Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Illustration by Katy Dockrill

While most Canadians remain stuck at home, we can still dream about the cultural destinations we once embarked on pre-pandemic ... and will soon experience again. Here, Globe Arts writers reflect on their favourite international cultural memories, and what the necessary domestic equivalent might be.

One March morning, I stood inside the Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona in awe. The space mimicked that of a Gothic cathedral, with soaring stone vaults punctuated with soft coloured light from stained glass windows, but it was higher, airier and brighter, a contemporary take on a medieval classic. Could there be something more uplifting than the esthetic experience of Chartres or Rouen? Yes, here it was, the Sagrada Familia.

It had taken work to get here: tickets booked online weeks in advance for an early slot that might beat the crowds, a strategically located rental a short walk away and a half-hour wait once we got to the entrance. But we had finally hit the bullseye of our target, a cultural pilgrimage to the hometown of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi.

None of this was my idea. My husband and son were impressed by Gaudi’s architecture and excited to visit one of Europe’s hippest capitals. I was happy to come along but also puzzled: Gaudi’s Barcelona suggested to me somewhere dark, a bit crazy and tainted with disappointment.

Why? Because that is what I had learned in art history class in the 1980s. In those days, students of 20th-century architecture were invited to admire the straight lines and clean shapes of Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe while Gaudi was a footnote, a kook who took the sinuous forms of the Art Nouveau to ridiculous extremes. I dug out my old textbook recently and found what H.W. Janson, author of the bestselling History of Art, said about the Casa Mila apartments in Barcelona. (The building is better known as La Pedrera, or the stone quarry, for its jumble of shapes.) “It shows an almost maniacal avoidance of all flat surfaces, straight lines and symmetry of any kind,” Janson writes, concluding it is “an attempt at architectural reform from the periphery, rather than the centre.”

Open this photo in gallery:

People take pictures in front of Sagrada Familia Basilica designed by architect Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona, Spain, on July 9, 2021.Joan Mateu/The Associated Press

That book doesn’t mention the basilica project Gaudi took over in 1883, but I remember being taught, from dim black-and-white slides, that the Sagrada Familia was a folly that would never be completed, a site vandalized during Spain’s Civil War when Gaudi’s plans were all destroyed. It seemed a doomed creation, impressive in its ambition perhaps, but as peripheral as Janson considered La Pedrera.

Janson’s 1962 book was out of date by the 1980s, but our classes on contemporary art standardly stopped a decade before the present. Spain was changing rapidly in those years: Perhaps the optimism of its new democracy, established in 1978 after the dictator Francisco Franco bequeathed power to King Juan Carlos, had yet to reach the art history department. And, to be fair, while construction continued on Gaudi’s masterwork in the post-war years, it was not until the late 1980s that the push began to complete the building. Much of the Sagrada Familia is brand new: The nave was only finished in 2010, while plans to complete the church for the 2026 centenary of Gaudi’s death have been delayed by the pandemic.

No matter. Gaudi’s experimentation with natural forms – borrowing the shapes of tree trunks or honeycombs for their structural strength – may have seemed eccentric in 1883 or 1983; today they look environmentally prescient.

No wonder the basilica feels like a contemporary space, one of post-modern diversity rather than modernist purity. Yet, it lacks any of post-modernism’s shallow mimicry of the past. It’s rare to see a building so successfully revive a historic form with a contemporary vocabulary. In that regard, the basilica reminded me of two such achievements in Canada. One is Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre, designed by architect Peter Smith, where artist Frank Stella recreated the ornate balcony fronts of 18th-century auditoriums using fractured shapes, like crumpled sheets of paper, whose modernity is only apparent on close inspection.

The other is Morning Star, painted on the ceiling of the rotunda at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que. There, Indigenous artist Alex Janvier cleverly revived traditional fresco painting but replaced saints and angels with abstract shapes symbolizing the Indigenous narrative of colonialism. It’s a work for the ages.

Similarly, there is something touching about the persistence of the Sagrada Familia. The great churches of old were erected by the devout as monuments to God. Yet what impresses the non-believer is the idea that generations kept building upwards not for their own glory but for the sake of those to follow. Gaudi died in 1926 after being hit by a tram, but today he stands brilliantly vindicated.

Meanwhile, Spain’s politics have changed again: Juan Carlos abdicated in the midst of a financial scandal in 2014 while Catalonia has voted to secede. When we visited, every other apartment balcony was flying the Estelada, the lone-star flag associated with the independence movement. Many of those buildings feature the attractive Art Nouveau facades designed by Gaudi’s contemporaries. But his achievements rise above them all: the inviting bourgeois apartment you can visit at La Pedrera, the riotous mosaics and the little pink house the architect designed for himself at the Parc Güell and most of all the soaring space of the Sagrada Familia, a folly that time has made wise.

Get inspired by the weekly Sightseer newsletter, with travel advice, destinations and more. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe