Unfinished church is stony link to Barcelona's rich, ancient past

July 19, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

BARCELONA, Spain -- He lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment attached to the shell of a church that stands unfinished more than a century after the first stone was laid.

In the morning, he peers at steeples that look like candles melting in the sun. By midday, he is at work under the cover of the corrugated roof. Amid puffs of dust, the roar of power saws and the steady sound of mallets and chisels, he shapes rocks with hands that are surprisingly small and tender. And in the early evening, when the shade is just right, he stands by the facade that is half-a-football-field wide, admiring the work of his life, "The Passion," the story of Christ from the Last Supper to the Resurrection.

The Summer Olympics are coming to his city, but Josep Maria Subirachs has no time for games. He is the sculptor of Sagrada Familia, the symbol of Barcelona's faith and folly.

All around, there is change. Roads ring the city. High-rise buildings. Even new subway signs.

But in the middle of a church that you would swear was the target of an air raid, the pace is slow, the mission timeless. A crane sits idle. A concrete mixer lies rusting. Columns rise from the ground like trees without limbs.

Here, they do not deal in hours or days. They talk of centuries.

"It is really bizarre that this is a symbol of Barcelona," said Subirachs, 65, an elfin man with gray skin, gray hair and a soft, lilting voice. "But this is our symbol. This church is important to us, important to Catalonia."

You have eight steeples that soar 300 feet to the sky, that are topped with orange and yellow spirals. You have birds fluttering in a paradise of green. You have tourists clambering up and down well-worn circular stairways. You have scaffolding climbing walls like the ivy at Wrigley Field. You do not have a roof, or windows or ornamental doors.

All are coming. All take time.

It was Antoni Gaudi, the city's great architect, who gave the church its style after construction began in 1882. From the man who crafted the tunnel-like shapes of Casa Mila, who placed a dragon atop the Casa Batillo, came the creation of a medieval church near the dawn of the 20th century. Gaudi would never live to complete his work. At 74, penniless and haggard, he stepped off a curb and in front of a trolley in 1926.

The church survived a civil war, urban decay, pollution, inattention and the wrath of mobs bent on destroying man's holiest objects. Plans for the church were destroyed. Architects that followed Gaudi added their flourishes.

Jordi Bonet, 67, is the latest creator to place his signature on the church. He is designing the nave.

"I am so old, it is not possible for me to see this church complete," he said. "All the people ask, will we finish? This is not so easy. My father worked here, was the architect, and he is 99, and still the church is not finished."

Bonet adds the years. Ten to cover the nave. Twenty to complete the south facade. Another 20 to finish the central tower. Perhaps 10 more to build the apse. He reaches into the middle of the next century.

"The nave is my problem," he said. "Someone else will have the other problems."

For Subirachs, vision is confined to "The Passion," begun in 1986 and nearly five years from completion. He is an agnostic who has chiseled a menacing view of a horrid death. A faceless, naked Christ rises from the cross. A serpent emerges from behind the cloak of Judas. Soldiers, look transported from Star Wars to stone.

Subirachs' creation has led to controversy and confrontation. Two years ago, demonstrators gathered on the steps of the facade, and vilified him. In the book "Barcelona," art critic Robert Hughes writes of the facade, "It is sincere in the way that only the worst art can be: which is to say, utterly so."

Subirachs sits impassively and listens to the complaints. Then quietly, he says: "It's natural there are some who like it and some who don't. It is much more interesting to have a debate, don't you think?"

He retreats into his world. Fixing molds. Chiseling stones. Racing time to complete his masterpiece.

"The most logical thing to do is finish something that has been started," he said. "If you don't finish this church, it would just fall down."

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