AT FIRST sight, Gijs van Hensbergen might seem an unlikely biographer of a building — for that is really what this 190-page essay becomes — that is the supreme Catholic manifestation of anti-establishmentarianism in the 20th century. The Dutch art historian is a lapsed Scots Presbyterian who grew up in the Basque country. But, as the successful author of a 2001 biography of the architect, Antoni Gaudí, he is well qualified.
Into the history of the building Hensbergen melds the biography of its Catalan modernist architect from his birth in 1852 until he was knocked down by a tram in 1926.
He brings the story up to the present with successive architects and the more recent wrangle over whether a high-speed rail link near by should take precedence over the safety of a building that was been declared a World Heritage Site in 2005.
This is emphatically not a guidebook, and is completely unillustrated, which means that it is difficult to read without having a clear idea of what Barcelona itself looks like, both in terms of its topography and its skyline, so as to appreciate fully how outrageous the commission to the young Gaudí was when he was invited to join a project that had already begun without him (1882).
I am particularly sorry that the 1898 painting of the construction work by Joaquim Mir, La catedral de los pobres (Collection of Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza, on loan to the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya) does not feature on the cover. The Sagrada Família is a basilica and not a cathedral, but that is to quibble. Mir (1873-1940) captured an image of the building rising above the slum street people in the foreground.
Whether this book will help the cause of Gaudí’s sanctification is a moot point. Whether the building itself is completed by 2026 (the latest revised date) seems equally open to question.
The Revd Dr Nicholas Cranfield is Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.
The Sagrada Família: Gaudí’s heaven on earth
Gijs van Hensbergen
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