My wife and I recently visited Barcelona for a short pre-winter break. It was the first time that either of us had been there, and we really didn’t know what to expect. What we found was a delightful city: confident, vibrant, friendly, and cheerful.
There are two aspects of the city that I want to consider in this article. One is predictable: Antoni Gaudi’s famous – yet incomplete – basilica, the Sagrada Familia. This is as astonishing for its design and decoration as for the fact that it has been under construction since the 1880s and is likely to remain so for many a long year yet. The other is a section of the city called Eixample, designed in the 19th century by an architect called Ildefons Cerda, and built more or less to his design… but with some interesting deviations from the original concept.
Let’s think about the Gaudi piece first. The architect took over the design following the death of the previous architect, when the foundations had been established and the crypt was in place, beneath what would become this massive cathedral. Gaudi was given free rein to build a monument that would reflect his deep Catholic faith, and according to anything that I have read or heard about the building, every single aspect of the design was influenced by his religious beliefs. One of the visually stunning aspects of the building is that while it is relatively traditional in layout (possibly because the basic shape was fixed by the previous architect), Gaudi chose to make each facade of the building completely different. For example, the East facade represents the nativity, with organic shapes, plants, and animals carved into every available piece of stone, while the West facade is much more angular and stark, representing the final days of the life of Jesus. The contrast is profound.
The building is now a working church, although the roof was only completed in 2010, some 130 or so years after the work was started. Much has been written elsewhere about the design, the symbolism, and the complex construction of this incredible edifice. Look it up if you are interested – or even better, go to Barcelona and visit it! What I do want to say here is that this was a project like very few others. It started with a design that was fuelled by one man’s passion for his work. The breadth of that vision was breathtaking, yet he could also work at a level of detail that allowed him to direct every single aspect of the work during his life. He also inspired sufficient other people to allow the work to continue after his death, and even now, the pride and commitment shown by the people who work there, as builders or tourist guides or ticket sellers or, I dare say, clergy, is testament to the designer. How many other projects would still be under development a hundred and thirty years after inception, and how many other projects would still have the same relevance after all these generations? It is humbling to compare the average project with the grand designs of a true visionary.
The other bit of Barcelona that caught my imagination is the Eixample – literally “the Extension” in the Catalan language. This is a large part of the city designed on a regular grid system, with very specific design principles including the shape of each city block, the distribution of hospitals, schools, and churches within the grid, and the height and construction of every building. The design was intended to have one or two sides of each block left unbuilt, to allow parks and gardens to bring light and space.
Sadly, the Eixample’s design has been at least partly corrupted. The general layout has been preserved, but the gardens and parks were largely lost when landlords chose to ignore the dictat about leaving unconstructed sites. Height restrictions have also been ignored, and there are some very odd combinations of buildings sitting side-by-side. While the overall effect is very pleasant and functional, it does not have the impact that the architect originally envisioned.
So, why is it that Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia has remained absolutely true to its original concept, while the Eixample has not? At least one reason will be commercial pressures to make the city work efficiently, but I think there is another, deeper reason. The vision that the architect of the Sagrada Familia was able to create and communicate caught the attention of the people of the city, and they protected that vision, worked to maintain the integrity of what he was trying to achieve, and will continue to do so for as long as it takes to complete what many would consider a fool’s errand. On the other hand, although the architect of the Eixample was a highly capable and competent man, I suspect he did not capture the imagination of the city to allow his design to be completed without being corrupted and compromised.
Every project has to follow some sort of guiding principles. Which of these models more closely represents your projects: the one that everyone talks about, despite its shortcomings, or the one that (more or less) delivered, and is now largely forgotten? If these were the only two options, which would you prefer? And if you want the remarkable, high profile, big picture project, how will you get everyone who works with you to understand, buy into, and take the project forward according to your vision?
Oh… and one more thing… maybe Gaudi’s planning wasn’t so great, but no-one seems to care that his project is already decades late. I’m not sure what that says about the man, the city, or the project sponsors, but maybe there’s a lesson there too!
Iain Millar, 18 November 2012