Save the Sagrada Familia

Yesterday the World Monuments Fund issued their annual watch list of historical structures and sites that are in danger of destruction from neglect, development, vandalism, and the elements, without urgent intervention from preservationists. The list includes such important structures as the Inca sanctuary of Machu Picchu, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s own homes, Taliesin and Taliesin West.

Top of the list, for me, is the danger posed to the Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family in Barcelona, more commonly referred to as the “Sagrada Familia”, the great unfinished masterpiece of Antoni Gaudí i Cornet which has been under construction since 1880 and which is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Anyone who has been to Barcelona or seen images of it know that the Sagrada Familia is the single most iconic structure in the city, in a city which has a host of iconic structures. It dominates the skyline day or night looking like a mountain crag suddenly rising out of the midst of the urban center. When completed, hopefully sometime around 2026, it will be the tallest church in the world, featuring a gigantic central tower dedicated to Jesus standing 170 meters (around 557 feet) tall.

The Spanish Ministry of Public Works decided to extend high-speed rail from Madrid to Barcelona, with the aim of eventually linking to the French high-speed rail network. Construction of the urban portion began in the city in 2006, with the train running underneath Barcelona as it entered the city. However, because of unexpected geological problems and tunnel collapses, the route was eventually shifted to within a few yards of the foundation of the Sagrada Familia.

This re-routed plan caused a massive uproar among a disparate group of concerned experts and laymen, including the Church, engineers, architects, aficionados of Gaudí’s work, neighbors of the building, and Barcelona’s tourist industry. Anyone Googling the words “Sagrada Familia” and “tunnel” will find hundreds of articles, blog posts, and commentaries from individuals concerned about this state of affairs; one particularly evocative and well-written post, for example, by Peter Sain Iey Berry in EU Observer is well worth reading. All are concerned that boring a giant 40-foot diameter tunnel so close to the foundations of such a massive building built on sandy soil will cause subsidence or worse, and that the vibration from trains running underneath the structure will damage the facades or even lead to the collapse of the vaults or of the gigantic bell towers that bristle above the building. Despite valiant legal efforts by a coalition of experts and concerned individuals to stop the tunnel project, Spanish courts have allowed construction to proceed.

For this reason, the World Monuments Fund has taken up the call to try to save the building:

Three grand façades comprise the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família: the Nativity to the east, the Passion to the West, and the Glory to the South. The still-to-be-completed Glory façade is the concern of a heated controversy regarding the Sants-Sagrera stretch of the Madrid-Zaragoza-Barcelona-French border high-speed train line. The underground train tunnel will pass along this façade, with a protective screen of pylons planned just six feet (two meters) from the Glory foundations. Given the proximity of the pylons, the tremendous weight of this portion of the church, the future structural settlement of the completed façade, and the vibrations caused by the train and its construction, there are concerns about whether Sagrada Família will be adequately protected from potential damage. Advocates have called for more rigorous analysis of the planned infrastructure development and its impact, and for a possible rerouting of the train line farther from this unique and beloved building.

The large number of experts who are the advisory members of the Fund are not a body which ought to be ignored by the Spanish government. For my part, as someone who is not only a Catalan, a Catholic, and an armchair architect, but also counts Gaudí among the members of his family tree, I think it only fair that I weigh in on the matter, though admittedly I cannot do so as authoritatively or as well as the Fund and others have done.

Simply put, the whole notion of building a high speed train tunnel only six feet beneath the foundations of a vaulted church larger than most cathedrals and surrounded by towers hundreds of feet tall is galactically stupid: it is the height, or in this case the depth, of sheer idiocy. One does not need to be an architect or an engineer to understand that attempting to dig away loose earth from underneath an historic structure weighing thousands of tons is so risky as not to be worth the attempt. What makes even less sense in this regard is that the Spanish government has not adequately pursued other options which have worked in other cities building high-speed rail, such as London, Paris, or Brussels, to go through industrial areas or blocks of flats rather than near historic monuments.

In the case of Barcelona, in particular, there is recent precedent for this type of work being completed with minimal damage to structures of historic importance. During the 1980’s and 90’s the construction of the Ronda de Dalt ring road around the north end of the city, part of which is underground, involved the demolition of some structures and parts of some neighborhoods, but with an eye to historic preservation. It quickly became an important lifeline for city traffic, connecting Barcelona more efficiently to its outer suburbs and the national highways, and yet maintaining green space and the historic character of these northern parts of the city whenever possible. In other words, sensible planning could prevent the risk to the Sagrada Familia, if approached with sensitivity and care.

Unfortunately that is not what appears to be happening here. Some functionary with no love for the Sagrada Familia, or Gaudí, or Barcelona – or dare one say so, for the Church – has dug in his heels and insisted that this project continue. It is the engineering equivalent of playing Russian roulette. My hope is that the attention drawn to the project by the World Monuments Fund, and hopefully by others, will cause those with greater influence than myself to spread the word about this impending disaster, and save the Sagrada Familia, a building which has withstood so many attempts at its destruction, for future generations.

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