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The Christchurch-born architect behind the Sagrada Família completion

The Barcelona cathedral’s dome. Photo/Getty Images

“A big piece of sculpture”

A couple of years later, in 1979, Burry, son of former All Black Hugh Burry, used a Cambridge University scholarship to return to Barcelona. In jeans and jandals, he arrived at the door of Isidre Puig Boada and Lluís Bonet i Garí, the two octogenarian architects responsible for continuing the project.

“I had two questions: first, where was the authority to build the building coming from – my understanding was Gaudí’s office had been trashed during the Civil War. And second, how do you explain to people building it what to do? It is such a big piece of sculpture.”

He got an answer: boxes and boxes of fragments of Gaudí’s plaster models smashed by anti-clerical anarchists in 1936. And a job, translating the complex geometries inherent in the models into a workable design for the completion of the Expiatory Temple of the Sagrada Família.

“The additional four towers had been completed more or less as a mirror image of the towers raised during Gaudí’s lifetime. Now [the architects] were beginning to think about the nave, so for the first time they were confronted with having to work out a methodology for developing a set of designs that could be built from.”

Christchurch-born architect Mark Burry. Photo/Mark Burry

Nearly four decades on, Burry has stepped down as principal architect of one of the world’s most recognisable churches, an ecclesiastical dream that has outlived architects, designers, sculptors, builders and revolutionaries.

It was never going to be easy. Gaudí was and to some extent remains an enigmatic figure. A proud Catalonian, a vegetarian, a bachelor, he was also a reluctant writer who largely relied on his models to test his designs. He was also a fanatical Catholic, seeing the hand of God not just in the soaring stairway-to-heaven spaces of the church but also in the natural world around him.

And although Gaudí’s name is synonymous with Barcelona, some of his most important works were never completed. Looping across the hillside overlooking the Sagrada Família, Park Güell, a planned gated community of 60 dwellings, was abandoned after the completion of just two houses and substantial infrastructure and later gifted to the council as a public park.

Just outside Barcelona, the Church of Colònia Güell was eight years in the design and six in the building before it, too, was abandoned, its network of self-supporting vaults and naves, unencumbered by the buttresses and supporting walls that were so abhorrent to Gaudí, providing a template for the architectural innovations about to unfold in the Sagrada Família.

It was, however, an inscrutable template.

“He thought and acted as a sculptor without giving due consideration to what that means in terms of the building,” says Burry. “In the last 12 years of his life, he knew he had to do something about it, so he rationalised his work with this clever use of geometry. By doing that, he gave a blueprint, a methodological blueprint not a physical blueprint, for getting around the fact he was thinking and operating as a sculptor.”

The church at night. Photo/Getty Images

Always buildable

Early attempts at converting the curvilinear geometry of Gaudí’s models into the conventional architectural language of plans, sections and elevations were limited in their success. In frustration, Burry turned to emerging aeronautical software, the 3D design processes that allowed for the “flexible modelling” necessary to translate Gaudí’s unique geography of light and space into the polygons, hyperboloids and the saddle-like hyperbolic paraboloids that shape and support the Sagrada Família’s soaring vaults and towers, with the help of computer-controlled stone-cutting equipment and 3D printers.

Now a world-renowned specialist in spatial design, computer programming and digital fabrication, Burry says the basilica was always buildable, “but it would probably have taken centuries more time using traditional methods”.

In understanding the architect’s spiritual and sculptural objectives, Burry has been able to fill in the gaps in Gaudí’s incomplete vision. He describes the “floating” auditorium 70m above the church’s centre crossing and capable of holding 200 people as a “great concrete flying saucer”. Although not in Gaudí’s original scheme – the space above the nave was “greyed out” in the architect’s plan – it nevertheless epitomises the aspirations of his practice.

“I do think it is about having a sensitivity or maybe a sensibility as to the way he thought as a designer. We are not copying but extending him.”

Spires on Gaudí’s Sagrada Família. Photo/Getty Images

“Rampant kitsch”

The very idea of extension has been anathema to critics of the continuation of the Sagrada Família.

Writer George Orwell claimed the anarchists showed “bad taste” in not blowing it up when they had the chance (a more determined effort was made in August after vehicles ploughed into pedestrians in Barcelona’s famed Las Ramblas and the nearby seaside resort of Cambrils and suspects later admitted the landmark church was also on the terrorists’ hit list).

Artist Salvador Dalí said its “terrifying and edible beauty” should be kept under a glass dome. Australian art critic Robert Hughes agreed: “Almost everything that has been done in the 70s and 80s is rampant kitsch.”

In the early 1960s, Spanish architect Oscar Tusquets Blanca helped launch a manifesto against the continuation of the church, arguing that, because the plans and models for the Sagrada Família had been destroyed, any interpretation would be a betrayal of an architect “who constantly improvised during his projects”.

Architect Antoni Gaudí. Photo/Getty Images

As he said, the model used by the architectural team, now led by Jordi Faulí, was the third devised by Gaudí. Had he not been hit by a tram on his daily walk to confession, dying three days later in a paupers’ hospital, might there not have been a fourth?

“I cannot imagine what a fourth version would have been,” says Burry. “I can imagine him producing small refinements – he was quoted as saying great cathedrals absorb the lessons of their building as they get built – but I can’t imagine a quantum shift and I can’t imagine a client having a 73-year-old architect turn up and say, ‘You know that work I’ve been working on for last 12 years? Well, I’ve just had a new idea. Let’s start again.’”

Burry has no doubts.

“I’m certain Gaudí could see exactly what he was getting. He didn’t have to write about his work; it didn’t require explaining. And he always expected the building would be finished by others who would bring their own skills and vision to the job.”

To go into that building now, he says, and not be moved by the light and space, “requires a particular type of vanity, an ability to actually transcend your visceral feelings and instincts. Visually, emotionally and spatially, the work resonates for most people.”

As it did, eventually, with Tusquets Blanca. Half a century after issuing his manifesto, the prominent architect delivered a public retraction. Although he remains unconvinced by some of the more recent decorative additions, he admits that “this wonder would not exist if people had listened to us 50 years ago”.

If architecture is principally space and light, he continues, “the interior of this church is architecture with a capital A, exciting and grand”.

2017 mass to commemorate terror-attack victims. Photo/Getty

Last facade

Nearly four decades after arriving in Barcelona, Burry, now fluent in Catalan and an expert on Barcelona’s eateries, has completed the design for the third and last facade. “That is the main facade, the last unknown for the building. There is nothing else to do. The major design is finished.”

Burry will still have some involvement in the completion of the church (it was consecrated and proclaimed a minor basilica in 2010).

Last November, he was awarded a prestigious Australian Research Council Discovery Grant to investigate Gaudí’s theories and techniques and he will continue to research the city that has stood behind the remarkable sculptural feat unfolding on its doorstep.

“Barcelona has three things going for it: it recognises its geniuses, it gives its geniuses space to do their thing and Catalonia is the only place I know that has the resilience to get through civil wars, economic cycles, religious high and low points and still keep plugging away at a building. So you could argue that Gaudí was simply an exceptional character within an exceptional community.”

By the time the cranes and scaffolding come down in 2026, the Sagrada Família will be an exceptional statement on the Catalan landscape. The west sacristy will be completed and the remaining towers erected.

At its centre will loom the 172.5m Tower of Jesus Christ, making it the tallest church spire in the world, 10m taller than the title-holder, the Ulm Cathedral in Southern Germany, but still 1m short of Barcelona’s Montjuïc Hill. True to Gaudí’s wishes, his creation will not surpass that of his God.

This article was first published in the September 23, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.