Gaudi and the Perfection of the Gothic Style

Sir Barken Hyena writes:

First let us begin with a video. This shows via clever CGI what remains to be built of Catalan architect Antonin Gaudi’s signature building, the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família in Barcelona, Spain, under construction since 1882 and slated for completion in 2026. They’ve got their work cut out for them from the looks of it:

Seems like this completion date is tad optimistic, until you hear that they can now use CNC milling to automate the stone carving. This has some amazing implications; is this the solution to the high labor costs of stone buildings? A man can dream about a tech-led revival of traditional architectural techniques can’t he?

Now I’m not going to try to cheerlead Gaudi as the perfect architect. Looking at Casa Mila or Casa Batllo, his bizarre apartment projects, I have the same doubts about feeling at home there as I might have about living in a Frank Gehry building. And the same “art object writ large” objections, or enthusiasms, often obtain. I would probably prefer residence in buildings from Gaudi’s eclipsed contemporaries, who better rode the line between the fabulous and the familiar.

What I want to talk about is Gaudi the structural engineer. Though a student and lover of the Gothic, he always thought it an imperfect style. Flying buttresses were an offensive hack in his mind that no amount of fanciful ornamentation could remedy, but they were needed to support the towering open spaces essential to the expressive purpose of the cathedral. Modern steel buildings can accomplish this with ease but Gaudi, though he did use steel framing in a few structures, was more interested in improving the stress distribution of masonry to achieve soaring open spaces. This he did through a variety of innovative techniques.

In a Gothic cathedral the problem is this: you have to have windows to fill the space with ethereal light, but cutting the holes for them weakens the load bearing capability of the walls. Then the walls can’t support the roof, which must be done with a forest of columns. These then choke the internal space as with the Parthenon, and the effect is ruined. Gothic architects solved this problem by placing towering buttresses along the exterior sides to carry the outward force from the roof. It’s as though the building sprouts an exoskeleton. It works structurally and makes a heavenly space open up inside, but the architects struggled to integrate these massive structures aesthetically into the building as a whole. Mostly they seem to have landed on the idea of making the structures so ornate that it hid the function. If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit, or so at least Gaudi appears to have thought.

In short, you couldn’t have this:


Without this:

Flying buttresses in action

Gaudi wasn’t buying any this, he knew that a way could be found to use the columns to take the full weight of the roof with out buttresses. Since youth he had been obsessed with structure and was a keen observer of nature. He found the solution by making his columns into great branching trees. Here’s what it looks like:

Sagrada_Familia_interior_1The branches gather the stress from the roof and collect it, functioning like the spokes of an umbrella to hold the roof up. The walls are left only needing to support themselves, no buttresses needed. So the interior space is freed up and the outside facade is left clean. Because of this the Sagrada presents a worthy facade in all directions. The results might just be the perfection of Gothic, though I imagine the architects of Chartres, or even Milan might find it a bit repellent, technical superiority aside. I think it’s grand myself.


Another innovation visible here are the roof top skylights. The vaulted ceilings of traditional cathedrals would have been structurally compromised by cutting windows. Gaudi here uses a hyperboloid structure that supports the roof while leaving natural holes for windows, something seen in no ancient cathedral. The effect is like sunlight filtering down from the trees, the oculus of the Pantheon multiplied.

Make no mistake about it, Gaudi was a modern architect and his innovations show this. But I think his enduring value is not in the stylistic realm, amusing and delightful though he can be. It’s that he represents a path that modernism could have taken but didn’t, but might still yet.

In the meantime, let’s get those CNC stone millers a-firing!

About Sir Barken Hyena

IT professional and veteran of start ups. Life long musician and songwriter. Voracious reader of dead white guys. Lover of food and women.
This entry was posted in Architecture. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Gaudi and the Perfection of the Gothic Style

  1. mrtallhk says:

    Love this post, and Gaudi’s masterwork. Your explanations of the structural dilemmas of cathedral building are admirably clear!

    Serendipitously, I’m just reading Batsford and Fry’s wonderful The Cathedrals of England, which I recommend highly. Lots of interesting detail there on the construction of these endlessly fascinating and impressive buildings.


  2. Thanks for reading, and thanks for the tip.


  3. peterike says:

    As bizarre as Gaudi can be, the difference between his work and modernism is that Gaudi isn’t trying to alienate you. He’s not purposely building a giant solipsistic middle finger to society like Gehry. Quite the opposite.


    • Yes, he’s modern in the old meaning of modern, the way Art Deco is modern. And the opposite is right, since the purpose of the Sagrada Familia is to seek forgiveness from god for the sins of modernity. So Sagrada is also a big middle finger, one aimed at Gehry!


  4. Awesome posting. I’d love to get to Barcelona someday.


  5. Fenster says:

    I was there once, on a kind of psychedelic-era pilgrimage to northern Spain. I spent a semester in Amsterdam in, of all years, 1970, missing Kent State but picking up other aspects of the counterculture abroad. I had a girlfriend from the program with whom I had hitchhiked through England during an early break in the semester. Now the second break was coming and my idea was that we would go to Barcelona and engage in a kind of religious contemplation, aiming toward Sagrada Família as the end point with some Tantrism along the way.

    Well, she broke up with me before the trip but announced her desire nonetheless to travel to Barcelona with some of her girlfriends from the program–a weaselly bunch of sorority types that she had come from and that I fretted she would return to. Mostly though I was hurt over the break-up. So I decided to hitchhike on my own, penniless and penitent, down to Barcelona. There, I would run into her “accidentally” on La Rambla, she would see the light, dump her gal-pals, and we would be off to share a 50 cent a night bed and see Gaudi

    I still have my journal from the trip. It was written in the purplest of prose. A Procol Harum lyric from the year before confesses that the singer’s words are “pretentious and make you cringe with embarrassment”, and that’s my journal from Barcelona for sure. In it, I recount my long-trek south to see “a cathedral in the sun”. My wandering the streets for several days. My failure to locate my girlfriend. My recognition that expecting to run into her was mostly a loony fantasy.

    But then there was the glory of the cathedral itself. Sure, my affection for the place was in large part affectation, a result of the similarity between Gaudi’s organic forms and the snaky-swirly aesthetic of the era. Still and all, the experience would have blown my socks off if I had been wearing any.


  6. Pingback: Towards a New Old Architecture | Uncouth Reflections

  7. Gareth says:

    A case study where more = too much. I’ve always heard they like taking their time in Spain, apparently it’s true.


  8. Pingback: Review: “Sagrada: The Mystery of Creation” | Uncouth Reflections

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