Sunday, September 18th, 2011

Will Sagrada Família Be Mankind’s Last Ever Great Artistic Statement for God?

Sagrada Família via Domus.

“Without the notion of sacred space, it is doubtful cities could ever have developed anywhere in the world.” – Joel Kotkin, The City: A Global History

“Behind the wall of the city life rested on a common foundation, set as deep as the universe itself: the city was nothing less than the home of a powerful god. The architectural and sculptural symbols that made this fact visible lifted the city far above the village or country town….To be a resident of the city was to have a place in man’s true home, the great cosmos itself, and this very choice itself was a witness of the general enlargement of powers and potentialities that took place in every direction.” – Lewis Mumford, The City in History

“So Solomon overlaid the house within with pure gold: and he made a partition by the chains of gold before the oracle; and he overlaid it with gold. And the whole house he overlaid with gold until he had finished the house: also the whole altar that was by the oracle he overlaid with gold….” – I Kings 6:21-22

“There came unto Jesus a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head as he sat at meat. But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation saying, To what purpose is this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor. When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always.” – Matthew 26:7-11

“Creation is a marvel and man its masterpiece…
Training his agile thoughts volatile as air,
He’s civilized the world with words and wit and law…
Distinguished in his city when law abiding, pious,
But when he promulgates unsavory ambition, citiless and lost.
And then I will not share my hearth with him.
I want no parcel of his thoughts.
– Sophocles, Antigone

“And they said Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven, and let us make us a name. – Genesis 11:4

Without a doubt the highlight of my trip to Barcelona a couple years ago was touring the work in progress that is Sagrada Família, the final masterwork of architect Antoni Gaudí. Gaudí started work on this church in 1883 and worked on it until his death in 1926, at which point only about 15-25% of the project was complete. Gaudí was actually living in the church while it was being built at the time, and was killed in a most unfortunate way by being run over by a tram.

Sagrada Família has been entirely funded by donations (today mostly in the form of admission charges to tourists, I believe). It was originally projected to potentially take some hundreds of years to complete. However, with modern design and fabrication techniques, the current projected completion date is 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s death. Though still unfinished, the church was consecrated on November 7, 2010.

Sagrada Família via Domus.

Back in March Domus magazine published a fantastic essay on Sagrada Família called “In-Finite Architectures” by Oscar Tusquets Blanca. Blanca was very forthright in admitting his own change of heart towards the building over time.

At the start of 2002, to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of the architect Antoni Gaudí, Domus asked me to write an article on the controversial issue of the continuation of construction work on the Sagrada Família Church. Published in May of that year, my article explained that, in the early 1960s, while I was still at university, I had been one of the instigators of a manifesto against the continuation of the church, which received the unconditional support of all the intelligentsia of the day—from Bruno Zevi to Giulio Carlo Argan, Alvar Aalto and Le Corbusier…..How could we have been so wrong? This wonder would not exist if people had listened to us 50 years ago. It would have remained a ruin or it would have been finished by an in-vogue architect of the time….I do not know whether it is the finest work of the last century but it will certainly be the greatest religious building of the last three.

Sagrada Família photo by The Urbanophile.

While one can never attribute ultimately pure motives to anything or anyone, clearly the Christian religion was a major inspiration for Gaudí. It’s difficult to imagine such a project even being conceived, much less executed, absent the reality of faith.

Which immediately raises another question. We sense in our gut as we tour this place that it is a product of another era, one closer perhaps to that age which produced the medieval cathedrals than our own, no matter what the calendar might say. Will there ever be another buildings like this created again? Perhaps there will be, but the mere fact that such a question can be asked in all seriousness shows the change in our world.

Angkor Wat (12th century). Originally a Hindu but now Buddhist temple currently located in Cambodia that is the world’s largest religious building.

Claudio Monteverdi’s “Vespro della Beata Vergine” (Vespers of 1610)

In ages past it almost went without saying that the greatest artistic works of humanity were in large part inspired by the religious impulse. Certainly not all artworks were so-inspired, and certainly art of a religious nature might also be inspired in part by temporal matters such as advancing the career of the artist or symbolizing the earthly power of the king or church. Nevertheless, the power of faith was often very real in the life of the artist – Monteverdi became a priest and Bach was a devout Lutheran – and the spiritual often informed the scope, theme, content, form, etc of the work not just for the artist, but for the audience.

The Parthenon (5th century BC). Image via Wikipedia

JS Bach, Mass in B Minor (1749)

Today it is quite a different story. Even among those who profess passionate religious faith, that faith no longer seems capable of inspiring the greatest creative endeavors of the human spirit. Indeed, listen to prominent Evangelical Christian leaders and they practically brag about how little money they spend on facilities. I’ve yet to see a mega-church structure that in any way impresses architecturally. Syrupy contemporary Christian music often can’t even match the simple profundity of the hymns, much less approach the great masses and other religious works of serious creators past. Evangelical Christianity is not exactly noted for its production of high art.

The rationale is frequently that of accessibility and investing in mission versus grandiose edifices. Yet in the process we have a movement that has become unmoored from the transcendent and the overwhelming glory of God. This is perhaps faith that can inspire good works, but not great ones.

The more passionate strains of Islam fare no better. Though the discouragement of representational art in Islam closed off some fields of creative endeavor, Islam produced some of the most striking works of architecture in human history, as well as many fantastic non-representational works. Yet today I’m unaware of any powerful artistic movements in fervent Islam to match its religious passion.

Süleymaniye Mosque (1558), Istanbul

Interestingly, non-religious art has fared not much better. I’m generally a contemporary art skeptic. Even at its best, this work tends to be idiosyncratic and highly context specific (anchoring it to a particular time and place rather than to the universal). Too often in degenerates into cheap political statements and pretentiousness. How many contemporary art works do many of us really believe represent the highest and greatest achievements of which humanity is capable? How many do we really think will be marveled at hundreds or thousands of years from now, except perhaps as examples of our age? As for too much contemporary serious music, don’t get me started.

Lest I sound too much like a curmudgeon, architecture has fared perhaps a bit better. I suspect many of our buildings will stand the test of time. But even here we see self-indulgence and an excessive fascination with novelty. Yet above all what these buildings lack is any sense of transcendent purpose.

New York City

It’s not surprising to me to see what we so-often get today when motivated by purely humanistic concerns, namely the tall building. The author of Genesis seemed to get that in his gut when relating the story of the Tower of Babel. Yet despite their impressiveness, these buildings generally lack any larger spiritual purpose.

We seem to have forgotten the creation of sacred space as an essential function of the city. Our cities themselves no longer satisfy the longing of the human spirit for transcendence, to be part of a cosmic order greater than ourselves, to inspire extravagant gestures that seem to defy the strictures of our existence. Today, we seem satisfied with simple commercial success and the basics of production and consumption.

Nietzsche mourned when he said that God was dead, not because he believed in God, but because he understood what the passing of God meant to our modern world. With the death of God, something in the human spirit perished along with Him, even for those who still actually believe.

As for the question of whether we will ever produce another great artistic statement for God, perhaps we won’t even finish the last one. As Blanca noted:

The second and certainly more serious problem is that of finding contemporary artists capable of executing the Master’s figurative designs. Gaudí wanted the facades to explain the Holy Story in pictures, the way medieval cathedrals had done. That was already a difficult demand by the start of the twentieth Century but the genius of Gaudí solved the problem on the—almost kitsch—Nativity facade with walls that fold into figures, many created from casts of real people and animals (George Segal 50 years earlier). The pitiful result of the Passion facade, commissioned to the sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs, shows the huge difficulty of pursuing the same course of action. The main Glory facade has yet to be built. Finding a contemporary artist anywhere in the world capable of taking on this task is the biggest challenge now faced. Figurative art is having a difficult time, that with a religious content even more so and an art that can express the Glory of the Resurrection is now extinct. Contemporary art has given us many crucifixions but no remarkable resurrection.

Sagrada Família

Related: Religion and the City

Topics: Architecture and Design, Arts and Culture, Urban Culture


11 Responses to “Will Sagrada Família Be Mankind’s Last Ever Great Artistic Statement for God?”

  1. Great article. I think this will probably be the case given our current fascination with creating huge office blocks that, well who knows how long they will last. There is very little place for go within those walls.


  2. Evan Summers says:

    On the contrary, I believe that allowing mankind to break free of the rules of the church, we have furthered spirituality in the City. For hundreds of years, it was understood that the tallest structure in a city was the church. Now that we have moved beyond that ceiling our buildings are awe inspiring. I live and Chicago and, while maybe not religious, anyone who has ran on the lake front trail knows that if you need a second wind then you need to look no further than up, up at the buildings, to be inspired to dig deep and finish tour run strong. Religion need not be present to offer inspiration.

    Religion has given us some great works of art but no discussion of religion’s contribution to art should be had without discussing all the art and creativity that was supressed by it.

  3. I can never look at Sagrada Familia without thinking of Disneyland, the small world facade in particular. I wonder if the designers of the original Disneyland were influenced by Gaudi.

  4. Osi Kaminer says:

    This building should be converted to a library, it is about time libraries will get higher preference in list of sacred places than religious buildings. It is only because we are so brainwashed into religion that we forget to think that other places could be far more sacred (museums could be another).
    Thomas Paine wrote: “my mind is my own church.” and I add that libraries are (churches) too.

    I think, therefore I am

  5. Roland S says:

    Great post. I’m studying in Rome this semester. My peers and professors tend to scoff at the deep religious content everywhere, but I feel like they (and me, too) are missing something that is deeply imbued into every brick and cobblestone of this city.

    Have you ever seen the Nolli map of Rome? It’s well-known among architects, but perhaps not outside the profession. It portrays the city in black and white, with the publicly-accessible spaces of churches and cathedrals represented as open space just like a street would be. Symbolically, Nolli seems to be comparing the religious buildings to streets and piazzas and arguing that the religious life is JUST as important as the network of streets in regulating and guiding the life of the city. To borrow a modern term, it’s “spiritual infrastructure”.

    Rome is a bit of a special case, since St. Peter’s was paid for by the selling of indulgences, and every nobleman in Europe wanted to build stuff here to curry favor with the Pope. But it gets at the same point you are making, namely that our cities are empty shells without the motivation that only religious belief can inspire. Try as it might, capitalism is not a religion.

  6. ElamBend says:

    I think that Mormons are not done with their building urge. They not only build their Temples to impress, but they often try and choose a location to impress. Since they are a fast growing religion; I presume we have yet to see their best work. The really grand stuff to be built in the next century will likely be built in Africa or Asia.

  7. Jason says:

    I think the special qualities attributed towards those old places of worship as well as the believed necessity of those kinds of places in our cities is more from the beliefs of the person than the buildings themselves. If you’re a devout christian or religious in general then those monumental places of worship give you a magical feeling, and their roles in the community are irreplaceable. I’m not, and I find different buildings built in the last 150 years to be moving.

    I think the reason those buildings stopped getting built, was because at the time religion equaled power, and the more impressive your building was: the more superior your religion appeared compared to others for recruitment. the more favor you gained from those higher up in the organization. and the more tourist money (religious tourists basically, surprisingly this was a big deal which is why they all had these fancy churches with as many holy relics as they could muster, even faking some of them). Sometimes they were event meant to be powerful and intimidating to keep people in line.

    Those buildings stopped getting built hundreds of years ago. Since then, Christianity has shifted more to community (good but modest local churches) and business (cheap high volume mega churches).

    Even when churches have been well constructed, like maybe in the early 1900s, they didn’t have much artistic merit except that they were ok copies of older buildings, skillfully designed but nothing more. Definitely not great artistic works created in the name of god.

    But I think you should take more pride in those modest local churches. Fast forward to the time when historians are studying the christian architecture of today they’ll see it as a special development in christian architecture. Today is a time when churches have youth/community centers built into them which as far as I know is a first in history, and which better reflects the values of the religion.

  8. Chris Barnett says:

    Aaron, I’d underline Elam’s comment about Mormons. The 1974 Mormon Washington DC Temple is as grand and awe-inspiring as they come, at least from the outside.

    I would also point to Daylesford Abbey in Paoli, PA and several other modern places. Built in 1966 of poured concrete, the abbey is a sturdy yet modern religious structure. It is an amazing place for classical or sacred music and is awe-inspiring for that reason.

    There is also the Valparaiso University chapel (1959) the Air Force Academy chapel (1963) and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Beth Sholom synagogue (1959). All these are well-designed modern originals. While none is on the scale of Europe’s grand cathedrals, none is a small neighborhood church, either.

  9. Beta Magellan says:

    @Osi—you’ve basically outlined my feelings about the Boston Public Library—to me, it’s far more sacred a space than Trinity Church.

  10. Jason says:

    There’s also the Cathedral of Brasilia, or the MIT chapel, among others, but I think those are the exception and not the norm.

    Also, they are notable buildings of artistic merit but within a vastly greater movement. In the past religion was the main driver of architecture (religion WAS the movement), especially in the case of gothic architecture.

  11. Cian O'Halloran says:

    While the points raised about modern building seem pretty solid, I think you focus on the religious motives (personal piety, awe, a desire for the transcendental) behind some of these buildings to the exclusion of other motives.

    The Parthenon, for example, is just as much an expression of Athenian supremacy and self-confidence. The architectural sculpture adorning it and the other buildings on the acropolis depict a sophisticated set of imagery describing the Athenians’ (and Pericles’) self-perception.
    What’s more, it was also paid for by and used as the treasury for the Delian League instead of Delos. Again, more ‘mundane’ issues of Greek realpolitik are hugely significant here.

    None of this diminishes the religious impulse behind its construction – that wouldn’t stand at odds with the political statement for the Greeks as it might for us – but religion wasn’t the whole of the story.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

About the Urbanophile


Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

Full Bio


Please email before connecting with me on LinkedIn if we don't already know each other.



Copyright © 2006-2014 Urbanophile, LLC, All Rights Reserved - Click here for copyright information and disclosures