Antoni Gaudí, the masterpiece of the Sagrada Familia

“To do great works, you must first have a love for them; and secondly, technique.

Antoni Gaudí, modernist architect

 

As Cardinal Casañas walked around supervising the projects, the silence around him could be cut with a knife. The workers looked expectantly whenever they took a pause from their work; their children took advantage of breaks between classes at the school built adjacent to the church to get a closer look at the man with the somber appearance and that huge cross on his chest... which must have been quite heavy!

The weight was tremendous, but not because of the metal. Days of sorrow were approaching for the Church, although at that point nobody could imagine how sad and hard it would be for him. The visit to the Sagrada Familia, as Gaudí well knew, could be a balm of peace or yet another reason for concern. The brilliant architect knew this was the project of his life. Actually, it was the masterpiece of multiple generations: who knew when it would be finished. But he was fully aware that a project like that could cause unrest in a city that was at a boiling point.

As the cardinal turned to approach Gaudí, the wrinkles on his face seemed to have disappeared in a matter of minutes.

—"Do you love the Sagrada Familia temple, Mr. Gaudí?"

—"Yes, your eminence," the architect replied vehemently.

—"Good. That is all I need to know. Continue leading the project."

The story of how the brilliant architect from Reus had ended up leading that project was among the most serendipitous events in the history of art. A restless person since his youth, Antoni Gaudí flirted with anarchism upon arriving in Barcelona. His sensibility, his way of looking at the world and humanity prevented him from turning a deaf ear to the reality of Barcelona in the late 19th century: as the working class toiled in misery, a tiny percentage of the population—thriving industrial families—capitalized on the wealth generated by factories and commerce.

The path chosen by the architect, however, had taken him in a different direction. He loved beauty and its expression in nature, both in the purely artistic sense and the appeal of any noble effort to build a better society.

He had developed a true friendship with his patron, Count Güell, based on their shared desire to build a new world: A world where all work was recognized in all its dignity. Where the anarchist utopia was a reality in accordance with human nature. Where, instead of having sides and adversaries, there were brothers working together and mutually benefiting from a relationship where intelligence and kindness intermingled.

That is why the proposal of the Sagrada Familia foundation was like the long-awaited answer to his deepest yearnings. "We wish to put forth, in this fractured world, in this society seeming doomed to be divided between the exploiters and the exploited, the ideal of the Sagrada Familia project: Jesus, in all his dignity as the son of God, following the orders of St. Joseph."

When he heard the mission of the foundation, and its intention to build an expiatory temple to atone for the sins of all—employers and workers, rich and poor—he believed it was the culmination of his life's work: the Colonia Güell, Park Güell, La Pedrera... these were all child's play compared to what this great temple would be.

In the Sagrada Familia, everyone would be represented. Everyone would in some way participate in its construction. In fact, the work itself would become a tangible example of Gaudí's great ideal: right next to the temple, the architect himself would build a small school for the children of the workers, which itself was a masterpiece of beauty and rationality (the two foundational pillars of all his work) and blessed with the best and most advanced educational methods of the time.

“One of the most beautiful things in life is to feel good at work," he used to say to his workers. What better gesture than to provide the best education for their children, as a clear indicator of Gaudí's affection and respect for their work.

Maybe then he began to understand what a century later would be clearly expressed by Etsuro Sotoo, current chief sculptor of the Sagrada Familia: “The Sagrada Familia is not Gaudí's masterpiece... it's the other way around: Gaudí is the masterpiece of the Sagrada Familia.”

The intuition that Gaudí already had in his youth was evident in him, in his own biography. The 30-year-old architect who would take over the design and construction of that great temple was not the most technically experienced, but he was perfectly prepared: he knew suffering, he knew the pain of loss, he was sensitive to what that project was all about.

Gaudí changed in those years leading up to his death. The Sagrada Familia gradually shaped him; purifying his aspirations, his ego, giving the rest of his projects an abundance of meaning. Sotoo could make a radical statement like that because he, like so many others, had experienced the very same thing; they had largely gone down the same path as Gaudí to encounter God.

On the day of Gaudí’s passing, in the hospital where he would take his dying breath, it was decided to make a mask of his face to immortalize that final expression of peace and joy of a noble genius. The sculpture is shown to this day as a testimonial to the joy of a life fulfilled and transformed by the closeness to the loving creator of all the beauty existing in nature.

While the life of Gaudí cannot be reduced to a handful of takeaways, we offer these reflections on his work:

  • “One of the most beautiful things in life is to feel good at work," a phrase he loved to repeat.
  • Loving what we do is the best way for us to convey beauty and a sense of purpose around us.
  • That love transforms us, in a virtuous circle that enhances and enriches the work of our hands.
  • Starting with reality, nature and everyday life is the ideal method for offering the world transformative and amazing works.