Gaudí’s secret architectural masterpiece

The Church of Colònia Güell is located a few kilometres from Barcelona in the town of Santa Coloma de Cervelló. This religious temple is one of the most stunning, though lesser known architectonic works by Modernist architect Antoni Gaudí. Despite being an unfinished work, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005 for its outstanding historic and cultural significance.

The Church or Crypt of Colònia Güell was one of many projects in which Gaudí worked with life-long collaborator and entrepreneur, Eusebi Güell. Unlike the famous Park Güell in Barcelona, the church’s commission was something more personal and innovative. In 1890, Güell had founded an industrial colony on the outskirts of Barcelona for the workers of his textile company. Güell’s colony was set away from the bustling and sometimes problematic city centre. Likewise, Gaudí’s key work is not found among contemporary Barcelona’s impeccably planned city blocks, flower stalls and modern boutique hotels. The colony became a mini-city, complete with its own housing for workers and services and even a place of worship. And the temple’s construction was assigned to late nineteenth-century Barcelona’s most ambitious architect.

Façade of the Crypt of Colònia Güell.

Façade of the Crypt of Colònia Güell. | Shutterstock

Initially founded as a church for the company’s workers, the construction of the Güell Crypt was carried out between 1898 and 1914. The crypt was a fundamental endeavour in Antoni Gaudí’s career, as many of the building solutions used for the construction of the Sagrada Familia cathedral were first developed here. Today, the church, having lost none of its religious character, is often visited by aficionados of Modernist Barcelona.

An ambitious but incomplete project

Eusebi Güell indulged Gaudí during the church’s construction, imposing no budgetary, architectonic nor time constraints. Not until 1908 – ten years after its initial commission – did construction of the temple finally commence. Gaudí used this time to develop his more daring and experimental constructive solutions.

Rainer Graefe’s reconstructed model using Gaudí’s five original models.

Rainer Graefe’s reconstructed model using Gaudí’s five original models. | Wikimedia

The full project turned out to be more ambitious than a single lifetime allowed. It planned for a church with both a higher and lower nave, enclosed by distinct side towers and a 40-metre-tall cupola. Throughout the construction period, Gaudí experimented with a wide range of architectural techniques, which were subsequently used on the construction of the Sagrada Familia.

The ‘provisional’ cover of the Crypt.

The ‘provisional’ cover of the Crypt. | Shutterstock

Construction works came to a halt in 1914 upon Güell’s death when his sons took charge of the site. At that time, only the interior chapel, known as the crypt, had been completed, and the enclosed veranda, upon which the stairway leading to the temple’s entrance was to be built. In Gaudí’s absence, a provisional cover together with a bell tower were added for the temple’s dedication. This unfinished place of worship came to be known simply as the crypt.

Innovative and distinct design

Gaudí’s ingenious catenary scale model.

Gaudí’s ingenious catenary scale model. | Wikimedia

The Crypt at Colònia Güell particularly stands out for its ambition, as revealed by the different scale models that were employed, especially the funicular model. This ingenious instrument, created by Gaudí with the help of model-maker Joan Beltrán and carpenter Joan Munné, used strings and small weights to work out the architectonic contours of the structure.

A dynamically robust façade

Entrance to the Crypt.

Entrance to the Crypt. | Shutterstock

Despite being an unfinished work, the church marks a culminating point in Gaudí’s career. For the first time in a single form, the totality of Gaudí’s architectural innovations were put into practice. The Crypt at Colònia Güell forms part of Gaudí’s most naturalist and creative period. The Crypt blends the naturalist style together with geometric principles, offering free flowing lines that challenge architectonic norms.

Gaudí managed to imbue the site with an aura of sanctity while upholding the highest degree of authenticity. Keeping in line with his Symbolist tendencies, the architect integrated the church into the hillside of the colony with the clear aim of representing the transition from the terrestrial to the celestial.

Composite of materials from the Crypt’s façade.

Composite of materials from the Crypt’s façade. | Shutterstock

The combination of building materials including red brick, basalt and mosaics creates an extraordinary impression. The colour and light of the ceramics add delicacy to the more robust building materials. Closer observation reveals the smooth surface of the crypt’s ceiling, accentuating the fluid forms of the space below. In 2013, the Crypt at Colònia Güell became the first World Heritage Site to include Biosphere Certification status for its sustainable service management, one of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

The crypt’s interior

The oval construction of the interior allowing a complete view of the crypt’s altar.

The oval construction of the interior allowing a complete view of the crypt’s altar. | Shutterstock

No less impressive is the interior where the oval-shaped construction allows the altar to be viewed from any point. Four basalt columns occupy the centre, sustaining the flat arched ceiling and demarcating a central space surrounded by a semicircle of nine pillars.

The floor plan is adeptly partitioned into areas for the nave, choir and clerical quarters. The tableau is consummated by Gaudí’s characteristic tangle of iconography and the hyperboloide-shaped stain glass windows in the form of flower petals and butterfly wings.

Seashell baptismal fonts.

Seashell baptismal fonts. | Shutterstock

The furniture is also the work of Gaudí, a facet he excelled at in the cathedral chapel of Sobrellano in Comillas (Cantabria). Especially noteworthy are the reclining benches surrounding the main altar and the curiously elaborated baptismal fonts of seashells, which were imported from the Philippines through one of Güell’s business interests, the Compañía Transatlántica Española.

Colònia Güell, a benchmark for modern industrial design

The industrial colony and its church, with its focus on improving social conditions while applying a Modernist style in civil architecture, was a benchmark for other such industrial sites. The entrepreneur and philanthropist Eusebi Güell aimed to procure a better standard of living for his workers by bestowing upon the colony didactic and religious features fused with Modernist tendencies.

Casa del Mestre in the Colònia Güell.

Casa del Mestre in the Colònia Güell. | Shutterstock

To that end, Güell tasked the best Modernist architects to design Colònia Güell. Gaudí was assigned the colony’s layout and the church, while the remainder of the most emblematic buildings were works carried out by Joan Rubió, Francesc Berenguer i Mestres and his son. The result was simply designed and spacious buildings mostly comprised of ceramic, iron and brick. The Ca l’Ordal, a single-family home reminiscent of a typical Catalan country house, is an outstanding example in addition to the schoolhouse and the Ca l’ Espinal, the administrative building. The Colònia Güell was declared a Historic and Cultural Interest Site in 1990.

Ca l’ Espinal.

Ca l’ Espinal. | Shutterstock

The industrial colonies were conceived as socioeconomic organisations whose aim was industrial production. They came about in an effort to get away from the social conflicts of the city. In this way, urban industrial colonies were created for industrial workers and their families, integrated with the factory, all under the financial tutelage of the colony’s owner. In its day, it was a safeguard for working people to earn a steady salary at a time of economic uncertainty.

You can also read this article in Spanish here.


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