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Photo by Lee Woolcock
Amongst the throngs of summer tourists outside the world’s most famous building site, the Sagrada Família, New Zealander Mark Burry stands out in the crowd. Not only because he’s tall and silver-haired but because he looks out of place amongst the colourful, casual, camera-carrying crowds bumping into each other, trying to get to the end of the miles-long queue or find a better angle for that photo. Burry instead seems more like a popular university professor: a kind smile, glasses, softly-spoken and just a little formal. He is making his way through the tourists because he is taking a short break from his work as one of the principal architects on the Sagrada Família.
Burry has been working on the construction of Gaudí’s cathedral since 1979 and has been instrumental in the development of the project over the last 30 years, steering it through some once-unimaginable technological advances. He is the only person working on the project today who has used both the traditional manual architectural drawing of plans as well as digital computation techniques. In 2004, the Reial Acadèmia Catalana de Belles Arts de Sant Jordi awarded Burry the prestigious ‘Diploma i la insignia a l’acadèmic corresponent’ and given the title ‘Il·lustrisim Senyor’, in recognition of his work on this important Catalan landmark.
It was as an architecture student at Cambridge in the late Seventies that Burry came to visit the Sagrada Família as part of the research for his final thesis. When he met with the two then-directors, he had two questions for them, “In the absence of the Master, where was the authority to finish the building coming from?” and “How do you communicate to the builders the intricacies of such complex masonry?”, pointing to the much-lamented fact that there is very little material left regarding the cathedral’s construction from Gaudí himself and nothing approaching a traditional set of blueprints.
The directors, both in their late 80s at this time, had been enthusiastic supporters of Gaudí during his lifetime, attending some of his many lectures about his design for the Sagrada Família. They were also part of the restoration effort to repair the damage caused to the building during the Spanish Civil War, in which anarchists destroyed almost all of Gaudí’s drawings and many of the models. Despite these setbacks, the directors were able to explain to Burry that, contrary to the belief that Gaudí’s designs were without regular forms, they were instead based on complex geometries. “I was invited [to be] an architect researcher,” remembered Burry and the directors explained the task to him as “using this geometry”, which he would have to uncover by reverse engineering the remaining models, manually at that point.
Over the next several years, Burry immersed himself in working with the restored models that Gaudí had originally spent 12 years making. In a period he describes as “like an apprenticeship”, he began to interpret the ideas for the Sagrada Família. Gaudí’s design was not so much free-flowing as organic, inspired as it was by nature, from the inner workings of a leaf to the growth structure of a plane tree.
In 1989, Burry’s role took a new direction towards bringing computer technologies to the project, unlocking even more of the geometric structures in the models and moving the construction on at a much faster pace. The computer-aided design (CAD) programmes used for most architectural projects were not able to deal with the complexity of the Sagrada Família, so Burry turned to aeronautical engineering technology and adapted the software now being used.
These days, Burry helps lead the team of architects, engineers and builders as they edge the construction of the Sagrada Família towards its completion. For someone so integral to the project, Burry’s work situation is a little unconventional. A far cry from Gaudí, who famously set up his bedroom in the crypt of the Sagrada Família in his last year, Burry lives nearly 17,000 kilometres away from the cathedral and ‘commutes’ to Barcelona, spending two weeks of every two months of the year here. His other major role is as Professor of Innovation and Director of the Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia. He also directs the RMIT Design Research Institute, one of four cross-university research centres.
His work on the project does not stop when he is in Australia, however. He and his architect wife Jane, who also works on the project, have a satellite studio in their office at RMIT University where after-business hours in Melbourne coincide with the Catalan working day; they use a Rolls-Royce video link to join the workshop onsite.
The advances in technology not only allow one of the project’s principal architects to be based on the other side of the world, they have affected almost every part of the construction. From the design software and the 3D digital ‘printing’ of plaster models to the robotisation of the construction, Burry is “getting used to the fact that robots do a lot [of work] more quickly” and that “the result is not necessarily better, just that it speeds the work up and keeps costs down.” Despite all these advances, there are still craftspeople employed on the decorative elements of the building such as the sculpture and stained glass windows.
One of the more recent changes to the cathedral that Burry has witnessed was the completion of the interior and its subsequent consecration as a basilica in November last year. Burry thinks “it’s great that the building is becoming useful as a building” and though tourists had previously been able to observe the construction process first hand, which “was a fantastic insight…visitors can still witness the design process through a glass wall to the model-making workshop below in the crypt.”
Toward the end of his life, Gaudí was evangelical about his church, giving lectures, personally taking visitors on tours and explaining the design, and stopping passersby to ask for donations towards its construction. Burry continues to educate people on Gaudí’s work but on a more international level. Not only does he teach what he has learnt on the project at universities and high-level workshops, but he also gives public lectures for people outside the profession, which are extremely popular. According to Burry, one of the reasons for this enduring fascination is that Gaudí’s architecture has a “universal appeal that transcends any style or fashion.”
For Burry, Gaudí’s genius lies in “redefining the paradigm”, by designing a church in the Gothic tradition but bringing it into the contemporary. One of the reasons people find the Sagrada Família a “marvellous building to experience” is that “Gaudí dealt with some of the problems with Gothic architecture”; through innovative design techniques, he was able to “avoid using the giant buttresses typical of Gothic churches and cathedrals, and therefore it’s filled with light in comparison.” Given the opportunity to decode one of architecture’s greatest mysteries and be working on the cutting-edge of technological innovation in design and construction, the 17,000-kilometre commute doesn’t seem so bad.