Sunday, 29 May 2016

Churches as tourist attractions

I haven't been into a lot of them in Calgary or Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver, but I'm not really aware that churches where I live are popular with visitors. They are in Europe, of course, because (like the one in Tarragona, and the Barcelona Cathedral, and all of them in Italy) they're old --substantially older than my country -- and ornate, full of interesting classical design elements. And they can be big.

I kinda feel for anyone here who owns and manages a big, "can seat 5,000 parishioners", church built in the 1200's -- that never seem to have more than a few dozen attending even the biggest mass. How do you pay for the upkeep of things? Barcelona is the first place I've been to in Europe that pushes the envelope on the solution to this problem, with most churches charging people to visit -- nothing widespread (yet) in Italy or France.

So churches here appear to have recognized that they are tourist attractions, and by some rough math, rake in a LOT of dough from folks paying €5 and more to go in for their 10 min visit. Then they charge extra for crypt visits or cloister visits or library visits or rooftop visits.

Probably the king of this is the Sagrada Familia, the single "must see" attraction in all of Barcelona. It's a project started around 1910 and due for completion in 2026. Mind bogglingly big and with a price tag to match, you gotta pay for it somehow, and that somehow is €15 entry fees, €5 audio guides, €9 elevator rides (though they only come as a package with the audio guide), €35 private guided tours -- and they get to do that because the Sagrada is unlike any church you have ever seen, or are likely to see. 

The design dude that dominates the talk (though not the architecture) of this town is Antoni Gaudi -- he of the weird designs seen in buildings I talked about here. Sr. Gaudi is hugely modernistic, and after doing a bunch of other projects in town (which I will write about soon), dedicated his life from 1914 onwards till his death in 1926 to designing and building the Sagrada. While he completed the design (which was the hard part, as I will get to), he didn't get far in the build; he built the crypt and one of the church's 3 facades.

The construction project church from across the street
His facade starts off looking pretty normal, depicting the nativity story...
Guess who
...though is ultrarealistic in that Gaudi made plaster casts of dead bodies and actual people to get the sculptures correct. But take a broader look and it's over the top ornate, with carvings and detailing EVERYWHERE, all of it telling allegorical stories.
Detailing everywhere
There are turtles holding up columns and turkeys roosting, domestic dogs  (breeds they didn't have 2,000 years ago), folks playing instruments that didn't exist...
Bassoons were invented around 1650
...and other modernistic takes on things, like the doves flying out of the green tree...
...and doors made of leaves and full of bugs and frogs.
And this has what to do with anything? 
The critters are cute 
So are the bugs
So my "first impressions" of the place were... interesting.


When I got inside and listened to the audio guide, then toured the "how he did it" museum underneath, it started to make sense. Gaudi put together two fundamental breakthrough "never been done before" bits of architecture and design: the incorporation of elements inspired by nature, and the elimination of the T-square in favour of geometrical elements based on paraboloids and other mathematical forms.

As to the former, one only need to look at his columns. They are trees, spreading as they rise to act as an umbrella, eliminating the need for external (or internal) buttresses as in every other church built before 1900. Even the places where the "trunks" split to "branches" feature details modelled from nature, as if other branches are broken off -- patterned after birch trees.
They rise then spread 
Trees above the choir loft 
The main corridor

Brilliant. Massively tall yet wide open. And the "forest canopy" (AKA the ceiling) is a series of identical parabolic dishes which reflect sound, especially above the choir loft. They manage the sound, but like the shape of eggs, are incredibly strong and support roof with ease. Being identical, they are mass produced reducing costs.
And they look like a forest canopy 
More canopy
Churches have stained glass windows. Check. But Gaudi used the directions of the church to put warm colours where the sun rises, cool colours where it sets, bathing one side of the church in orange and the other in blue. And since all the religious stories are outside the church on the facades, the windows are abstract, just mosaics of colour.
A mosaic colour mix 
The blue side 
Oranges and greens
If the front "Nativity" facade is ultrarealistic, the rear "Passion" facade is hypergeometric and the opposite in its bleakness -- supported by columns designed to look like ribs and muscles and with a changing geometric cross section along its length.
Note the columns 
An angular Christ on the cross 
Geometric bad guys 
Go to the museum under the church and you can see how all of this came to be. Models of cross sections he built in multiple styles to test ideas. Samples of the natural elements (like trees) and his models in plaster. Miniatures of the machines used to create his shape changing columns. Geometric forms that look complex from the side but make sense when seen from above or below...
Straight line model of the roof canopy forms 
Undulating roof of the school... 
...rendered as a model. Easy
And for me (the engineer), coolest of all: the string models. Background: if you dangle a string or chain between two points, you create what's call a catenary arch, though it is upside down. The weight of the string at each end is the force needed to support the arch if you turn it rightside up. Connect a bazillion of these together, and you can measure the strengths needed to build your whole church. Here, for instance, is the original 10' tall string model of the entire nave of the church. All the little brown bags are weights simulating the downward forces on the roof.
So cool
Look in a mirror and you can invert it, seing what it will look like rightside up (though my photo doesn't do it justice).
Sr. Gaudi was one impressive engineer and architect. Though as a designer, he needs to learn that bassoons weren't around when Jesus was born, having Jesus parachute into your church...
Maybe not the intent, but that's what it looks like
...and topping your towers with bunches of pretty grapes and wheat sheaves just really looks silly.
The Sagrada is a church that doesn't feel the slightest bit revenant nor secular, but rather like a Disney attraction. Approach it as such and it's an interesting study in creative architecture. Approach it as a church and you'll be somewhat disappointed.


We wanted to go up the Towers of the church to see the impressive view. We took the €9 elevator ride.


What a waste. The elevator takes you (and 8 others) up 65 m to a tiny viewing platform that has room for 10. Elevators arrive every 2 min; do the math. The one we took (the Passion tower) is a construction zone around the platform. The views are mostly blocked by fences and towers.
Wow. What a view.
 Then you have to walk down 65 m though a tight circular staircase.
10 stories of this... 
...surrounding this tower...
...then down 10 stories through this shaft
But the breeze at the top is nice. 

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