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The Age

Mad, bad or masterful?

Author: By RAY EDGAR
Date: 30/10/2010
Words: 1718
Source: AGE
          Publication: The Age
Section: Insight
Page: 3
IT'S JUST days away from perhaps the most important period in architect Mark Burry's life  the culmination of 30 years' work as part of an international team interpreting and constructing the Sagrada Familia church to Antoni Gaudi's specifications from the shards of plaster models, published photographs and almost no drawings.

On November 7, the Pope will fly down to consecrate one of the world's most popular sites. The project has relied on the most advanced aeronautical software available to design and construct. Exterior sections are unfinished, but 7000 people will fill the completed interior, surveying the forest of bone-coloured columns and gaze up at what will become the light-filled 25-metre auditorium above the central crossing.

"I think the critics will be eating humble pie," he says in his quietly confident way. Yet he is bewildered by the latest Spanish attack on his life's work. I hand Burry, RMIT's professor of innovation, a Spanish newspaper article, which he graciously offers to translate.

"An affront to architectural culture," architect Beth Gali rails. "Kitsch and touristy." "It's like a theme park, a mythical land."

While zealots have, over the years, nominated Gaudi himself for sainthood, not everyone is rejoicing in the building's completion. This landmark of the city, which attracts 2.6 million tourists a year, is also a symbol of the divisions within it. The issues involve heritage, the role of the church and state, and, indeed, the reputation of the architect himself  one whose architecture teacher described him to his students as "a genius and probably mad".

Burry has been commuting to Barcelona for three decades on this vast and ambitious project. When the Pope consecrates the church, Burry will share in the celebrations, despite the theme-park barbs. However, another conflict threatens to unsettle Gaudi's unfinished masterpiece.

A high-speed train tunnel connecting Paris, Barcelona and Madrid passes within 0.4 metres of the World Heritage-listed building's foundations. Despite the four-year campaign by the Sagrada Familia's chief architect, Jordi Bonet, and pressure from UNESCO, Spain's Socialist government commissioned tests and allowed the 12-metre-diameter drill to bore past. To not do so, advocates of the tunnel argued, would be to allow the church to "hold back the progress of Spain".

Indeed, the cultural tremors surrounding the Sagrada Familia date back decades. Since Gaudi was killed by a tram in 1926, constructing the Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family (The Sagrada Familia), which is funded solely by donation and tourism, has been an endurance test for the many architects committed to completing Gaudi's vision.

When Gaudi died at 74 only the crypt beneath the apse and the nativity facade had been finished. While he left no written instructions, there were photographs, drawings and models. However, during the Civil War anarchists sacked the building, trashing models and burning drawings, leaving the church's on-site design studio to smoulder. (In Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell chastises the anarchists for showing "bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance", describing the Sagrada Familia as "hideous".)

After the war, Europe's cultural elite felt the same way about continuing construction on the site. Architectural luminaries such as Le Corbusier and Gropius signed local petitions against it. More recently, FAD, the key artistic and architectural union in Barcelona, produced the "Gaudi: Red Alert" manifesto signed by the Spanish intelligentsia, including the head of the Reina Sofia museum. Former FAD president Beth Gali herself appears in Robert Hughes' 2003 Gaudi documentary offering facetious proposals for the new sections of the church  a Christo wrapping, a train station, which Hughes, another opponent, happily endorses. In his 1992 book on the city, Hughes laments, "Nothing can be done about the Sagrada Familia".

"There's lots of reasons to think of why you wouldn't want to continue that building," Mark Burry says. "That it's better off as a ruin, testament to a tragic genius, or that it's better to rethink religious observance for the 21st century in a different form. I asked them myself when I came here in 1979. Why didn't they adapt it to a secular plan? It seemed like that would be a more ecumenical approach. I was told it's not my building, it's Gaudi's building.

"Other reasons would be the opportunity to experiment  to make it a living record of shifts in architectural movements. You could have had a bit of modernism straight afterward, and a bit of postmodernism as it went through. It could all be there. But it wouldn't have been as tight a result as what we're going to get."

FAD's criticism is more emphatic and derisive. "Their argument is that it's been very badly done," Burry says. "It's been done on the wrong premise, by the wrong people. Fine." But it clearly rankles. The actual words of the manifesto are "the work of mediocre technicians".

NEW Zealand-born Mark Burry first came to Barcelona in 1979 as a Cambridge University student preparing a dissertation on how the fusion of Moorish, gothic and Catalan culture might offer lessons back home in New Zealand to pakeha colonialism and Maori culture. But then he came under Gaudi's spell.

"For me the fascination of Gaudi is his holism," he says. "Whether it's structure or construction or decoration or form or repertoire of materials or economics, he seems to be the master."

Like Gaudi, who spent all but five of his 48 years working on the Sagrada Familia, Burry has spent most of his working life on the project. "My first 20 years was basically an apprenticeship," says the 53-year-old architect, who was lured to Australia with a professorship in 1996.

"It would have been impossible to conceive of completing the project by the centenary of Gaudi's death in 2026 without computers," says Burry. "My role from 1989 was to introduce digital techniques, which has allowed the building to go at the pace it's been going. But not only that, a lot less corners that would inevitably have been cut or taken haven't been."

Technological advances have not only enabled architects to unpack the geometric information locked in Gaudi's models. The fact that Burry works on the other side of the globe for much of the year would also be inconceivable to Gaudi, who for the last year of his life created a makeshift bedroom in the Sagrada Familia's crypt.

Burry, who considers himself "spiritual but not Catholic", works on the Sagrada Familia with his architect wife, Jane, from RMIT's spatial information architecture laboratory, and in the evening hours that coincide with Catalan work hours, from their home studio in West Melbourne. A live link to the church from both locations allows them to communicate with the rest of the team on site. But he still travels to Barcelona every two months.

Working from home solves the difficulties of time zones, but a mirror office also operates from RMIT. Working models of the Sagrada Familia border the room. "Gaudi spent 12 years on models and a schema for the whole building," Burry explains. "So when you know this and you get immersed in it and you've got these models in your hands and you start unravelling the rich geometries within them, you know what story is being told by it."

The argument follows that like the cathedrals of old, one architect could not possibly finish it in their lifetime. "Gaudi knew this," says Burry, "and used the models to explain it well enough for others to continue the job."

Given the 21st-century technology being applied to this 19th-century building, it's ironic then that critics see the church holding back progress. According to Burry, a regular international keynote speaker on digital architecture, the Sagrada Familia "is seen globally by architects as a world leader in innovative construction techniques".

As director of the RMIT design research institute, Burry says the Sagrada Familia has helped its research into fields as diverse as jewellery, aeronautical engineering, architecture, new media and fine art. "The project won't ever come to an end because there is so much that has come out of it," he says. This includes his international survey of digital architecture, The New Mathematics of Architecture which, naturally, includes a chapter on the Sagrada Familia.

Barcelona-based architect David Mackay, a partner in the prestigious architectural firm MBM Architects, who signed the petition against the project along with Le Corbusier, says the church is the product of Gaudi's deluded obsession, rather than the great man's best work. Gaudi was in thrall to God and "his mind was stolen by fundamentalism". What has been created in his wake is "Gaudi at his worst", says Mackay.

In such contested terrain, not everyone shares such a view. Daniel Giralt-Miracle, former director of the Espai Gaudi, an organisation dedicated to the architect located in Gaudi's famous Casa Mila apartments and former general commissioner of Gaudi International Year (2002) disagrees. "From the mathematical, structural and geometrical point of view, the Sagrada Familia is the culmination of the philosophy of the Gaudinian architecture." As for accusations of kitsch, he says, "all Gaudi's work is on the border between kitsch and genius, they are inseparable".

Whatever misgivings exist, most Catalans are looking forward to seeing the Sagrada Familia finished, says King. "They see it as more than just a Catholic church or a place of worship. It's a symbol of Catalan cultural achievement, and the genius of Gaudi."

Daniel Giralt-Miracle says that thanks to Gaudi, the Pope's visit to Spain will probably receive more attention than his recent visit to London.

"It's an extraordinary moment in the history of mankind," says Burry. "In this day and age to be beavering away on a building that has taken this long to build and finally get a moment to remind everybody what the point of it was  regardless of whether it also ends up being visited by two or 3 million tourists a year  that's going to be celebrated on Sunday. I find that really inspiring."

But is it in service to God or Gaudi?

"It's a church," says Burry. "Its purpose is to afford the congregation of people from all walks of life with a place for one purpose. If they are thinking of architects, they will be thinking of Gaudi and an architect who died in 1926, who had the capacity to inspire people to make money sufficient to get the church started and built, and inspired people to continue that work 80 years after his death."

Ray Edgar is a Melbourne writer.

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