Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
RM: The line to enter Barcelona’s most famous cathedral often stretches around the block. La Sagrada Familia designed by Antoni Gaudi draws so many people to see it that the neighborhood is congested with tour buses and taxis and scooters. Some 3 million people went inside the church in 2016 and another 7 million came just to stare at the outside of this strange behemoth structure.
Katie Mingle: If you travel around Spain, you’ll see a lot of old gothic churches.
Roman Mars: Producer Katie Mingle was in Spain earlier this year.
Katie Mingle: But this one is different. First, it doesn’t look like a gothic cathedral. It looks like it was built out of bones, or sand, or like it just twirled out of the sea, like a fractal. It looks organic somehow.
Roman Mars: But there’s another thing that sets it apart from your average, old, gothic cathedral.
Katie Mingle: It isn’t actually old.
Roman Mars: Gaudi wasn’t able to build very much of it before he died in 1926. Most of the church has been built in the last 40 years and it still isn’t finished.
Katie Mingle: Which means that architects have had to figure out, and still are figuring out how Gaudi wanted the church to be built.
Jeronimo Buxareu: We are all together and our room is a special room. The most important part of the building we are building.
Katie Mingle: That’s Jeronimo Buxareu, one of the current architects of the building, and he says the clues to understanding how to move forward on the construction of La Sagrada Familia are kept in the room we’re standing in right now, in the basement of the church.
So since this is radio can you describe what is in this room?
Jeronimo Buxareu: Ah okay. How do you call this?
Katie Mingle: Shelves.
Jeronimo Buxareu: There are a lot of shelves with fragments, little pieces of plaster, big, and small.
Roman Mars: Before he died, Gaudi left elaborate plaster models detailing his plans for finishing the church. But about 80 years ago they were all basically destroyed. Now they’re in pieces.
Katie Mingle: It doesn’t look like just from this and those little pieces that that would be enough to figure out the whole thing.
Jeronimo Buxareu: I understand that it’s different to know what we have to do if the main architect is not here, is not with us. What we try to do is to understand how he thought. And it’s not easy, I know.
Katie Mingle: It definitely hasn’t been easy for the new architects to understand and recreate the vision of Antoni Gaudi. And there are people who think they shouldn’t even have tried, that the building should have stopped after Gaudi’s death. But it didn’t. The building is currently the longest-running construction project in the world. And the architects are still trying to understand the mind of Gaudi.
Roman Mars: Antoni Gaudi grew up in a little town called Reus which like Barcelona, was part of a region of Spain called Catalonia. And although he’s become one of Spain’s most famous architects, Gaudi would never have identified as Spanish. He was Catalonian through and through.
Katie Mingle: Catalonia has been in the news recently because of its movement for independence from Spain. But in many ways, this movement isn’t new. Catalonians have struggled against the rule of the Spanish for centuries.
Gijs van Hensbergen: Catalonia it has a separate language, Catalan. It has always felt very separate.
Katie Mingle: That’s Gijs van Hensbergen.
Gijs van Hensbergen: My name is Gijs van Hensbergen. I’m the biographer of Antoni Gaudi.
Katie Mingle: van Hensbergen says as a child growing up in Catalonia, Gaudi spent a lot of time outside, and was completely enthralled with the natural world around him.
Gijs van Hensbergen: What he would later call, “The great book of nature.”
Katie Mingle: A lot of kids are curious about nature but for Antoni Gaudi it was different.
Gijs van Hensbergen: It became a total obsession.
Katie Mingle: He seemed to absorb essential lessons from the patterns and the shapes that he saw in nature.
Gijs van Hensbergen: Just looking at the way the insects were walking and flowers grew, the way that a tree grows and where it throws out its branches.
Roman Mars: A dried out snake’s skeleton, a honeycomb… These were nature’s perfect constructions. And for Gaudi, a deeply religious Catholic, God was the master architect of these flawless organic structures.
Katie Mingle: Eventually Gaudi left his small town in the countryside and moved to Barcelona for university and then architecture school. When he graduated in 1878, the director of the school said, “We are here today either in the presence of a genius or a madman.”
Roman Mars: Gaudi began his career at a difficult moment in Barcelona. The industrial revolution had brought thousands of workers from the countryside into the city for factory jobs. They were toiling in terrible conditions, packed into filthy tenements, drinking dirty water. Diseases like Yellow Fever and Cholera were rampant.
Katie Mingle: In the midst of all of this suffering, a bookseller named Josep Boccabella began selling a fundamentalist newspaper. The kind that reminded everyone that their misery was punishment for their sins.
Gijs van Hensbergen: Surprisingly it caught on.
Katie Mingle: Pretty soon Boccabella was making quite a lot of money from his Catholic guilt themed newspaper.
Gijs van Hensbergen: Which he squirreled away, kept apparently hidden under the tiles of his bookshop.
Katy Mingle: With the piles of money he was accumulating, Boccabella decided to build a church. One meant to inspire the common folk to lead a religious life. The church would be dedicated to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. The sacred family. La Sagrada Familia.
Roman Mars: The first architect that Boccabella hired quit after a year and he went looking for a new one.
Katy Mingle: Legend goes, Boccabella had a dream one night.
Gijs van Hensbergen: That a ginger-haired, blue-eyed man would come to the rescue.
Katie Mingle: The very next day Boccabella saw the person from his dream in real life, drawing in the studio of another architect he knew.
Gijs van Hensbergen: Ginger hair, blue eyes. And he says, “Well you’re the man.”
Roman Mars: The man he had seen was Antoni Gaudi and immediately Boccabella hired him to be the architect of his church.
Gijs van Hensbergen: The greatest job in Spain at that time was given to this almost completely unknown 29-year-old, who’d done very little work.
Roman Mars: The basic floorplan for La Sagrada Familia had already been laid out by the former architect and Gaudi would stick with it. The church would be built in the neo-gothic style, which was popular at the time in Europe. But Gaudi also wanted the church to be something completely unique, inspired by nature and by God.
Gijs van Hensbergen: What Gaudi wanted was a building which would actually have the harmonies of the celestial spheres. The idea that everything has a harmony in nature, and that if you got that right in your building, the building itself would spiritualize you.
Katy Mingle: That said, Gaudi would never allow the building to outshine God’s creations. So he set a limit on how tall the church would ever get.
Gijs van Hensbergen: He felt that he didn’t want to be taller than God’s handiwork and God’s handiwork was, of course, the mountains on either side.
Roman Mars: La Sagrada Familia would be one meter, or about three feet shorter than Mount Montjuic in Barcelona, you know just to keep it humble.
Katie Mingle: In 1883 when Gaudi started work on La Sagrada Familia, his first matter of business was to finish the crypt which had been started by the previous architect. The crypt is essentially a small church under the bigger church and a place where important people are buried. In fact, Josep Boccabella was buried there when he died in 1892, nine years after he hired Gaudi.
Roman Mars: The La Sagrada Familia crypt was big enough to hold services in and this kept everyone happy while Gaudi took his time designing the rest of the building. When Boccabella died, management of the construction passed through various hands but for Gaudi, there was only one client that really mattered.
Gijs van Hensbergen: God is the client and God is never in a hurry.
Katie Mingle: After the crypt was finished Gaudi began to build the first big wall of the building, the nativity façade. He would work on it for the rest of his life but it was important to him that this façade get done first, because:
Gijs van Hensbergen: It would be the Bible written in stone, which people, if they couldn’t even read or write, they could look at the building and be taught about the values of the Catholic faith.
Roman Mars: Gaudi was a sculptor as much as an architect and the wall would be full of stone sculptures depicting biblical scenes.
Gijs van Hensbergen: The baptism of Christ, Christ in the workshop with his father, the flight to Egypt, with a life-size donkey.
Katie Mingle: The stone sculpture of a donkey in that scene was actually cast in plaster from a real live donkey.
Gijs van Hensbergen: It had to be a particular donkey, he wanted a donkey that looked as if it had been through the desert for 40 days.
Roman Mars: One of Gaudi’s workers actually wandered the streets until he found the perfect starving donkey, which he excitedly handed over to Gaudi.
Gijs van Hensbergen: He took the donkey and he put the donkey up in a harness, he’d had it chloroformed. And then he cast the whole live donkey.
Katie Mingle: Antoni Gaudi also tried making plaster molds from live human beings.
Gijs van Hensbergen: He actually tried to do with one of his workers, but he almost killed him and decided that maybe that wasn’t the best way forward.
Katie Mingle: This all took an incredibly long time but eventually the walls started to tell a story in stone, and it featured hundreds of celestial and earthly creatures.
Gijs van Hensbergen: Little snails crawling all over it and tortoises….
Katie Mingle: The façade became crowded and cluttered and teeming with life.
Gijs van Hensbergen: Almost swampish quality of the stone oozing organic shaping of the building, it was very unusual, very extraordinary.
Katie Mingle: Antoni Gaudi was slowly building a Catholic church but not everyone was convinced that Catholicism had anything of value to offer the average working citizen. Leftists saw the church as getting rich from the tithes of the poor.
Gijs van Hensbergen: They saw them as being wealthy, as being parasitic, as living off them.
Roman Mars: Communism, socialism, and anarchism were taking hold in other parts of the world and in Spain, these leftist parties thought they could offer the struggling worker a better life. The conflict between leftists and the state and leftists and the church were a constant.
Gijs van Hensbergen: For the last decade of the 19th century, there was probably on average something like two bombs every week in the center of the city.
Roman Mars: Throughout the years Gaudi worked on other architecture projects in Barcelona. His work is peppered all over the city. In palaces, pavilions and extravagant homes, his sinuous and skeletal architecture was unmistakable, everyone in Barcelona knew his style. But La Sagrada Familia is the project that consumed him.
Gijs van Hensbergen: He realized of course that he could never finish it and would never see it finished in his lifetime.
Katie Mingle: By 1926, 73-year-old Antoni Gaudi had never married and was living alone. He spent a lot of nights sleeping in his studio at La Sagrada Familia too obsessed with his work to care about his appearance.
Gijs van Hensbergen: He was looking a bit like a tramp actually. His trousers were held up with safety pins and a bit of string.
Katie Mingle: On June 7th of 1926 Gaudi is leaving work, and as he crosses the railroad tracks….
Gijs van Hensbergen: He forgets to look and the tram runs him over.
Roman Mars: Antoni Gaudi was left nearly dead on the railroad tracks. When his body was found he was taken to the hospital where he died three days later. Gaudi was buried in the crypt under La Sagrada Familia.
Katie Mingle: His last years had been consumed with building the church but Barcelona had not forgotten Gaudi. Throngs of people came out to mourn.
Gijs van Hensbergen: It was guessed that almost a quarter of the population of Catalonia turned up in procession. Hundreds of thousands of people were there.
Roman Mars: When Gaudi died he left behind a largely unfinished church. What stood was a massive wall, the nativity façade, one tower, and the crypt. His colleagues and apprentices would have a lot to do to bring his full vision into being.
Katie Mingle: But Gaudi had anticipated that other architects would finish his work and he left behind detailed drawings and models outlining exactly how he wanted his magnum opus to be built.
Roman Mars: For ten years work on La Sagrada Familia continued very slowly.
Katie Mingle: Much of Gaudi’s former team stayed on, even though they could have gone and started their own projects. They were loyal.
Gijs van Hensbergen: There was still work to be done, the drawings still existed. They continued working away.
Katie Mingle: And then in 1936….
(announcer): The youth of Spain from the north, east, south, and west, go forth to spill the lifeblood of their brother Spaniards.
Katie Mingle: The Spanish civil war began.
Roman Mars: The decades-old conflict between leftists and the state had finally come to a head.
Roman Mars: The Republicans who were an alliance of various leftist parties, fought against the nationalists, which was an alliance of fascists and other conservatives led by General Francisco Franco. The nationalists also had the support of most of Spain’s Catholic clergy.
Gijs van Hensbergen: On the 18th of July, two days after the start of the Spanish civil war a group of young anarchists breaks into the studios of Gaudi.
Katie Mingle: And smash everything with hammers.
Gijs van Hensbergen: All the models, everything is smashed up into tiny little bits.
Katie Mingle: When they’re done smashing, they light the place ablaze. Everything burns including the architectural drawings.
Guy Svenhensber: Absolutely everything. And in fact, the following day, try to come back and bomb the nativity façade which is the only work standing there of Gaudi’s, which miraculously they fail to do.
Roman Mars: Catholicism was under attack during the war and by the end of it 40 churches in Barcelona had been destroyed, and 12 people associated with the Sagrada Familia project including some of its managing patrons and clergy had been killed.
Roman Mars: The war ended in 1939. The leftists lost, the fascists won and General Francisco Franco took control of Spain.
Roman Mars: When it was all over, a few workers returned to Gaudi’s studio to salvage what they could.
Gijs van Hensbergen: They very carefully picked up in boxes, little sections and fragments of the models and like archeologists do today, they started piecing them together.
Katie Mingle: For the next couple of decades the remaining architects and other workers tried to figure out how to move forward on the construction without Gaudi’s plans, but outside the church, there was opposition to moving forward at all.
Roman Mars: In the 1960s an impressive group of intellectuals and architects including Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto wrote an open letter opposing the continuation of La Sagrada Familia. Gaudi wasn’t only an architect they argued, he was an artist. And you shouldn’t attempt to finish a work of art without the artist.
Gijs van Hensbergen: They felt that this was a total waste of time, they should have left just the original nativity façade almost like a gothic ruin there as a homage to Gaudi, and that Gaudi wasn’t being well served.
Katie Mingle: But the patrons of the project would have none of it. The building was never supposed to be an homage to Gaudi they argued. It was always about something bigger.
Roman Mars: That said, they would try to honor Gaudi’s original vision as faithfully as possible but it wouldn’t be easy. The models and drawings had been the road map for how to move forward on the construction and they were burned and smashed to pieces.
Katie Mingle: And this wasn’t just any cathedral. All these years Gaudi had been designing something so unique, so complex and so completely new that it would take his successors years to fully get a handle on it.
Roman Mars: By the 1970s another huge façade was going up. But the church still had no interior and no roof. It was just walls and towers, a construction site open to the rain.
Mark Burry: I first went to Barcelona in 1977, when I was 20.
Katie Mingle: That’s architect Mark Burry. Mark had actually been told in architect school that Gaudi was not worth studying because his approach was too esoteric.
Mark Burry: That he was too extraordinary and there was no school. Meaning that there was nothing to see, move along.
Katie Mingle: This just got Burry more curious. So he went to have a look at the Sagrada Familia himself.
Mark Burry: And by complete accident, I ended up meeting the two 90-year-old architects who were directing the project, and they had been young architects listening to Gaudi explaining his latest discoveries when they were students.
Katie Mingle: The old architects were ready to move onto the interior of the building but they didn’t exactly know how to do it.
Mark Burry: They knew that he had a system based on geometry, and they knew this system ought to translate into a kind of building methodology.
Katie Mingle: In other words, the architects knew it was theoretically possible to figure out how to create the rest of the church but it was a monumental task. They point Burry to a couple of boxes.
Mark Burry: Boxes full of broken models, plaster of Paris models with the invitation to come and join the team and have a go at untangling the mysteries of the models.
Roman Mars: For a year Burry worked with the models, trying to extrapolate the geometry of the rest of the church based on the pieces he had. After a year he’d managed to draw out architectural blueprints for one window. It was a start.
Katie Mingle: Mark Burry didn’t stay long at the Sagrada Familia. He was only 20 and he had to go back to New Zealand to finish school. He returned to work on the church ten years later and found that when he was gone, a new thingamabob had been moved into the office. A computer.
Mark Burry: So I thought these computers must have something to offer because I’d never personally touched one.
Roman Mars: When Burry finally touched the computer he figured out that it had architectural software on it. But the software wasn’t capable of dealing with Gaudi.
Mark Burry: Couldn’t even go anywhere near what Gaudi was trying to do.
Katie Mingle: The complexity of Gaudi’s designs was too much for architectural software of the early ‘90s. Bury wondered if there was anyone else who designed with similar geometric complexity and finally he landed on it. People who design airplanes. He started using aeronautical software to figure out an architectural strategy for the interior of the church.
Mark Burry: Because I had this very sophisticated software, by accident I discovered parametric design. So we were working parametrically from 1991.
Roman Mars: Parametric design uses computer algorithms to allow you to plug in different variables and see what the end result is each time you change something.
Katie Mingle: Mark Burry was one of the first architects to use computers to design this way. Though he eventually figured out that Frank Gehry’s team had also started using aeronautical software to bring Gehry’s strangely shaped curvaceous buildings into being.
Mark Burry: Every year I would go through LA and visit Frank’s office and talk to the technical team and compare notes.
Roman Mars: Eventually Gehry Technologies with help from Mark Burry went on to create their own parametric software, specifically for architects. And by the early 2000s many of the most exciting new projects in architecture were being done in this way. At the forefront of this was a church designed over a century ago by Antoni Gaudi. La Sagrada Familia.
Mark Burry: So from being the sort of anachronism and interesting but irrelevant it became the lead project in the whole of the digital revolution of architecture.
Roman Mars: Parametric design allowed Mark Burry and the other architects to move a lot faster on the interior of the church. Without this technology its possible there would still be no inside to see. It was only a few years ago, in 2010, that the architects were able to put the finishing touches on the interior. Now people line up around the block to get a glimpse inside.
Katie Mingle: And it really is breathtaking. Partly because of these incredibly tall columns that Gaudi designed, that branch out like trees at the top and are capable of carrying a tremendous amount of weight.
Gijs van Hensbergen: When people go into that building… I’m not suggesting that it’s necessarily always a religious experience but the shock and surprise of walking in through those doors, into this explosion of light.
Katie Mingle: The light pours in through giant stained glass windows. In the afternoon it’s a red-orange light and in the morning it’s a bluish green light. And it filters through the huge tree-like columns. You feel like you’re in a forest.
Gijs van Hensbergen: And you feel very tiny. You feel very small, you feel as if there’s a whole universe above you.
Roman Mars: But the building is still not finished.
Katie Mingle: I’m in an extremely loud metal cage elevator that runs on the outside of the church with Jeronimo Buxareu the architect who you met at the very beginning of the story and Anna Bellorbi, who handles press of La Sagrada Familia.
Anna Bellorbi: Everything is very safe here.
Katie Mingle: It’s very safe Anna says, but it doesn’t feel that safe. The elevator is shaking and we can see Barcelona getting smaller below us as we rattle up alongside the towers of the church. The elevator door opens to a spectacular view.
Anna Bellorbi: Unmistakeable.
Katie Mingle: We’re standing on the top of the La Sagrada Familia.
Anna Bellorbi: We have departed over there.
Katie Mingle: Barcelona’s city blocks stretch out all around us. To the east, we can see the Mediterranean Sea and to the south, the mountain that Gaudi promised not to surpass. When the building is finished there will be 18 towers including a new one right where I’m standing. This one will be the tallest of all, reaching to 560 feet or 170 meters. Jeronimo is working on designing it right now and he’s using the fragments of Gaudi’s plaster models to figure out how to do it.
Jeronimo Buxareu: These will be Jesus Christ tower in the middle, one evangelist and the other-
Roman Mars: Architects hope the building will be finished in 2026 on the 100 anniversary of Gaudi’s death but there is still a lot to be done.
Katie Mingle: Meanwhile, some of the neighbors seem fed up with La Sagrada Familia and all of the congestion and tourists it brings to the neighborhood. Sometimes there are little protests against the place, like this one in 2011 where locals chanted “No more tourist buses”!
Katie Mingle: People want their neighborhood back and the bigger the building gets, the more tourists come.
Roman Mars: Over 130 years ago, Josep Boccabella decided to build La Sagrada Familia to cleanse the people of Barcelona of their sins and inspire the common folk to live a religious life. He picked a piece of land on the outskirts of the city where cows and goats would sometimes wander. He probably never wondered that it would become the tourist attraction it is today.
Katie Mingle: Architect Jeronimo Buxareu says one of the perks of working at La Sagrada Familia is getting to be inside the church when no one else is there.
Jeronimo Buxareu: For me, it is really special to be alone, or to be with not too many people.
Katie Mingle: The church only holds one mass a month right now and it can be hard as throngs of tourists bump into you with their selfie sticks, to feel connected to the building as a place of worship. Jeronimo let me come into the church with him in the early morning before it was open to the public so that I could try to get a sense of it.
Heronymo Busche: You can feel that, it’s spiritual, and that there is somebody or something more. God stands here.
Katie Mingle: To me, and I’m not a religious person, La Sagrada Familia is not so much a testament to God, as it is to humans and what they can create, but Gaudi would dispute that assessment. He once said, “The creation continues incessantly through the media of man for man does not create, he discovers.”
Roman Mars: Coming up we discuss Gaudi’s revolutionary models for La Sagrada Familia in a segment that was just too nerdy and dense for the piece itself but it’s too cool not to mention it at all.
One of the things we mentioned in the piece is these models that were destroyed and how important they were in realizing Gaudi’s vision for La Sagrada Familia. It was just a little too technical to get into in the piece but Kurt Kohlstedt knows this stuff, and I asked him to come into the studio and explain Gaudi’s modeling technique and why it is so important to the creation of La Sagrada Familia.
Kurt Kohlstedt: A lot of architects, especially ones who like to use curves, Gaudi actually preferred to work in models rather than drawings. Models helped him to experiment with complex three-dimensional structures. And often he would model out structural arrangements, test things out and then photograph those models and draw over the photographs.But the models were behind all of this they were driving the design. And one of the things he toyed with a lot in models were variations on what’s called a catenary arch.
Roman Mars: So what is a catenary arch?
Kurt Kohlstedt: So, a catenary is a curved shape that a hanging chain assumes under its own weight. Picture electric lines suspended between utility poles.
Roman Mars: So you’re driving along the highway, you see two utility poles, the electric line goes across them and there’s that natural bowing of the electrical wire and that is a catenary arch.
Kurt Kohlstedt: Exactly. And that term is derived from the Latin word for chain. And it was already well known by Gaudi’s time that an optimal arch shape could be made by mirroring a catenary curve vertically. Basically, you take that hanging curve and you just flip it up, and that becomes the model of your arch. And that arch distributes building loads efficiently and a lot of gothic churches have them.
Roman Mars: That makes sense, you take this bowed chain, it creates the optimal arch when you flip it over. And when you’re creating churches in the gothic style this is a good way to create a good model.
Kurt Kohlstedt: But Gaudi took the idea further. He hung strings from other strings, from other strings, and then he added birdshot to weight them down at structural intersections and he created these huge intricate wire framed models that ended up looking a bit like chandeliers. And then Gaudi would use mirrors to flip these vertically and study the shapes they created, in order to shape his own elaborate building skeletons.
Roman Mars: And this sounds a lot like what later architects used software for when they did 3D modeling.
Kurt Kohlstedt: There are a lot of parallels. In essence, long before parametric design was a computer software problem. Gaudi changed parameters in his models by moving strings and weights around to see how those individual modifications could reshape an entire structure. And then a century later people came along and finally made these digital programs that could mimic what these handmade models had been doing. Allowing architects to see how small changes that would ripple out to their entire designs. So you can imagine, they would take a column and move it around a little bit and that deforms all the other shapes of the structure around it.
Roman Mars: And in software, you do this and the software cranks along and does its thing. But in Gaudi’s time, you would move a weight around and you’d see how the connected set of chains would all deform by adding a little bit of birdshot to one little section.
Kurt Kohlstedt: Exactly.
Roman Mars: That’s amazing, and it looks stunning.
Kurt Kohlstedt: The results are amazing. And a lot of people think Gaudi and they think of these beautiful sculptural scenes and these details he created, but underneath all of that is this really lovely structural logic. And in Sagrada Familia these details are beautiful but so is this internal framework of columns and arches and vaults that branches up and out and creates a fractal forest inside. But because Gaudi didn’t spend a lot of time teaching, or explaining his methods, or really writing about his designs, and because his work was so out of sync with what modernists were trying to do at the time, he didn’t always get a lot of recognition from the architectural establishment.
Roman Mars: So he was like a starchitect but in hiding.
Kurt Kohlstedt: Pretty much. He’s that rare starchitect who doesn’t spend all of his time bragging about what he does.
Roman Mars: That’s so cool. These models are really stunning, they’re amazing to look at and we have some pictures on our website, correct?
Kurt Kohlstedt: Yes, we have a ton of pictures of these models that he made as well as the really beautiful church that they helped create.
Roman Mars: Thank you so much.