5th generation sculptor & stone cutter Francesc Prats shares an insider's view on the world's most dazzling work in progress
With construction interrupted only twice in its 138 year history - by the Spanish Civil War and the Covid crisis - La Sagrada Familia is a hallmark of ruthless audacity and freewheeling imagination. I spoke with Francesc Prats to learn what it's like to work on the world's most famous unfinished masterpiece.
[This interview has been translated from Spanish]
JL Work culture has been forever marked by the current crisis, with remote work gaining traction probably for years to come - that's not really an option for you. What is it like to work on site constructing one of the world's most famous buildings?
FP It’s an honor. In normal times I work both on site - in the crypt of La Sagrada Familia - and in the workshop in Ulldecona, south of Barcelona. In both places what stands out most is the atmosphere which strives for perfection. That may sound impossible but that’s the intent and that’s how we work. On such a massive building we don’t work in centimeters but millimeters.
I love being surrounded by master builders, there’s always something to learn and improve on. That's what I miss most during Covid - that environment - it's enriching and exhilarating, and encourages humility.
It may sound trite but I’m able to put myself in Gaudí’s shoes, and that’s pure magic. For all his bravado and avant-garde thinking, he was an extremely humble person. When completed, LSF [La Sagrada Familia] will have 18 soaring towers and at nearly 560 feet it will be the tallest church in the world. The height isn’t arbitrary - nothing Gaudí was - he chose it deliberately in order to not build higher than Montjuic mountain, Barcelona's highest point, in reverence and out of respect for nature. In his eyes, no human should surpass the Supreme Builder. That thought crosses my mind often.
"He [Gaudí] studied gravity, then inverted it."
I’d hardly say Gaudí would be described as tempered in his design.
One of my favorite lines of his is that originality consists in returning to the origins. I love the seemingly simple wisdom. Gaudí was clearly referring to nature, perhaps the greatest source of his inspiration. How did the natural world inspire LSF?
In everything. The paradox is, for as ahead of his time as he was, Gaudí said that Nature gave him all the answers. Sounds simple, I know. His inspiration was drawn from the natural world around him. He was an intrepid observer and I think his true genius was being able to translate nature’s language into his work. Stones, branches, leaves, bones, snail shells, nature's geometry - he applied them all. He studied gravity, then inverted it.
Sounds like a Jedi! What would Newton say about that?
[Snappishly] It’s true! He turned gravity on its head. He wasn't the first to do so - catenary arches have been around since the Ancients. But Gaudí did it in a way and on a scale that no one had done before. Without getting too technical, the catenary arch is the inverse of how a chain would hang when fixed to two points and LSF is based on that concept.
I’ve been visiting LSF for the past 13 years, and I always discover something new. It truly is like walking through an enchanted forest. What is it like to work so intimately on site?
It's beyond human scale, both in grandeur and detail. I recently watched a documentary about sea corral. Did you know that corral reefs affect climates hundreds of miles away? If you remove just one piece in the system, it breaks down. This is how we should understand Gaudí, as an interconnected system. Working day in and day out on site gives an intimate appreciation, as you say. Sometimes I oversee that when I'm carving one stock block, but then I take a step back. For example, there’s not one 90 degree angle in all of LSF [excitedly]! Right angles are human constructs. It's true that after a while I tend to internalize Gaudí's world view, and think "of course, no buildings should have right angles!" This also explains why it’s taken 140 years to build. For me that's great news because it'll keep me employed for a while [laughs]. It’s a complex, perfect building.
It must be exhilarating to watch it grow every day.
It is! The building changes constantly. Gaudí famously quipped saying that his client is patient, referring to the Heavens. And that philosophy still applies to how we work today. Perfection takes time, and not a mistake can be made. Today we have hydraulic cranes and computer engineers doing 3D modeling - which of course didn't exist in Gaudí's time. But the majority of work is still done by hand, cut in stone, just like in Gaudí's day. Continuing in that tradition fulfills you on a personal level. Working the stone gives me great satisfaction, as does any work that’s manual.
How did you start?
I’m a fifth generation stone cutter. My great grandfather was from Manresa, and was named Master Builder for RENFE [Spain’s national train line] at the quarry when the train line arrived to Terra Alta. I'm self taught, with the guidance and support of my family, of course. I started sculpting at 16. I read a lot. I listen. I surround myself by more experienced masters.
Everyone has something to offer the world.
I tell my children to seek happiness. To do things well and to value them. And never doubt. When you doubt that means something is wrong.
The work of any genius is both tangible yet beguiling. I’d love to try to get into Gaudí’s head for a moment. The work of a painter, for example, seems so personal - does working in such a rigid material as stone offer us insight into Gaudí's personality?
Certainly. First off, all stones are alive. Granite, limestone, travertine - every stone has a unique set of characteristics, density, behavior. They can be cut, shaped, chiseled in many different ways and techniques. Gaudí’s personality is present everywhere. Take the interior columns: the bases are cut square and become octagons as they rise, then sixteen-sided, and finally circles when they reach the ceiling. For me this is the ultimate expression of innovation but also personality. Gaudí uses chameleons a lot in his work because they symbolize change, adaptation. I think this gives us insight into his thinking. Another aspect is what we don’t carve - one of the greatest parts of the building - the light. Gaudí treated light as important a material as any and LSF is flooded with an incredible light coming through the stained glass windows which changes as the day passes, just like in nature.
"I would say he [Gaudí] was more a zealot than a jokester"
Speaking of light, one of my favorite structures in the world is the Reims Cathedral in France, built in the 14th century at the height of Europe’s great age of cathedral making. So massive yet with a remarkable sense of grace and levity. I’ll never forget my first visit there. I was mesmerized by the columns, and stood gazing for a while. Just then an elderly woman came up to me and was very excited to point out that about 30 feet up, carved into the column, were small figures with the body of a bird and the head of the Pope. It was barely visible. It seemed so quirky, so out of place, I imagined some medieval architect having a go at the Pope behind his back! Did Gaudí incorporate any humor or pull any similar stunts in his work?
I would say he was more a zealot than a jokester. Humor? Not sure. Maybe wit [smiles]. I’ll give you an example: on the western façade there are 2 columns on either side of the door, each with a turtle carved into the base. If you look at the turtle’s feet, you’ll see that the one facing west, on the side of the Mediterranean, has webbed feet like a sea turtle. The one on the east, facing land, has clawed feet, like a land turtle. These are the types of details that Gaudí uses frequently throughout the building. I guess he got a kick out of it! [chuckles]
Fran, it was a delight speaking with you. One last question: there’s so much fanfare in Barcelona and around the world about the completion date of the building. Until Covid hit, it was estimated to be completed in 2026. Are you still on track?
Honestly, I can't say. I take my work one day at a time and enjoy the historical moment we’re in.
Historical moment lasting 140 years?
Things in Spain take time! [chuckles] •
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