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:
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:
The 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!