Thursday, May 22, 2014

High church

There are a lot of complex artworks around now that wouldn't be possible without computers. Those massive rolled steel sculptures by Richard Serra (including the one on the Gibbs Farm north of Auckland) are a good example. So now there's a new challenge: how to keep the human touch in a work that is in fact controlled by mathematical processes. The other day we had an extraordinary architectural experience that demonstrated what happens when that balance fails.

We last visited Antoni Gaudi’s Barcelona cathedral Sagrada Familia in the mid-1970s. At that time building had been under construction for about ninety years. The main spires were complete but most of the body of the structure was unfinished. Gaudi himself had died in 1926. As most of his working plans had been destroyed the build was guided by impressionistic drawings and geometric principles apparently derived from the master. The construction site was positively medieval with stonemasons chipping away at strange animals including a couple of super-sized snails and plant life. Organic, eccentric, ambiguous, writhing, earthy, those are some of the terms that would have popped up in the Gaudi word cloud back then had such a thing existed.

Not anymore. Walking into the nave of the Sagrada Familia today is like stepping onto the set of a computer game or a blue screened James Cameron movie. The sense of a kitsch virtual space is unnerving. Computers were introduced into the design process back in the 1980s at the same time as efforts to complete the building ramped up. The New Zealander and digital spatial designer Mark Burry joined the venture in the 1990s and is now executive architect. To see computer-based design written so large is astonishing but once you're past the shock and awe, it's surprisingly lifeless. As to Gaudi’s lifelong ambition to ‘follow nature.' Forget it.

Still the crowds of people wondering around at $25 a pop (over two million people visit a year - you do the addition) loved it. It is certainly spectacular but then how could pillars rising more than 100 meters above your head not be? But we’re with a friend who wrote to us recently to say it might have been better left as it was before Gaudi’s organic look and feel was abandoned, a kind of ‘ruin in reverse’.

Images: top left as Gaudi envisioned it. Top right and bottom how the computers realized it