Columns

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‘In 1991 I started to look at the computational logic behind the geometry of Gaudí’s columns for the nave. We know from comments captured by his young colleagues on site that he conceived the entire volume of the Sagrada Família church as being inside a forest with the nave ceiling a great canopy soaring 45 metres overhead formed from tree branches, fronds and leaves supported by great stone trunks: slender columns all leaning axially
into their load paths. The crossing, the central part of the church where the main body, the nave, intersects with the transept spaces on either side, completed and finally cleared of scaffolding in 2010, appears as a woodland
clearing 60 metres above the altar.

Gaudí himself never saw any of this beyond a large 1:10 scaled model of the nave, but at that scale he considered every detail, not least the columns. When the nave columns are studied closely, they appear as remarkable hybrids, or amalgams at least, referring to both Greek and Gothic column language: Doric in part due to the characteristic Greek-order fluting emerging halfway up, and organicist too especially at their bases. The term organicist is appropriate both philosophically in terms of the tree-scape metaphor being read as an organic whole, and in the biological sense when we see the base of the trees as a system rather than an artful composition. When it came to building the first column as a prototype in the 1960s, before the wonders of today’s CNC machinery, the approach taken was based on a model fragment that had survived the rigours of the Spanish Civil War, when Gaudí’s former studio on site was trashed and burned. This particular 1:25 scaled model has cross section zinc templates along its length at every metre equivalent – 40 millimetres actual size, with the column surfaces interpolated between each horizontal template.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, the model read in the way I have just described suggests a different explanation from what was probably in Gaudí’s mind, for initially the column has been conceptually unpicked from this model, built as a prototype, and then extrapolated into a modus operandi for the subsequent automated cutting. This has had no adverse effect on the viability of the column as an object, but until we could script an alternative story, it proved to be very difficult for some commentators to conceptualise what was really going on. Gaudí had in fact invested the column’s morphogenesis with a natural life story.’

Text and images taken from: Chapter 5, ‘Dimensions’, Scripting Cultures: Architectural Design and Programming, John Wiley and Sons Ltd, London, 2012

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