Antoni Gaudi worked on the design of the Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) church in Barcelona from the age of 31 until his death 43 years later.
Much admired by Salvador Dali, and immensely popular with the people of Barcelona, the Sagrada Familia has been regarded by many critics as a curious novelty . The church was funded by private donations with gradually dried up as work progressed . The commission came to Gaudi on the resignation of the original architect, Francisco del Villar, and after the foundation had been laid. Gaudi supervised the completion of the crypt as originally conceived , but proceeded to develop a dramatically new interpretation of the Gothic in the church that haltingly rose above it, inspired by influences including the Catalan cultural and architectural heritage, and the contemporary writings of John Ruskin and E. E. Viollet-le-Duc.
The famous Portal of the Nativity, which has been condemned by many critics for its vulgarity, drips with naturalistic sculpture, much of it cast from life – in total contrast to del Villlar’s Gothic revivalism. But , like the subsequent designs for the towers of the church, the south and west facades, the cloister , and the columns and vaults of the upper church, none of which were executed in Gaudi’s lifetime, it represent a significant stage in the development of what he described as “Mediterranean Gothic.”
Underlying the sever geometric aesthetic the internal elevation of the eastern portal, the almost Moorish tapered form of the four spires with their suggestively Cubist finials, and the tense muscularity of the southern portal, is a strict structural agenda. This achieved its most sophisticated expression in the designs for the internal structure of columns and vaulting, developed through elaborate three-dimensional models. The complex system of titled “tree-columns” and vaulting based on hyperboloid and hyperbolic paraboloid forms would have allowed the whole to be self-supporting, eliminating the need for flying buttresses and although conceived as a stone structure, it would most logically have been realised in reinforced concrete using modern methods.
Gaudi completely disregarded conventional architectural protocol in freely moving form one idea to another during the extended design process of the church , and happily combined a commitment to structural functionalism with an exuberant decorative display of craftsmanship in the modelling of the stonework and the wild polychromy of coloured tile. The result was a unique architecture which had a particular resonance in the context of Barcelona’s industrial expansion of Catalan nationalism. This gave Gaudi’s work a significant populist dimension, but it is the generalised acceptance of architectural pluralism and Expressionism in the last 20 years which has opened the way to critical re-evaluation of his work in relation to the history of modern architecture.