Amante: Building cathedrals

A SPEECH teacher liked to encourage her students to give their best by thinking of themselves not as bricklayers, but as builders of cathedrals. It was not an original story but something she had read before. Most of the time, it worked.

She came to mind last Good Friday, while a documentary showed the ongoing effort, at once ambitious and precise, to complete the basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Work on the church has taken more than 135 years, but its current builders intend to finish its last six towers before 2026, a century after the death of the architect Antoni Gaudi.

Not all of Gaudi’s plans and models have survived, so the present-day architects have had to rely on some cautious guesswork in deciding how they should proceed. Not all of the materials Gaudi wanted to use have survived either; the quarry that yielded the multi-colored Montjuic sandstone he liked has been closed for years. Today, the project’s stones have to be sourced from demolished buildings or from other sites in Brazil, Iran, and England. Most are cut by robot-mounted lasers, but the final embellishments—the attempt to make stone and stained glass look like leaves, for instance, at the top of the cathedral’s tree-like columns—need to be done by hand.

To speed the work up, the stone panels of the six towers are fabricated in a worksite outside Barcelona. When done, each panel must be hoisted by crane, preferably on a day when the winds are mild, and ever so slowly slid into place, more than 100 meters above the streets of Barcelona. When the first stone panel fit and the bolts to secure it were in place, one of the engineers gently patted the stone and said, “This will be here forever.” He was teary-eyed. One can imagine him looking up at the towers one day while he tells his grandchildren about how he helped finish the Sagrada Familia and what various challenges he and his colleagues had to overcome.

That moment is one of a handful in the documentary when a little sentiment shows through. But it’s the moments like it that leave a lasting impression. Gaudi devoted the last years of his life to the Sagrada Familia; he died a few days after being struck by a tram as he was walking back to his unfinished church. Was it single-minded ambition that drove him to take on this massive project? Was it faith?

Outside of their professional communities, the basilica’s present-day architects, artisans, builders, and engineers may not be remembered as often or fondly as Gaudi, to whose name the edifice is firmly attached. But perhaps they can be happy knowing that they’ve done their part—invisible, but important—in making the Sagrada Familia, which is at once fixed and yet constantly changing. That is a way to describe both a monument of faith and an approach to faith itself.

Kind reader, please forgive the schmaltz. Although I have not been religious for years, Easter remains my favorite religious holiday: quieter and less gaudy than New Year’s Eve, and somehow more believable in its promise of second chances, even redemption. It reminds us of that adage about planting trees, in the shade of which we may never sit. Maybe that’s one way to keep the faith: to grow or to build something that will shelter generations long after we are gone; something that we hope will compel them to look heavenward, especially when their earthly labors feel small.

Happy Easter to you and to all you love.

(The documentary mentioned here is Episode 4 of the “Building Giants” series on the Discovery Channel. @isoldeamante)
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