Dr Terry Cutler writes: The topic of the day for the good citizens of Barcelona last weekend was the visit by the Pope to officially open the completed interior of Gaudí’s Sagrada Família, an event 128 years in the making. The weekend was shaping up as a contest between a celebration of either religion and faith or of architecture. Would the primary focus be the Pope or the building? Both have been contentious in Catalonia. For Gaudí himself, an intensely devout Catholic, his architecture was the servant of his faith.

Last Friday, as I was taking a desultory walk around the local district, I came across houses sporting Vatican flags in anticipation of the Pope’s visit while others flaunted a curiously ambiguously banner expressing indifference to the whole drama of the week.  The design is quite arresting.


This literally translates as “I’m not waiting for you”.  The locals I asked about whether there was some hidden punch in this seemingly soft slogan said this was not so much about a protest rally as a public statement of indifference, and could be rendered as “it means nothing to me”.  Over dinner that night we discussed how quickly secularisation had taken hold of Spain. It is amazing how topics like abortion and gay marriage which are almost undiscussable in Australian politics are now totally unexceptional here. In less than a generation church attendance and affiliation has dropped to less than a fifth of the population. How ironic in a country whose imperial past saw the State as the heavy handed bovver boy for the conversion of the Americas. Later that same close link between the State and the Church under Franco accelerated the desertion of the pews.

The weekend, therefore, is full of irony. The Pope’s mission here is more about the re-conversion of Spain than a celebration of a miracle of architecture. And Gaudí’s Sagrada Família is itself a story of the collateral damage from the anti-clericalism which broke out during the Spanish civil war from 1936 to 1939. The wounds from that war are still visibly raw and it is only very recently that people have started to talk openly about it.

During the war churches and monasteries became a prime target for the republicans. Some were completely destroyed, others merely gutted. At the Sagrada Família the teacher at the attached school was executed and the mob rampaged Gaudí’s studio, smashing his carefully constructed plaster models and burning drawings. It was this act that made the reconstruction of Gaudí’s intentions such a painstaking affair and these celebrations of a completion milestone such an achievement.

If the Sagrada Família is implicated in a long running debate about Church and State, it has also divided the architectural confraternity. Ever since Gaudí’s death there has been a noisy collective of opponents arguing against the completion of the Sagrada Família. This push, publicised most widely by Robert Hughes in his bestselling 1992 biography of Barcelona, argued that the site should simply be preserved as an unfinished monument, much like Gaudí’s other unfinished commission for the church at Colònia Güell in the countryside to the south of Barcelona.  This school of thought argues that there is no authority for the completion of work that Gaudí had left unfinished.  On this logic, of course, most of the world’s most famous buildings would never have been completed.  In Barcelona itself it took some 600 years to finish its Gothic Cathedral.  What is different about the Sagrada Família is both the groundbreaking research and design effort to remain faithful to Gaudí’s vision and the inter-generational continuity of the people working on the site as an atelier of practice.  The father of the 85-year-old director of the project, Senyor Bonet, worked under Gaudí.

It is clear that the people who have been working on the site for so long are more like a family than a project team and for them this weekend is bitter sweet. On one hand they have the immense pride in having pulled this off, and they are also mindful that they still have the job of finishing off the exterior over the next sixteen years or so. But this weekend they are on the sidelines, the architects and builders handing over the completed project of the interior to the client, as the Church — as the client — has taken control of this weekend’s event management. There is commonly a process of grieving and a sense of loss when an artist hands on a completed work to the commissioning client or purchaser. You are handing over your baby for adoption.

On Sunday Gaudí’s Sagrada Família opened for business.  The Pope travelled by Pope-mobile from the Bishop’s Palace in the old Gothic Quarter of Barcelona to the Sagrada Família in the “new” city of the 19th century.  Looking at the television later I believe I detected a slight gasp of amazement as he entered through the newly hung bronze doors opening from the yet to be built Gloria Façade. Well he might.  I suspect many of those who had opposed the completion of the building might now be slightly lost for words. As the Pope said at the beginning of his homily, it is beautiful.

Even though I have visited the work in progress many times, and crawled over the roof and through the scaffolding in the interior crossing, nothing really prepared me for the amazing space now finally unveiled.  It is huge and yet it has an incredible lightness of being. And it is a space absolutely filled with light. 7000 people occupied the space yet it could have held many more but for safety regulations about emergency exits.


The Pope consecrated the church, said Mass, and then declared the building a Basilica.  Senyor Jordi Bonet, the architect director, formally handed the Pope the keys to the building. It was a suitably large and impressive key. All this took almost three hours, but I suppose that it not all that long for a building so long in the making. The exterior is not expected to be finished until about 2026.

Outside it was hard to estimate the size of the crowd, because people had been pushed back into parks and radial streets. At the start of this short visit to Spain the Pope had mentioned that he feared a resurgence of the anticlericalism that had marked the 1930s and the Civil War. A fairly courageous statement to broadcast on the ground in this largely secular Spain. As if to exemplify this tension, the Queen of Spain took communion but the King did not.

The Cardinal Archbishop of Barcelona seemed a very happy man nonetheless and even the most ardent Socialist in the government would have been pleased at a weekend in which the Pope visited Santiago de Compostela and Barcelona without a touchdown in Madrid.  The rivalry between Barcelona and Madrid makes competition between Melbourne and Sydney look tame.


Photo courtesy Mark Burry

Now the consecration is over we can start to explore and appreciate the unveiled interior.  I look up at the ceiling vaulting with awe.  It feels strange to recall that I once stood on scaffolding — rather shakily I must admit — and ran my hands over this mosaic work.

From the early 1990s a movement began to agitate for the canonisation of Gaudí.  Of course canonisation requires at least two miracles.  Looking at the interior today it is hard not to agree that it is miraculous. Perhaps the completed exterior will provide the second miracle.

Dr Terry Cutler is an industry consultant and strategy advisor in the information and communications technology sector. He was chair of the Rudd government’s 2008 review of the National Innovation Council.

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