Prior to the late renaissance, large construction projects in Europe were helmed not by architects as we know the today but rather by “master builders”. These individuals, often stonemasons who had gained immense experience over their lifetimes by gradually ascending through their guilds, were responsible for both developing a unified design for a building and ensuring its structural integrity and magnificence. They filled the modern roles of both architect and engineer, so in their buildings their visions for structure and appearance were combined, which is why the Gothic style in some of Europe’s most famous cathedrals is characterized by unhidden, graceful structure: vaults, arches, flying buttresses. In the last few centuries, this philosophy has mostly died out in buildings (though civil engineering sometimes maintains it), which is one of the reasons why there are few modern buildings with the structural punch of the Florence Duomo or Notre Dame. Of the few individuals to succeed the old master builders and break the separation between architect and structural engineer, one of the most famous- and almost certainly the most unusual- is Antoni Gaudí, whose 163rd birthday would have been marked last week.
Born in Reus in 1852 and studying at the Barcelona School of Architecture, Gaudí would live in the Catalonian capital for the rest of his life and work almost exclusively in the region. His surroundings had a great influence on his style. He ascribed to the local style called “modernisme” which was sweeping the area as part as what was known as the Catalan Renaissance. Contemporary with Art Nouveau in the north and the Vienna Secession in central Europe, key elements of this style were organic themes and motifs and the predominance of curves over straight lines. Gaudí’s early houses are iconic examples of the style because of their unapologetically distinctive natural forms and unsubtle ornamentation. His most famous are now part of the “Works of Antoni Gaudí” world heritage site and include the Casa Batllo, with its roofing and stonework evoking scales and bones, and the nearby Casa Mila (known to locals as “The Quarry”), with its flowing overhangs and sculptural chimneys. The seemingly freeform floorplans hint at the amount of attention to detail Gaudí put into these works.
The Casa Batllo and its floor plan
Gaudí began the experimentation that would lead to his singular structural philosophy in these houses, but his distinctive engineering would not truly emerge until his later, larger structures. Gaudí was a deeply pious man, and his final works, into which he invested immense time and skill, were churches- the Colonia Güell and his magnum opus, the Sagrada Familia. Gaudí intended these churches to be built of stone and brick (even though reinforced concrete was available) on a vast scale that would inspire awe, and be laid out in the gothic style with nave, apse, and transepts. Contrary to the Gothic style, Gaudí wished to eliminate flying buttresses from the design, which he derided as “crutches” that took away from the verticality of his designs. Through his integration of these structural and aesthetic ideals, Gaudí placed himself in the annals of architectural history.
Inside the Sagrada Familia
To build without buttresses, massive arches and vaults had to support each church’s dead load by themselves. To design such arches without the use of reinforced concrete (which has much greater tensile strength than stone), Gaudí turned to the science of Robert Hooke, who centuries earlier had determined the ideal shape for an arch: a catenary. Hooke put forth his theory in an anagram that was not solved before his death; when finally solved, it was found to read “As hangs a flexible cable so, inverted, stand the touching pieces of an arch.” In other words, the ideal shape for a self-supporting arch is the inverse of a string hanging between two points, a curve called a catenary. When a hanging string is static, tensile forces are balanced throughout it; ergo, when the string is inverted and made rigid compressive forces are balanced throughout it. Ingeniously, Gaudí applied this principle to his designs by modeling his designs upside down using weighted strings for arches, thus finding their ideal shapes to support both their own weight and specifically located loads. Elongating these strings and joining them allowed Gaudí to represent columns as well, occasionally curved or leaning themselves. Gaudí modeled the vaults through “slicing”, representing them as a series of narrow hanging arches. This method allowed the vaults to be geometrically complex or asymmetric surfaces like hyperboloids. Modern CAD programs use similar strategies called nurbs and meshes- perhaps an example of Gaudí’s legacy.
One of Gaudi’s hanging models
Around these structures, Gaudí added quasi-Gothic ornamentation such as delicate stonework- flowerlike in the Sagrada Familia and bonelike in the Colonia Güell- and brightly colored, modernisme-style stained glass. The structures are awash with sculptural details and abstract Christian symbolism. The overall effect is completely unique. The buildings, at once traditional and futuristic, have no equivalent elsewhere in the world and have become symbols of Barcelona, drawing millions of tourists. This popularity is in spite of another similarity to Gothic cathedrals, which took centuries to build: both churches, begun in the late 1800s, remain incomplete. Only the crypt of the Colonia Güell has been built and there are no plans to continue construction; cranes tower over the Sagrada Familia which, already imposing, currently has only eight of its planned eighteen spires. The tallest, at 170 meters, will make the Sagrada Familia the world’s tallest church.
The Colonia Guell
Gaudí’s buildings do have their detractors: George Orwell, for instance, decried the Sagrada Familia as Europe’s ugliest building. However, an engineer will almost certainly see the beauty in Gaudí’s structural genius. If so, they should book a trip to Barcelona between 2026 and 2028 when, nearly 150 years after breaking ground, the Sagrada Familia is forecast to be completed.
First image by Diliff, Wikimedia Commons
Second image by tato grasso, Wikimedia Commons
Third Image by Shekar Davarya, Pinterest
Fourth Image by SBA73, Wikimedia Commons
Fifth Image by tillnm, Flickr
Sixth Image by Enfo, Wikimedia Commons
Seventh Image by Bernard Gagnon, Wikimedia Commons
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