How to build a church
I am sure that all readers of these pages are ardent church visitors, if not necessarily church goers. We all descend on churches voraciously and take them apart between decorated and perpendicular – and Victorian. But how do you design a church that is, well, different? We recently visited the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s still unfinished masterpiece in Barcelona, and were blown away.
If you are going to build a new church – a huge church, you do not want to take the boring old design of a church that has been around for so long. Let’s start again from scratch.
A church need a tower, but why stop at just one tower? Christ had twelve apostles so let’s have twelve bell towers, one for each apostle. But then there were four evangelists, so let’s give each of them a tower. These are not the usual bell towers, but what the Spanish call cimborios, a word usually translated as a lantern tower though showing distinct Moorish influence. Then the Virgin Mary deserves a tower, so let’s give her one over the apse, while Jesus himself must have the biggest tower of all over the central crossing, which will be 172 metres high, making it the tallest spire in Christendom, – the spire of Salisbury Cathedral is a mere 123 metres high and even the great pyramid was only 146 metres high. Admittedly the Jesus tower is not yet finished, it is only two thirds built. But when it is finished it will be magnificent.
Then let’s rethink the inside of the basilica: let’s do away with all these arches. You need to have columns of course, but why curve inwards at the top? Why not curve outwards like a tree to make the whole effect much more naturalistic.
You have to master the engineering to make the whole thing stand up, but underneath the flamboyance Gaudi was a good engineer.
You will also need a cloister, but why stick your cloister to one side? Let’s rethink the cloister and have it as a corridor running round the whole basilica, separating off the sacred from the profane.
A big church also needs a big choir, let’s aim for 900 choristers to go with the congregation of 30,000. But why hide the choristers away at the East end?
Let’s put a gallery all around the church for the use of the choristers; to accompany them you will have five organs, though so far only the first has been installed in two parts behind the High Altar.
(Quite how you play five organs and overcome the problem of the speed of sound goodness only knows – a task for computers no doubt).
There are carvings everywhere, but they too are arranged in an overall plan. The side facing east is the nativity facade which was the first part to be built in the late nineteenth century, the only part to be built under the direct supervision of the architect, though he died ten years before it was completed.
But this is all joyful, full of life with the excessive joie de vivre of late Victorian exuberance. The other side facing west is the Passion facade illustrating Christ’s crucifixion. This has only just been carved in the last fifty years or so, and I must say it is somewhat more restrained.
Of course if you are designing such a huge church the sensible thing to do is to start from the ground building all the walls at an equal pace.
However if you realise that even though you have devoted forty years of your life building the church, that you are unlikely to see it completed, what you do is you build just one side; the side facing east to virtually full height, so that everyone will be so impressed by your overall design they will have to complete the church, even if it takes a century or more after your death. After all most medieval cathedrals took centuries to build.
La Sagrada Familia is the glory of Barcelona and a masterpiece of Antonio Gaudi (1852 – 1926). But it is not the cathedral. Barcelona has its own magnificent cathedral at the centre of the old Roman town; and if I may say so, rather English in feel. But one of the leading inhabitants of Barcelona, Josep Maria Bocabella, in the 1870s wanted to build a new church out in the suburbs on a huge scale. He appointed Francisco del Villar as architect who began work on a fine conventional church and dug out the crypt, which is indeed still there. But he fell out with his patrons over his supposed extravagance, but the patrons then appointed Gaudi as the new architect, which as far as extravagance was concerned was out of the frying pan into the fire – and how! But Gaudi by this time in his mid thirties, had become the most fashionable architect in Barcelona, and everyone wanted to have their house rebuilt by Gaudi, and all the wealthy citizens of Barcelona were willing to check in with their contributions, and when Gaudi died leaving elaborate models behind him and one wall nearly completed, it was clear that the work must go on.
Today it is three quarters completed, though huge cranes tower over the church. Today the work is in full swing and how is it financed? By the fees paid by the tourists – one would like to say the offerings of the pilgrims, but it is rather more commercial than that. It is one of the great commercial tourist points in the world and the pilgrims, sorry tourists pay 30 Euros a head to admire the church, and even on a chilly November day it was packed full.
Gaudi looking down from on high must be very pleased! He came from a humble family of metal workers, but rose to being the most fashionable architect in Barcelona. He was clearly away with the fairies for much of the time, but then is that not a definition of genius? He is usually considered to be part of the Art Nouveau movement, but he was really far too individualistic to be categorised in this way.
He was crossed in love – his girl friend jilted him, most of his family died out and towards the end of his life he ‘married’ the church which did not quite know what to do with this ardent admirer. He never took a penny for his work on the Basilica even though towards the end of his career it dominated his life. He died in 1926 at the age of 76 with the Basilica less than a quarter completed, but it had become one of the great triumphs of world architecture.