Tuesday, April 24, 2007

God's architect

by Graham Keeley

Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926), the deeply pious architect whose unfinished cathedral in Barcelona, the Sagrada Familia, has inspired Catholics for generations, is being considered for sainthood - but his masterpiece may be under threat.

Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, the Portuguese prelate who heads the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints and decides who should be recommended for sainthood, has been mulling a delicate issue for some time; should he give the nod to Pope Benedict XVI to make Antoni Gaudí a saint? The Pontiff gets the final say.

A pile of documents gathered by the then Archbishop of Barcelona, Cardinal Ricard Maria Carles, was sent to the Vatican as proof of Gaudí's ability to intercede with God on behalf of those who pray to him. "God's architect", as the monk-like Gaudí is famously known, left this world with his life's work, the Sagrada Familia cathedral, less than half completed. But campaigners for the beatification of Gaudí are quietly confident that the Vatican has been convinced of their argument and their hero will soon be on the fast track to receive the Lord's greatest honour.

They rest their case on the argument that Gaudí's Sagrada Familia was not simply the work of a visionary architect. The Association for the Beatification of Gaudí, which has been gathering up to 80,000 supporters from around the world for the past 25 years, believes it also inspires unbelievers. Archbishop Carles has said: "Can anyone acquainted with Gaudí's work believe that all which one contemplates could possibly have been produced only by cold thought?"

Antoni Gaudí was born in Catalonia into a poorly paid family of metal workers. Too weak to play with friends because of chronic rheumatism, the young Gaudí spent much of his childhood observing nature, an influence that featured heavily in his work. As an architecture student at the Escola Tècnica Superior d'Arquitectura in Barcelona from 1873 to 1877, his grades were mediocre. His racy architectural designs, which married gothic and traditional Spanish architectural modes with influences drawn from nature, were a radical departure from the architecture of the time. At his graduation in 1878, his patron, Elies Rogent, declared: "I have either found a lunatic or a genius."

In 1883, Gaudí took over the Sagrada Familia project after a dispute between the church's original architect and its founder. Then aged 31, he was already considered a brilliant artist who drew his inspiration from nature and, soon after, from God.

"He found everything in nature," said his biographer Joan Bassegoda. "He would look at an insect or a duck and find interesting forms that he would transfer into architecture. After Gaudí, there were no Gaudí schools. Because Gaudí always said, 'Don't copy me, copy nature'."

Campaigners for Gaudí's beatification also believe his legendary piety is reason enough to lift him up among St Peter and St Paul. Gaudi was obsessively pious, especially in his old age. He used to shuffle around the streets of his native Barcelona nibbling on crusts of bread and seeking alms for the building of the Sagrada Familia.

When he was hit by a tram in Barcelona's Gran Via in 1926, he was so dishevelled taxi drivers refused to take him to hospital, believing he was a tramp. He died days later in a paupers' hospital, after his friends had at first failed to recognise him.

Meanwhile, another more earthly problem may bedevil those who are behind Gaudí's bid for sainthood. The Sagrada Familia, on which campaigners have based their campaign for his beatification, faces a new threat from plans for a railway tunnel just a few feet from its foundations. Architects, geologists and the authorities that run the Sagrada Familia oppose the route of the high-speed AVE train from Madrid, which is due to start operating later this year.

The cathedral's crypt and Nativity façade are Unesco World Heritage Sites and campaigners want to mobilise international pressure to force the authorities behind the plan to change the route of the AVE train.

Read the full article in The Independent.

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