>Persian Engineering and Catalan Vision

>While watching one of my favorite channels last evening – i.e. the Euronews Channel, with its wonderfully bland news coverage – I caught a piece about the ancient Persian city of Yazd, located in the heart of present-day Iran and capital of its eponymous province. Yazd, once known as Ysatis, is one of the most ancient, continuously-inhabited cities in the world, with an archaeological record dating back well over three millenia. One of the most interesting architectural features of the city is the prevalence of the malqaf or badgir (windcatcher), on many of the buildings. The windcatcher, an ingenious tower designed to help cool structures in desert environments, relies on a remarkable understanding of how to harness breezes and changes air pressure that result from differing air temperatures in order to provide both ventilation and cooling to the interiors of a building.

The towers caught my eye because they immediately struck me as having had a clear influence on the work of Antoni Gaudí. As a Mediterranean architect, Gaudí was certainly aware of what might loosely be called Moorish architecture, alongside the more familiar Western architectural styles of Romanesque, Gothic, and so on. Although Barcelona is not as hot a city as some of the other cities of the Iberian Peninsula, summers there are still quite uncomfortable at times, and ventilation in the days before air-conditioning was certainly an important consideration. While architectural historians often mention the fact that Gaudí took his inspiration from buildings in India, North Africa, and the Mid-East, this remains merely theory in the mind of the armchair architect until he compares the work of the great Catalan master to the sources of his inspiration.

Take a look, for example, at the most famous windcatcher in Yazd, the 18th century Dowlat-abad tower. It is an octagonal tower, like many of the windcatchers in Yazd, and is generally regarded as the tallest extant windcatcher in the world. The use of these octagonal towers, though by no means the only shape employed in the design of windcatchers in Yazd, would probably have struck Gaudí as rather similar to the frequent use, in Catalan ecclesiastical architecture, of octagonal towers, such as in the graduated octagonal belltowers of the facade of the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar or in the lone, massive octagonal belltower of the Basilica of Santa Maria del Pi.

The difference between these Catalan structures and the Persian windcatchers however, is apparent when considering that the Catalan belltower was not constructed for the purpose of allowing air to circulate through the building, or indeed the tower itself. The campanile, in this regard, is more akin to the minaret, as a sort of pre-electric loudspeaker to call the faithful to mass. There is no need for openings lower down on the tower, other than an occasional opening to light the stairwell inside. We notice by contrast, such as on the Dowlat-abad tower, that the Persian windcatcher often bristles with openings in order to move as much air as possible through the tower.

When it came time for Gaudí to design the belltowers of his masterpiece, the Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family, more commonly known as the Sagrada Familia, he did not choose to erect the octagonal belltowers that are emblematic of Catalan church architecture. He took his inspiration for the building from the jagged profile of the holy mountain of Montserrat, located about an hour from Barcelona, where the shrine of Our Lady has been the focal point for Catholicism in Catalonia for well over one thousand years. The geographic features of Montserrat include unusual, tall peaks that look like fingers reaching up out of the mountainside. However the bell towers that Gaudí designed in his man-made Montserrat differ from these naturally-occurring mountain fingers in a very important aspect: like the Dowlat-abad tower, they positively bristle with multiple openings to allow the air to pass through.

This trapping of and manipulation of air currents was designed to allow the sound from the enormous, tubular bells Gaudí planned to hang inside the towers to sound more loudly. Gaudí also intended to place a large number of the pipes of the completed church’s pipe organ inside of these towers. The end result would be that the music played on the pipe organ would be amplified over the entire city, with the bell towers acting as giant organ pipes in and of themselves. In addition, the church’s choir would also have their voices amplified through these giant towers, so that the end effect during a high mass would no doubt be an overwhelming auditory experience. As of yet no one has heard the end result, since construction is ongoing, but Gaudí – in his bizarre genius – spent four years planning the exact heights of these bell towers, tuning them to the notes of the musical scale, so we can only imagine.

Was the great Catalan architect directly inspired by the towers of Yazd in his design, or was this merely a coincidence? Not having access to a good architectural library, I can only speculate. Still, the coincidence of this ancient Persian design for the movement of air, and Gaudí’s desire to transmit sound across the city of Barcelona through the manipulation of the air by a similar method, is certainly worthy of a ponder.

Multiple windcatcher openings on four of the Sagrada Familia’s belltowers