Sagrada Familia

Bashful Christ hates getting his pic taken.
March 8, 2012 — There are a million reasons not to drag yourself out of bed and spend Sunday at church. The Catholic Church, more than any other Western religion, kind of gets that and, as a result (direct, I think), has erected amazing cathedrals that not only make you want to attend every week, but even make atheists want to see them on their vacations. In Barcelona, an architect named Antoni Gaudi took that idea about 14 steps further.

Antoni Gaudí i Cornet was born in 1852 in the Catalonia region of Spain, and he pretty much dedicated his life to making Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, one of the coolest cities on the planet. His crazy architectural vision is all over the city and includes such signature works as the Casa Batllo, Casa Mila, and Park Guell.

He did some more conventional buildings, as well, but it was these Modernist edifices that really elevated his LinkedIn profile. His species of Modernism shunned sharp edges and used bright colors and high levels of decoration, including normally unused building motifs such as lizards and fruit that are traditionally more associated with cereal boxes than architecture.

His grandest work in this style is the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família (Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family). He started on this Roman Catholic church in the 1880s and worked on it until his death in 1926 when he was hit by a tram. After all those years, he left the Sagrada Familia not just unfinished, but barely begun.

Work continued sporadically after that according to Gaudi’s plans until present day, where it’s still only about half finished. However, even with giant cranes and unholy scaffolding draped all over it, the place still beats just about every church I’ve ever seen. It’s slated to be done by 2028 or so. Our God is a patient one.

The church is located at 401 Calle Mallorca and towers over everything around it. From blocks away, you can see its multiple, cylindrical spires puncturing the sky like super-attenuated beehives, each the color of baked earth and perforated with rows of windows that give the whole thing a unique texture that make you focus on the spires as a whole, instead of just their apexes.

Eventually, more spires will be added, including a single dominating super-spire that will be set in their midst. The Wikipedia entry for the cathedral has an image of a model of what it’s supposed to look like at completion. Short answer is cool enough to wish that 2028 came right after 2011 in our numeral system.

Once you get close enough to the church, though, it’s not the spires that’ll pull at your eyeballs, but the entrance façade, which is covered with groupings of angular figures that tell the story of Christ's death. The figures are striking and look like they’re ready to be animated. They’re also pretty spooky, which is a powerful element of the Christ story that’s too often overlooked (“And then they opened…the tomb…and…BOO!!).

The façade on the opposite side of the church is also sculptured into story, this time recounting Christ’s birth. The style of these figural groupings are less stylistic and are featured against a crowded backdrop of carved vegetation, giving the scenes a more organic and busier appearance than the spare Passion facade.

A third, unfinished side, the Glory façade, is intended to depict the end times, with heaven, hell, and all the best parts of the Bible. There’s no way it’s not going to be the most interesting of the three and is another reason to wish 2028 wasn’t such a science fiction year.

However, while the multi-faceted exterior of the Sagrada Familia is unconventional, its subject matter at least still makes sense as part of a church. The interior of the cathedral, on the other hand, seems to be an example of what a holy place would look like on another planet. And while I hate using such a horrible cliché like that, in this case it really is quite apt. James Cameron should film here.

The smooth, angle-less walls look like they were formed by eons of water erosion instead of decades of brick-laying. The massive space is dominated by tall, fluted tree-like pillars topped by bulbous, lighted pods that look like they should be incubating the priest-children of that aforementioned alien culture.

The pillars branch off above these pods to meet at a ceiling that is less a ceiling and more a canopy. Stained glass windows are everywhere, but only depict abstract forms when they even do that. Somehow, they’re arranged to not be focal pieces while still ensuring that the interior still gets plenty of eerie light. I get the feeling that if the church hadn’t already been using stained glass, Gaudi would have invented it for his purposes. Most surreally, the inside is almost devoid of all symbols of religion.

A final flourish of the Sagrada Familia that is worth checking out was actually unplanned by Gaudi. After his death, he was beatified and encrypted in his own work, ensuring that he, unlike a statistically significant quantity of the rest of us, will be present for whenever the edifice is completed.

In conclusion, I’m not the kind of guy to tell you that you need to go to church, but if you’re ever in Barcelona, go to church, I guess.

Baby-throwers suck.