Growing up, I always knew I wanted to do something that celebrated the natural world – make documentaries, or become the first person to learn to speak dolphinese, something like that. But my father had other designs. Our conversations would go something like this:

“Zo Zo, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

“A marine biologist!” (or whatever I was into that week)

“Wouldn’t you rather be an architect? Make buildings for people to live in?”

“NO! No no no no! I want to swim with dolphins!”

“But architects get to make beautiful buildings, they make useful things for people to enjoy!”


My dad trying to cajole me into becoming an architect was one of the great annoyances of my childhood. So naturally one of my family’s favourite pasttimes became asking me about architecture, as their teasing never failed to generate an explosive – and, I can only surmise, adorable – reaction.

To be fair, my dad did try and meet me halfway. He bought me a National Geographic/Equinox book, which sadly appears to be out of print now, called The Architecture of Animals – all about spider webs and bird nests and beaver dams and all the amazing things that animals build (which are far more complex and ingenious than you’d ever think). Reading it together, we both learned to appreciate the other’s passion.

And as I got older I became more open to my father’s love of architecture and engineering. We’d watch documentaries on Frank Lloyd Wright, he’d explain to me why suspension bridges are so cool, we’d pilgrimage to see the villas of Palladio, and we’d build huge, epic birdhouses in his workshop.

Although he never managed to convert me into an architect, my father did instill in me a tremendous respect, appreciation, and admiration for the profession.

There is one architect in particular however, who I only discovered recently (due to my poor education in art history), who doesn’t just impress me – he inspires me.

While in Barcelona last year I had the incredible privilege of visiting Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia (aka the Gaudi Cathedral).

Gaudi was not the first architect to work on the Sagrada Familia when he took over the project in 1883, and he certainly wasn’t the last. The cathedral is in fact still not finished – and won’t be for at least another forty years (if ever).

Despite the fact that it is still incomplete, it is impressive nonetheless. Not just due to its massive size, and its massive spires (which will number 18 when it’s finished), but also because the entire thing, from top to bottom, is as ornate and decorative as a building could possibly be. No austere puritan simplicity for Gaudi:

Gaudi is famed for his naturalism. The entire thing is covered in leaves and bunches of grapes and birds and all sorts of earthly delights. Moreover, Gaudi was mad for incorporating the geometry of nature into his designs, such as parabolic arches and hyperboloid structures. The staircases pretty closely follow a Fibonacci sequence, which is found all over nature – in the shells of snails, the crests of waves, the centres of flowers.

The columns are modeled on the shapes of branching trees, and the ceiling really does evoke the patterning of leaves in a canopy:

This web page offers the best explanation of his use of nature’s geometry than anything else I have seen on the net.

The whole cathedral is more than just an homage to God – it’s an homage to God’s works. I’m not religious, and I never have been. But walking through this cathedral was inspiring beyond words – it literally made my heart burn, as I can only imagine in the same way religious people feel when they ponder the divine.

For this very reason, thousands of people want to see Gaudi beatified. According to this piece from The Independent:

They rest their case on the argument that Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia was not simply the work of a visionary architect. The Association for the Beatification of Gaudí, which has been gathering up to 80,000 supporters from around the world for the past 25 years, believes it also inspires unbelievers. Archbishop Carles has said: “Can anyone acquainted with [Gaudí’s] work believe that all which one contemplates could possibly have been produced only by cold thought?”

Sadly, the cathedral – a Unesco World Heritage Site – is in danger of crumbling away before it is even finished. Plans for a new high speed train line between Barcelona and Madrid have put the rails just a few feet from the cathedral, which architects and geologists say will irreparably damage the cathedral. This quote from the same Independent piece sums it up perfectly:

Architect Jordi Bonet, whose father Luis Bonet worked with Gaudí when the building work started, said: “This will amount to cultural vandalism. The Sagrada Familia is something which is supposed to last centuries for people around the world to enjoy and this train is only designed for about 40 years.”

City planners say all other possible routes for the train are “unviable.” Even if that is the case, it’s not as though people can’t get to Madrid and back now. Really, making a train line a bigger priority than this cathedral is nothing short of appalling.

It reminds me of when the Romans tore down their own monuments to use the marble in other buildings, leaving future generations to shake their heads and mourn the loss of their ancestors’ achievements.

In this case however, the Catalans do not have the excuse of poverty – only stupidity.