Gaudí’s masterpiece cathedral, the Sagrada Família, in Barcelona, is a work of staggering architectural genius. But it’s absolutely absurd too. Buttercup shaped ceilings glow in spores of purple, blue and yellow. Columns twist like plant stems. There are honeycomb caverns and pinnacles that look like blades of quartz grass. At first glance it’s as if a child’s doodle has been grotesquely brought to life. But then there is the familiarity: instead of gargoyles, amphibians sliver down the sides of his church, instead of straight lines the world twists like trees. That is Gaudí’s genius: order has been replaced by nature. ‘The Great Book’ as he called it, the Earth itself, is his inspiration. Walking into the Sagrada Família is like entering a forest of dreams.
And that’s exactly what he intended. “Originality is returning to the origin,” he would often say. That origin was nature. Gaudí was an extremely religious man. Nature, for him, was God’s perfect creation. The natural world was a representation of God itself. By honouring the Earth, his cathedral would honour God in a new, and more fitting, way.
And he didn’t hold back. Towers rise like ears of corn from the top of the temple; stairs spiral like seashells. Everywhere curves and flows; the straight lines of mankind have been banished. There is colour too. Bright ceramics detail the facades like lizard skin. Stained-glass windows illuminate the walls. The sun’s rays pour through the ceiling like dappled leaves. Look up and it is as if you are standing beneath the canopy of an enormous forest.
But Gaudí did not merely copy nature. He analysed its structural components and then applied those principles to his designs. He understood that nature inherently creates the strongest, lightest and most efficient designs. He didn’t just want his church to look like a forest, he wanted it to be built like a forest. Columns resemble tree trunks, but they also support the ceiling of the church in exactly the same way a tree’s branches support its crown. Roofs mirror the shape of leaves in order to make them lighter and better able to channel rainwater. Arches droop like inverted wet reeds, making them stronger than traditional semi-circular designs. Nature has been perfecting its construction for millions of years, all we need do, Gaudi teaches us, is observe, admire and learn.
It’s an idea that’s rapidly catching on. Today advances in digital technology and 3D printing are expanding the scope of Gaudí’s vision exponentially and architects around the world are increasingly turning to the natural world for their inspiration. Termite mounds are being studied to see how we can ventilate buildings with minimal energy. The Japanese bullet train is inspired by a Kingfisher beak. Germany’s revolutionary BIQ building incorporates living algae into its transparent shell, naturally regulating the amount of light and shade let into the building.
And it’s not just architecture. Biomimicry, as its known, is infiltrating all aspects of our life. The iridescence in butterfly wings has led to brighter mobile phone screens and anti-counterfeiting technology. The eyes of a 45-million year old fly trapped in amber have inspired a new design of solar panel. The serrated proboscis of a mosquito, which minimizes nerve stimulation, is being copied in the design of hypodermic needles to reduce the pain of injections. Raptors are changing the way airplane wings are built. Tropical birds are inspiring cosmetics. And we haven’t even scratched the surface. Spider silk is five times stronger by weight than steel. Glowworms produce a light with almost no energy loss. There is a beetle that can detect the infrared radiation of a forest fire more than 50-miles away. Nature inspired technology may well be the industrial revolution of our generation. And it began here, with Gaudí’s masterpiece, the Sagrada Família.
But he never saw it completed. Gaudí began work on it in 1883 and spent the next 47 years of his life consumed by the project, until his death in 1926. But the project is so vast and complicated that it is not expected to be finished until at least 2026 – 100 years after his death. There is something profoundly moving about that. Not just because in the instant gratification demanded of our modern lives it’s so rare to see something conceived and realised over multiple generations. But also because we are here, now, at the birth of it. So much of what we celebrate as wondrous is inherited from antiquity. But this is a wonder for our time; and for the future too. And that’s exactly how Gaudí intended it. He saw the Sagrada Família as the first in a new era of religious buildings – one that fitted our post-industrial, secularized world. Instead of the imposing churches of the past, Gaudi built a forest. Instead of riches he gave us flowers. Gaudí reminds us that all we need to do to connect with our spirit, with something greater than ourselves, is return to our origin. Return to the Earth itself.
Aaron Millar’s latest book, 50 Greatest Wonders of the World, is available on Amazon and other retailers.
WHERE: Barcelona, Spain
HOW TO SEE IT: Open 9am – 6pm in winter, 8pm in summer. The L5 (blue) and L2 (purple) metro lines have stops across the street. www.sagradafamilia.org/en
TOP TIPS: The lines to get inside can be very long, buy your tickets in advance online. It’s possible to climb up into the towers, but beware: if you’re scared of heights, or claustrophobic, don’t go. The Passion Towers give you a better view of the ocean. The Nativity Towers give you better views of the mountains.
TRY THIS INSTEAD: Barcelona is filled with Gaudí’s work, including Parc Güell, Casa Batlló and many more homes, buildings, parks and attractions. www.barcelonaturisme.com