Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Sagrada Familia's Exuberant Homage

So, there we were, my longtime friend Gretchen Schwab and I, browsing through Barnes & Noble, and suddenly she shrieks with excitement. To her noisy delight, she'd stumbled upon a big photo book of the architect Antoni Gaudi. Gretchen could barely contain herself. With giddy enthusiasm, she held it up for me to see.

"Isn't he the guy who designed wavy building facades in Spain?" I groaned, betraying my own personal distaste for Gaudi despite my friend's obvious admiration. Not that Gretchen, an avant-garde spirit herself, could be dissuaded. The fact that we didn't share the same opinion about such a polarizing designer didn't faze her one bit.

In case you've never heard of the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, he's not as obscure a historical figure as you might think. If you've visited Barcelona, you may have seen at least some of his striking apartment houses and curvaceous windows. But just by looking at Barcelona's skyline, you'll learn all you really need to know about him by his most famous commission. Indeed, his phantasmagorical Sagrada Familia basilica, which towers over the city, serves as an apt metaphor for his unusual life and ardent Roman Catholic faith.

After 130 years of construction, it remains unfinished, yet every bit as controversial and improbable as when he took over what was supposed to be a conventional neo-Gothic project in a conventional Spanish city. Indeed, even with completion still two decades away, a mere photo of Sagrada Familia will elicit an emphatic response. Not many buildings have that power.

Of Spain and Modernists

Gaudi is to architecture what Salvador Dali is to art, which since both men were Spaniards and cohorts in Modernism, probably shouldn't be surprising. Almost everybody has seen Dali's bizarre "Persistence of Memory" with its limp, dripping clock faces. Gaudi takes surrealism one flamboyant step further with his signature facades and windows. Only he's working in 3D, which meant that for Sagrada Familia, his only limitations came from physics and finances.

Interestingly enough, Sagrada Familia has been a pay-as-you-go, or expiatory, project for the Catholic church. In other words, faithful parishioners in Barcelona, not the treasury in Rome, have funded the construction of Gaudi's vision. That says a lot about the commitment to this vast undertaking by the people that have claimed it as their legacy.

But aside from special services, they've only been officially worshipping in Sagrada Familia for less than a week. After 130 years, the church has just recently been consecrated for regular use. On November 7, Pope Benedict XVI sprinkled "holy water" on the church's massive altar, making it suitable for use during daily Mass.

Tourists, meanwhile, have been visiting the site for decades, making it a stunning, world-famous attraction while masking its ineffectiveness as a working Catholic religious building.

Indeed, the church is still a living construction site. Its website even warns tourists that during strong rain or wind, the church will be closed because the elements can still enter the building. Officials hope to have the enormous basilica finished by 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudi's death. Even though Sagrada Familia has already become part of the Catholic lexicon in Barcelona.

Church as Really Expensive Art

As intriguing as it is, however, and as exquisite as many of its architectural flourishes may be, and as impressive as the hand-crafted engineering of the towering structures have proven to be, there's an uncomfortable question that remains: is it all worth it? Along with New York City's incomplete Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, Sagrada Familia pays hallowed homage to the ancient construction techniques of centuries-old cathedrals. It's no secret why Sagrada Familia and Saint John's are the only two projects of their kind in the world today: their exorbitant cost, the poor availability of skilled labor, and the sheer amount of time required to hand-craft key structural elements fly in the face of modern efficiencies. How viable a religious project is Sagrada Familia when this year's cost alone could reach $24 million?

Gray-suited accountants could quickly rattle off the conventional religious items $24 million could more readily purchase today. Protestant scholars could bemoan the extravagance as typical hubris by the Roman Catholics. Secularists would question whether the ancillary financial benefits to Barcelona's tourism industry exceed annual construction expenditures. Some critics even wonder if Pope Benedict's consecration, timed as it was after recent priest sex scandals in Europe, represented a splashy way to jump-start a moribund Spanish branch of his church.

Sagrada Familia certainly stuns the senses. Its size trumpets majesty. Its exterior embellishments put the "gaudy" in "Gaudi." Its soaring interior spaces audaciously subordinate mortal visitors. Its exquisite ceiling coffering is literally over the top.

Years ago, as an architecture student, I saw slides and photos of Sagrada Familia in lectures and textbooks, and scoffed at the absurdity of it all. At first, the tube-like latticework spires reminded me of war correspondent footage of pockmarked churches bombed during the World Wars in Europe. Indeed, even the novelist George Orwell called Sagrada Familia one of the world's most hideous buildings.

Maybe because Gaudi seems to be mocking the reverential classicism inherent in the great Gothic cathedrals, the traditionalist in me silently revolted against Sagrada Familia. Having already become prejudiced against Gaudi because of those silly windows and wavy building facades that we students had already encountered in theory lectures, Sagrada Familia just seemed like more of the same petulance and contempt for conventionalism.

Extra or Ordinary?

But now, looking at fresh images from the basilica, with more windows, parts of a roof, and a greater sense of cohesion as distinct components begin to resemble a spacial unit, I'm tempted to wonder if Gaudi's contempt for conventionalism may actually be appropriate for a house of worship. I still don't like parts of Sagrada Familia; the Nativity Facade looks like something sculpted from bleu cheese, the spires still seem caricaturish, and some of the vaults look like bats wings. Indeed, none of it is ordinary.

God is holy, which means He's set apart from the everyday. Yes, He's the Creator of the everyday, but only He is worshipped by all of His creation. Who else could possibly claim that? Do Gaudi's exuberant flourishes and garnishments draw attention to themselves as surreal elements of the structure? Or, do they individually and corporately point to the Deity towards Whom the activities within these spaces are intended?

I'm not going to get into the distinctives of Roman Catholicism vis-a-vis evangelical Christianity, particularly since arguments can be made that some aspects of Catholic liturgy are blasphemous to evangelicals. But ultimately, it is the God of both Jews and Christians to Whom acts of worship will be conducted in Sagrada Familia. Maybe not in ways most evangelicals, including myself, will embrace. Yet what Gaudi has envisioned for this basilica doesn't much depend on the forms this worship will take. By all appearances, his building embodies its own proclamation of the excellencies of our Creator God. Even if that proclamation defies convention.

Architecturally speaking, many religious structures today betray a slavish devotion to money and budgets more than they do a distinct acknowledgement of the deific properties of the Person being celebrated in the space. While prudence and fiscal discipline remain important Christian virtues, the story of the woman who broke open the expensive bottle of perfume to wash Christ's feet gets far less pulpit time.

Or household budget time. With many statistics showing less than half of all members contributing financially to their church, yet with many Christians enjoying discretionary income for a variety of unnecessary trinkets, trips, and trophies - and I'm preaching to myself here more than anybody else - no wonder Gaudi's effusive Sagrada Familia seems almost ludicrous next to our warehouse-looking megachurches. Even little country churches - which historically have embraced the best expressions of their local cultural aesthetics - now exude all the charm of a brick box.

What are we worshipping in these functional yet uninspiring places? Are we worshipping our hoarding mentality, spending just enough so that church members don't need to compromise their materialistic lifestyle? Or are we lavishing our Creator with material expressions of our love for Him?

Not that good design and inspiring architecture need to cost a lot of money. God-given creativity can do a lot with not a lot of cash. And not every faith community can - or should - come up with $24 million a year for their building fund. Sometimes, though, I wonder: don't we need to acknowledge that God doesn't want our ordinary stuff when we come to Him in worship?

Is He worth our ordinary effort, or our extraordinary effort?
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