Gaudí's unfinished Sagrada Família does not need a completion date
Worthwhile architecture, whether a home or a cathedral, has its seasons. There is no ultimate need to hurry its making
"My client is not in a hurry", Antoni Gaudí is said to have remarked when asked if he was concerned about the time it was taking to build theBasilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family in Barcelona. According to the Old Testament, Gaudí's client was in much more of a hurry than his architect: he rushed to create the world in just six days, although even He needed a rest on the seventh.
Gaudí was one of God's most loyal servants, yet nothing would make him rush the Sagrada Família. He worked on this extraordinary, vegetable-like city church from 1883 until his death in 1926.
The date of the completion of the Sagrada Família has long been hazy, a matter of conjecture rather than fact. For decades after the Spanish civil war it was widely believed that it would never be finished and many thought it was best it stayed this way. This was less to do with money – the basilica has always been self-funding through donations and ticket sales – and more to do with the architecture itself. Now that Gaudí was dead, surely God alone knew how this visionary Catalan architect would have completed the work. Gaudí's time scale and imagination were such that the architect would surely have changed his plans over the years. This was to be the work of generations.
Gaudí would have found it wrong that the one more or less realistic date set for the completion of the Sagrada Familia is the centenary of his own death in 2026. He was a man who had long swallowed his youthful vanity and buried his pride. When he was taken to hospital after being hit by a tram in 1926 it should be no surprise that he was mistaken for a tramp.
No. There should be no fixed date for the completion of the Sagrada Familia. In a world in which, increasingly, architecture has become a form of advertising and product design with showy "icons" raced up in months as if this was a virtue, the saga of Gaudí's basilica teaches us the lesson of patience.
Today, we build far too quickly for a number of banal reasons. A fast buck. An endemic and hysterical television makeover show mentality. A belief that getting things done quickly is a virtue. Management-led culture. A bullet-headed "On time, on budget" mentality. The dismal idea that rapid construction – of executive housing estates, unwanted supermarkets and other schlock – is a powerful economic lever that, when pulled, will kick a boot up the backside of a flagging economy.
Stop. Worthwhile architecture, whether a home or a cathedral, has its seasons. There is no ultimate need to hurry its making, while the very making of a building is just as important as its day-to-day use. An economy, meanwhile, can be boosted as much by having skilled craft workers shaping thoughtful buildings as it might by people shopping gormlessly in rushed-up shopping malls. Architecture – real, true and beautiful architecture in the service of our spirit and senses as well as our everyday needs – is the end result of contented producers rather than dissatisfied consumers.
Today, we treat architecture as if it was a throwaway consumer "good". We should learn to slow down. Rome wasn't built in day, nor was St Peter's. Even Barry and Pugin's Palace of Westminster was 30 years in the making.
In Ireland, a Slow Architecture movement has been formed, touring the country in gentle fashion by barge. This is a gently measured echo of the Slow Food movement founded in 1986 by Carlo Petrini when McDonald's opened its first fast food joint in Italy by the Spanish Steps in the very heart of historic and romantic Rome. Gaudí might well have approved the Irish initiative, and not least because taking architecture slowly – it has always been the slowest of the arts – allows it to breathe.
It is because the Sagrada Família has taken so long to realise that new talents with new skills have banded together to complete Gaudí's masterwork. Today,Mark Burry, a New Zealander with the very latest computer-design skills is executive architect of the emerging basilica. By taking the slow road, the Sagrada Família has embraced the skills, intelligence and craft of successive generations. And, because people from around the globe raised in a world of lightning-fast, gimmee, gimmee junkitecture find it so compelling, it is even able to pay its own slow way.