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No.7: Sagrada Familia

issue 36 Apr / May 2007

In this issue, Tim Downey, director of Pinniger & Partners, chooses a classic.

Sagrada Familia is an impressive Barcelona landmark that has been constructed in the grand tradition of medieval cathedral building. It is not the work of one architect but of many generations. Between the years of 1882 and 1926, Antoni Gaudí worked on the huge cathedral, devoting the last 15 years of his life to the work. Uncompleted during his lifetime, Gaudí is said to have joked, “My client is not in a hurry.” Although Gaudí originally thought the project would take 10 years, it is still unfinished today. Visited by approximately 2.25 million people a year, the “Church of the Holy Family” is the most popular tourist destination in Spain.
Sagrada Familia was built in the gothic tradition but is actually a fine example of 20th century architecture and incorporates many of Gaudí’s architectural trademarks. He intended for an observer to be able to read the history of Christianity on the building. Every part of the Cathedral design is rich with Christian symbolism as Gaudí intended the building to be “the last great sanctuary of Christendom”.
The main tower as Gaudí planned it was to be 170m and to soar above everything else in the city and his intention was for it to be surmounted by a giant Christian cross. The tower of Christ was to be lit by spotlights mounted on the twelve towers of the apostles. Gaudí also planned floodlighting that would be located at the top of the tower that would wash over the city to light up the people of Barcelona and therefore illustrate Christ’s words ‘I am the light’.
The three facades allude to different aspects of Christ’s ministry. The eastern façade represents the Nativity, the western façade represents the Passion and the uncompleted third façade, the Glory of Christ. The Nativity facade was built before 1935 and reveals the most direct Gaudí influence. Light, which plays such an important part on Gaudí’s secular buildings, is used in Sagrada Familia predominatly in a symbolic manner. “Ex oriente lux” - light comes from the east and with it salvation. The eastern façade illustrates optimism whereas the suffering of Christ is depicted on the western façade, the direction of the setting of the sun.
Colours are also used symbolically throughout the building. For example, green is used extensively on the Portal of Hope on the eastern facade in contrast to the more sombre colours on the western side. Most of Gaudí‘s architecture is characterised by colour. The use of glazed ceramic decoration allowed him to play with reflected and refracted light.
The unique construction of the columns and their tree-like appearance inside the Cathedral makes the aisles of the cathedral appear ethereally light. The other worldly effect is compounded by the multitude of windows within the Cathedral, located all over the walls and even in the ceilings, to bring in as much natural light as possible. It is a vast space, cool and still, and amidst the trunks of smooth, soaring stone trees, the play of shadows and light dance across the walls and canopy.
The building works are planned to be completed for 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s death.

“While Antoni Gaudí is widely known for his expressively emotional architecture, he is less well known for his commitment to environmental sensitivity. Almost all his architectural compositions were designed for comfortable use in Mediterranean climates and passive ventilation and solar design were cornerstones of his works. Gaudí was intent upon the penetration of natural light into the vast interior space of Sagrada Familia and also allowed shafts of direct sunlight into the interior, capturing the vibrancy of the outside world. The sunlight casts apparently random patterns, revealing the intricate detail work as well as the delicate chromatic changes in the materials and decoration. The multiple shafts of light playing across the tree-like columns somehow create the impression that the vast structure is impossibly light, adding an unexpected gracefulness to the sometimes bizarre religious motifs. Despite the ongoing building work, the never ending stream of visitors and the obviously baroque adornments, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the combination of scale and delicacy. I can think of few other structures that so skillfully utilise form, volume, texture and light, leaving one quite simply in awe.”
Tim Downey, Director, Pinniger & Partners

“Strange beings arise in any equally bizarre and surreal atmosphere... perhaps a dark underground kingdom or the white light of a fairy tale. His phosphorescent luminosity was never the normal light of day, but the light of dreams - something one can sense in the murmur of stone on the unfinished Sagrada Familia.”
‘Masters of Light’, Henry Plummer


Sagrada Familia
  • Sagrada Familia


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