organic architecture

The Beauty of The Sagrada Familia

Interior view of Antonio Gaudi’s The Sagrada Familia, in Barcelona, Spain

 

Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926) designed the now famous basilica of The Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain, to which he gave himself fully for the last 43 yeas of his life. The basilica remains unfinished. Although we most often associate structures like gothic cathedrals with the 12th through the 14th centuries, Gaudi’s visionary work has assured us that there will be a 21st century future for them.

The genius of Antonio Gaudi’s vision for The Sagrada Familia lies in his wedding of a modern understanding of mathematics with a timeless appreciation for the power of light, color, and the shapes and rhythms of the natural world around us. As much an engineer as a visionary architect, Gaudi shared with Frank Lloyd Wright an intuitive appreciation for how the mathematical and geometrically describable structure of trees, seashells, beehive combs, and other aspects of the natural world could inform the architectural integrity of a building. And, like his medieval predecessors, Gaudi recognized the continuity between what we learn from the Book of Nature and what we learn from the Book of Scripture. How paradoxical it is that one of the most modern cathedral-sized churches in Europe may also be strongly traditional, and historically rooted.

Being aware of the etymology of words often associated with the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright helped me to understand his work and that of Gaudi. Wright used the word ‘organic’ in the title of one  of his influential books. Another word, ‘radical,’ is also often used to describe his apparent departure from traditional architectural design. Yet, here is the curious thing. When we hear the word ‘radical,’ we think a departure from tradition is being signaled. But dictionary definitions of that word alert us to what it really means. Radical means, in one way or another, of the root. Radical therefore means less a departure from tradition than it does a rediscovery or re-appropriation of it.

To speak of Gaudi’s radical vision for The Sagrada Familia can be a way to discover the organic character of its nature-inspired design. For the ‘roots’ of this building lie in Creation, both in terms of the multiplicity of form, and yet also in consistency and uniformity of structure, and in the extensive and subtly evocative use of color – not simply in the windows, but on the columns and walls.

Moved by the visions of St. John, as recorded in Revelation, Gaudi perceived the Church – both as the community of the Body of Christ and also as a physical structure enabling our assembly for liturgy – as having come down from heaven, so that the divine presence would now be tangibly among us. The words of Revelation 21:1-6 appear to have been at the heart of Gaudi’s vision for his new church, which seems to express the promise of “a new heaven and a new earth,” and be an embodiment of “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”

As at least one observer notes, while diligently preparing the design for The Sagrada Familia, Gaudi shaped a building. In the process, God shaped Gaudi. Te Deum laudamus! May our encounter with the result of Gaudi’s work have the same effect upon us.

Sagrada Familia basilica still under construction in Barcelona.

 

For deeper insight concerning the design and structure of Sagrada Familia, see the video, The Gaudi Code, with this link: { https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w3e8sckgWqQ } For a further and deeper exploration of Gaudi and his approach to Sagrada Familia, read The Sagrada Familia: The Astonishing Story of Gaudi’s Unfinished Masterpiece, by Gijs van Hensbergen. Also very helpful is the visual guide book, The Basilica of the Sagrada Familia: A Temple Converted into a Universal Work of Art.

 

 

The Beauty of ‘Wright’

Exterior and plan of the Lykes house in Phoenix

Before my conversion to following a greater ‘master,’ I have been devoted since at least 8th grade to the alluring architectural vision expressed in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. In Wright’s buildings, drawings, and writings, I have found a compelling, nature-shaped understanding of how we might best engage the challenge of inhabiting this world. As expressed by Wright, flourishing as a human being means consciously living in accord with the order and beauty of what believers refer to as Creation. In connection with this vision, FLW may have been the first to use the phrase, ‘an organic architecture.’

Exterior and interior of David Wright house, also in Phoenix

An old adage reminds us that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and imitate Wright I did. In my desire to become an architect through the traditional route of apprenticeship leading to licensing, I began developing basic drafting skills in junior high and designing house after house. All the while, Wright’s life and work became my principal reference point. Just as many of my schoolmates memorized the career statistics of favorite baseball or football players, I could quote a parallel set of statistics related to Wright’s major projects, such as the height, diameter and weight-bearing capacity of the columns in his internationally recognized Johnson Wax building in Racine. Perhaps it was the influence of having visited his Imperial Hotel in Tokyo while growing up in Japan, as well as having a compatible aesthetic temperament. Yet, whatever the source, from my earliest appreciation for Wright’s buildings to this day, I have simply loved his architectural work. To me, Wright’s vision almost always seems ‘right.’

I state this fully aware of the perceived and actual shortcomings of many of ‘the master’s’ most well-known buildings. A favorite story is attributed to Mr. S.C. Johnson, owner of the company building mentioned above as well as of a stunning large estate home designed for him by Wright, “Wingspread.” Apparently, at a dinner hosted by Johnson for several distinguished guests, the roof over the dining room began to leak (a notorious feature of some of Wright’s structures), causing a drip onto the host’s head. Johnson is remembered for having telephoned the architect at that moment, complaining about the leak. Wright responded by saying, “well, Sam, move your chair!”

The realization of Wright’s stunning architectural vision, expressed in such things as curved walls, daring roof lines, and dramatically extended cantilevered terraces, often relied upon the patronage and funding provided by wealthy clients. Throughout history, great artists have depended upon the same. But we should not overlook Wright’s committed pursuit of the opportunity to design and build beautiful-yet-affordable homes for clients with ‘ordinary’ incomes (e.g., the “Usonian” houses). Not only do we find many of these homes preserved and valued in our communities, but the design principles evident within them have influenced countless examples of contractor-designed homes of lesser architectural interest.

The pursuit of human flourishing within the beauty and order of God’s Creation is a wonderful thing to behold. As Irenaeus put it centuries ago, ‘the glory of God is the human person fully alive.’ And the human person is most fully alive when flourishing within the beauty of God’s handiwork, and within our creative tributes to it.