyalties on the Republicans, Orwell also documented war horrors on his side of the conflict, like the destruction and ransacking of churches and cleric assassinations, opposed by most people but a few nihilists prevailing among the most radical anarchists and revolutionaries, quite a contrast with the traditional Catholicism of the rural population (which Franco would later know how to capitalize, pivoting from his blend of fascism —the modernizing Falangism of José Antonio Primo de Rivera— to another based on National-Catholicism).

Spain had closed the chapter of the Civil War and subsequent dictatorship without holding anybody truly accountable for the horrors symbolized by Picasso in his Guernica, and families had also pledged to forget most of what had happened, but a few writers tried to retell the story from in a less Manichaean way; I remember reading Javier Cercas’ Soldiers of Salamis and enjoying his non-demonizing portrait of falangist writers (Rafael Sánchez Mazas front and center) and Franco collaborationists. One of the book’s characters, an old Republican soldier named Miralles, who had escaped before the arrival of Franco’s troops to Catalonia, will end up fighting in the French Foreign Legion, a member of the Republican company. who entered Paris with De Gaulle during the liberation.

Picasso’s forgotten studio in our street

I knew little about those years in our first family apartment at the core of the city, though anybody could see the scars if they dared to look: there were bullet holes mottling the school facade right in front of our terrace, all across the superior stories, that nobody had bothered to plaster. What was the story behind those erratic rifle bursts?

Our area in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter had been taken over by tourism and nightlife, though one couldn’t elude its past. Carrer Avinyó had a story related to modern art. Picasso’s painting, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” doesn’t refer to the historical French city associated with one of the most critical schisms in Catholic history but to the ill-reputed street of the Gothic Quarter in the Barcelona of his youth. That said, when we moved into the apartment from my much smaller bachelor pad near Palau de la Música to start our family, the area had changed, and Carrer Avinyó was a mostly pedestrianized, gentle little street meandering down to the harbor parallel to the Ramblas, with stores, bars and a few remaining neighborhood shops.

Plaça Sant Felip Neri; our daughters went to school to the school bearing the same name; in January, 1938, a bomb dropped by the Italian fascist aviation killed 42 people, mostly children; the shrapnel holes are still visible

I enjoyed the pedestrian areas around the Old City churches, each one of them concealing a long, interesting story, from the Gothic Santa Maria del Mar and Santa Maria del Pi (the latter smaller, closer to our home) to the baroque basílica de la Mercè, consecrated to the patron saint of the city, Our Lady of Mercy. The nearest church to our home was that of Sant Jaume, which nobody ever noticed because it was squeezed between souvenir shops in Carrer Ferran, the artery between the Ramblas and the city square, Plaça de Sant Jaume. The church had been built as recently as the 18th and 19th centuries, though that was a tiny fraction of the story: it sat in the place occupied by Barcelona’s main Synagogue and door to its “Call,” the Jewish quarter.

Strolling past it every day, I soon realized it felt strangely alive on Sundays. This was quite a surprise in secular Spain, a place where—against old stereotypes—local Catholics attend service to celebrate unions, children’s consecrations, and mourning a loved one, though secularism and the natality crisis are also transforming these last bastions of formal faith. The reason: Barcelona’s Polish community congregated in this little temple. I decided to enter one day, sitting on one of the three naves with little chapels on both sides of the aisles. The altar was somehow massive and looked very old. I’d found out later the reason: somebody had decided to move the cathedral’s old high altar to this church.

A small catholic school

The first school our daughters attended, called Sagrada Família, was “concertada,” a semi-public model that allows private schools to receive public funding for affordable quality schooling. It had a Catholic affiliation, which was nominal, and religion wasn’t taught, nor did children need to be Catholic to go to school; those times were long gone in Spain. Our two daughters started elementary school there, so we could hear and see them under our terrace while they were at recess. A grumpy old neighbor from a building next to us used to complain about the “noise” small children made at recess. At 11.00 AM. He didn’t seem to care much about the constant parties by young tourists late at night. I felt fortunate, and while I appreciated the quality time when they were at school, it upped my spirits to hear them playing, singing, and teasing each other at the very center of the city block. It was urbanism done right —which nobody cared about nor appreciated.

It had two elevated recreation patios on the flat roofs of two building annexes of a functional style, opening in V towards the center of the interior block, and, in between the two elongated buildings, there was a low-level dirt courtyard with a kindergarten playground and the trunk of a massive Platanus tree which perched over the school’s lower building, reaching over our height (an actual third floor despite being considered a “second” floor since there was a “principal” one), to almost the full height of the perimetral building block, of five and six stories in average.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, by Pablo Picasso, 1907; it portrays five nude female prostitutes in a brothel on Carrer d’Avinyó

The courtyard was an outdoor recreational area for the youngest children from the Elementary grades; it had its widest extreme at the bottom of our terrace. One day at 11:00 AM or so, I noticed our daughter Inés playing with the teacher and other children. I had never hesitated to call her attention; I didn’t want to be that type of dad, I guess. However, I saw her peeking up and noticing somebody in front of her peeking over an antique cast iron fence next to a bougainvillea.

I could see how her casual regard quickly became a certainty. I saw her realizing that the figure looking down was her dad and that the place was the very end of her terrace, the “country home” of her early childhood. The puzzle of her world was rapidly falling into place, and she was building an agency of her own, a way to nurture the autonomy she was about to discover.

Around the Call

Soon after, Inés started school at another place in the area, meaning she had to walk outside the little universe around our terrace without leaving the Gothic Quarter. The new school was in a much more enchanting little square with a medieval fountain at its center, which, in spring, was filled with little yellow flowers falling from massive tile trees.

The little square bore the name of its baroque church, Sant Felip Neri in Catalan, consecrated to the Italian saint Philip (Filippo) Neri, a friend of Ignatius of Loyola and teacher of many of the people who would spread the Society of Jesus across the Americas and beyond. Side by side was the little school with the same name, contained within an old albeit well-maintained building formerly belonging to the parish. The little square, usually silent, reignited a joyous life when children and parents congregated at the beginning and the end of the school journey. We would coincide with a few other parents from different origins and walks of life, though there was a high concentration of what Parisians call “bobos” (bourgeois-bohemian); the term “bobo” has a very different meaning in Spanish and is well-understood by Catalan speakers too.

The little walk to the solitary square of Sant Felip Neri, along the narrow streets around La Seu (Barcelona’s cathedral) and the enchanting artery leading to the Old City’s center, Carrer del Bisbe (“Bishop Street”), became a routine our kids learned by heart. Some days, they’d rarely see a car on their way back and forth from the neighborhood library, our home, the nearby parks, the school, and the nearby stores.

This city area was packed with tourists from early spring until late fall, and we knew the area was no paradise, though we liked to live in a genuinely walkable area of the Old City. It could feel noisy and overwhelming at times, and petty crime, especially against tourists, was rampant. There were also reminders of the different scars along the city’s recent and past history; we lived a mere two hundred meters from El Call, the old Jewish neighborhood, a place whose memory the city tried to preserve, though the few signs acting as reminders of the Synagogue and other eminent buildings would be sometimes covered in graffiti.

Shrapnel scars

Back in the summer of 2012, during the day, I was taking our two daughters for more outings than usual. The school had ended, as usual, right before one important calendar holiday with a pagan origin around the summer solstice day of Sant Joan (Saint John’s Day), the longest day of the year —and when the sun begins to decrease. A quote attributed to John the Baptist, “He must increase, I must decrease,” illustrates how well the church of Rome took over Roman pagan celebrations, turning them into Christian festivities.

We strolled through the city during Kirsten’s pregnancy with our third child. That meant we spent the hottest weeks of the year in Barcelona, from Sant Joan to late August, in the city, so I’d go with the girls to the park, to the beach in Barceloneta, to the zoo (back then, demonstrations by animalists at the zoo’s door had not yet scared away parents and children, that would happen later), to visit my parents outside the city, and other little adventures.

Orwellian Orwell Square

We’d also go to Sant Felip Neri off school; it was a cool square, silent and solitary, ideal for them to play and for me to read or play with them. Sometimes, I’d think about the turbulent events that the church’s facade retained as a painful scar of the Civil War: as a memorial of the fratricide horror of 1936-1939, the City had never helped restore the shrapnel holes speckled over the sober stone facade. On January 30, 1938, the city suffered one of the worst bombardments by the Italian Legionary Aviation, an ally of Francisco Franco. A bomb dropped in the small, enclosed square, killing 42 people. Most of the casualties were children.

During 2012, a year of life’s celebration to our young family, of our two daughters walking during the school calendar, I was also aware that locations that felt precious to us had also held a similar meaning to other families decades before. Sant Felip Neri had also been a place full of pain and death for children in 1938.

The summer of 2012 may have seemed odd to us since we had flown to the US at the beginning of every summer. On the upside, I had plenty of time to stroll around the Gothic Quarter and sit by the ten old churches or so just on our side of the Ramblas within a fifteen-minute walk (with children) radius, including La Seu, the somehow unimpressive cathedral, which back then was in what it felt a series of perpetual restoration efforts. I learned to appreciate how cool they always felt in the humid summer and how quiet compared to the rest of Ciutat Vella.

Kids playing beside the Temple of Augustus

There was another such temple and refuge tucked away amidst old apartment buildings that the organic Medieval grid had squeezed on top of the rational Roman town: on one side street of Plaça de Sant Jaume, interestingly named Carrer del Paradís, one could enter the unimpressive building of the Hiking Club of Catalonia, founded in 1886, to find inside the mighty columns of the ancient Temple of Augustus. It had been built during the Imperial period as the colophon of the Tàber Hill. I’d walk there and I might have tried to explain to the girls the ruins’ significance, though I can’t recall it. All I remember, though, is how cool and soothing it felt to them.

If anything, all these spaces—small churches and synagogue, the remains of a Roman temple squeezed within the walls of a medieval building, the quasi-aleatory superposition of stones and stories in the area—had been neglected by Barcelonians and the triumphant, modernized city issued from the works of the 1992 Olympics. It was like being inside the ruins of a fallen civilization.

Remainings of a Roman Temple, Mons Taber, Barcelona

Their significance as temples wasn’t lost to me, though I craved a non-denominational type of spiritual solace, one compatible with Roman stoicism, Abrahamic religions—including the Gnosticism, which suited one of the cradles of proto-anarchism—, and any possible public space for people to contemplate and relax. Not far from the old temple of Augustus, in the Plaça de la Vila de Madrid, some public works had unearthed at the center of the square a Roman road flanked by Roman tombs, much in the style of the Imperial colonies; a little bridge built on top allowed people to go over the old way, which I usually did.

There, on the corner of the square, was the Ateneu Barcelonès, a cultural institution where the city’s intelligentsia reunited. I once attended a colloquium that evolved into the vicious takedown by the city’s official architects of the post-Franco era of anything related to Antoni Gaudí, whom they despised as corny and over the top. They probably resented his universal reach, too, though I don’t remember the particular takes of each of the participants. It was clear that, to them, Gaudí was the strangely pious and unsophisticated lunatic who had planted his kitsch works across town as if they were grandiose Nativity scenes.

Architect and urban planner Oriol Bohigas, who was key in Barcelona’s transformation during the Olympics, conducted the evening, though he was a contained contender compared to other snobs at the table. I recognize I wasn’t fond of the grandiose awkwardness of the Sagrada Família towers, a temple that I had visited once as a kid.

Gaudí’s temple has been controversial since the beginning. When talking about it, Orwell himself didn’t show any mercy; would have he changed his opinion, had he lived to see its evolution and interior?

“… I went to have a look at the cathedral—a modern cathedral, and one of the most hideous buildings in the world. It has four crenellated spires exactly the shape of hock bottles … I think the Anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up … though they did hang a red and black banner between its spires.”

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (1938), Chapter XII

Gaudí’s pantheism

Back then, I had not read anything by the American transcendentalists yet, though I was interested in philosophy and admired Spinoza’s perspective of God as a synonym entity to Nature; his “Deus Sive Natura” (God, or Nature) was all I wanted to dig into when it came to my views on religion, which I appreciated as a context for European humanism, but not as my personal path of choice towards what we could call developing a sense of spirituality beyond the contemporary cult of unconscious hedonism and consumerism.

Inside the humble St. Benedict chapel by Peter Zumthor (Sumvitg, Graubünden, Switzerland)

When I looked at all those immigrants happily congregating at a little Barcelona church ignored by locals, it seemed to me that they were celebrating all that was important before getting in the building. In a way, their perspective of things wasn’t dissimilar from Søren Kierkegaard’s, a pre-existentialist philosopher and believer of a back-to-basics Christianity:

“Never get involved with God, and above all never in any really intimate way. Get involved with people and imagine that together with them you are involving yourselves with God.”

Søren Kierkegaard, Journal entry, in Works of Love (1847)

Both Friedrich Nietzsche and Leo Tolstoy were comfortable with ornate temples more focused on institutional power than on community-driven connection:

“We therefore have a misunderstanding: … a church order with priesthood, theology, cult and sacraments; shortly, everything Jesus of Nazareth fought against.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Nachlass, KSA 13: 11[295].

“The Churches as Churches have always been and cannot fail to be institutions not only alien to, but directly hostile towards, Christ’s teaching.”

Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You. (1894)

Antoni Gaudí seemed closer to this community-driven, pantheistic idea of God, though he didn’t hesitate to build the biggest, most ornate basilica he could think of—and he tried to do so in modern times, when the crisis of faith was transforming Europe. In that sense, he must have been perceived as a modern anti-modern.

Genius or fool (or both)

A native of the village of Riudoms near Reus (Tarragona), he moved to Barcelona in 1868 at sixteen to study architecture, living in several addresses around town. He started in the old working neighborhood of Sant Pere and Santa Caterina, in Placeta de Montcada 12, later moving closer to the church of Santa Maria del Mar, the architectural apex of Catalan Gothic built between 1329 and 1383 with the contributions of rich merchants from the port city. As a young student considered either “a genius or a fool” (words of Professor Elías Rogent addressing Gaudí during his graduation), Gaudí decided to build the Sagrada Família after studying the design and social significance of Santa Maria del Mar.

Having children transformed my experience of Gaudí’s works. Our children reacted joyfully to Gaudís “trencadís” technique, the mosaics made out of little colorful stones, and their love for Parc Güell made it hard when it was difficult to get there due to the number of tourists trying to take the perfect picture at the entry steps; one had to watch for some adult falling or some group stampeding towards your kids than watch out for cars getting there. They “got” Gaudís pantheism earlier than me. The curves and shapes, the expansive spaces reminding fractals and spirals from plants and animals… Why go to a plasticky playground?

A walk in the forest; central nave, Sagrada Família Basilica, Barcelona

Then, years after, I went to the temple of Sagrada Família to walk inside the colossal central nave. I struggled to hold my emotion and comprehended at once the need for such temples. If anyone doubts our innate drift towards nature, one can visit a magnificent natural park or walk across the Sagrada Família’s central nave. Gaudí wanted any visitor standing at the main entrance to see all the nave’s vaults, 148 feet high each, like a forest illuminated by canons of light filtered by the multi-color stained glass.

Fortunately, after having my kids teaching me to relax and “experience” Gaudí’s work, not “analyze” it, I was ready to walk across the main nave and realize he had probably thought of a walk in the forest, as the wind and sunny light shake the branches and leaves, letting the light play with the walker’s perception.

A walk in a very special forest

Walking across the Sagrada Família’s central nave would probably convince the likes of Spinoza and Kierkegaard that ornated temples aren’t futile wastes of money and effort; something is soothing and emotion-inducing in the humble beauty of Romanesque churches in the Pyrenees, or Saint Benedict, the little wooden chapel built by Peter Zumthor in Switzerland. But walking inside the Sagrada Família or Paris’ Sainte Chapelle reminds us of how buildings can inspire and elevate our thoughts —beyond denominations or confession.

Whole Earth Catalog’s editor, Stewart Brand, said a few years ago that Barcelona’s Sagrada Família was one of the few things being built nowadays with a civilization-scale aspiration. The building is a testimony of the tenacity of local enthusiasts who committed to following the architect’s vision after his death, knowing that it would take several generations to complete the master plan, just as it happened with cathedrals. When completed in 2026, the temple will attract the focus of global pop culture. When complete, it will become the world’s tallest church, overtaking Germany’s Ulm Minster.

Gaudí died, killed by a tram, in 1926, when only 15 percent of the temple had been built. Most of his designs and models were lost during the war and have been subjected to controversial interpretations ever since. Like old cathedrals, the building became a communal endeavor. It’s up to anybody to see the results by themselves.