Schools at the Sagrada Família: an example of the relationship between geometry and mechanics

One of the things that sets Gaudí apart from other architects of his time is the fact that structural issues and formal issues, those regarding the appearance of his architecture, are always interrelated and, in some way, inseparable. And the Schools at the Sagrada Família are a good example of this.

Gaudí built the Schools around 1909, mainly with the goal of providing schooling for children in the neighbourhood that was growing up around the Temple and for the children of the people working on the site, expanding beyond the professional and personal knowledge of the parents to give their children more culture. The teaching style chosen was new and broke with all the old educational methods, based on personal experience and practice, meaning real life, following the new teaching methods of Maria Montessori. So, most of the classes took place outdoors and Gaudí gave the building shaded lath porches covered in heather so it could handle more students and be more versatile.


On the other hand, Gaudí was fully aware of the provisional nature of the building from the time he located it within the floor plan of the Temple project, in the corner opposite where they were building at the time. Although it was far from the works under way, which were moving ahead quite slowly, the reality and priorities of building the Temple over the auxiliary buildings clearly show that from the beginning it was designed to be a provisional structure.

The most surprising thing about the architecture of this building is, probably, its wavy façades, reminiscent of La Pedrera in Barcelona. However, the waves on these two projects are quite different: on La Pedrera, Gaudí used a plaster model made with his own hands. It was kept at the foot of the building and the stonemasons took measurements from the model and applied them to the works, with the corresponding change in scale. With the Schools for the Sagrada Família, however, the waves demonstrate Gaudí’s later style, based on geometry and mathematical precision as an alternate route to shapes generated through feeling and genuine, personal intuition.

 

A STRUCTURE DESIGNED WITH FEW RESOURCES AND LOADS OF INGENUITY

There were only limited resources to build the Schools, as there was little money for the Temple and even less for a building that would sooner or later have to be demolished. And this impacted the architecture and forced the designer to plan very carefully to avoid using expensive materials. So, we see finishes that are very humble yet highly practical: the building uses Portland cement instead of flooring and also uses this material for the baseboard protecting the lower part of the walls, which are finished with a simple lime coating. The wooden ceiling beams are exposed, and between the beams the bricks are also exposed, which were the most common material that could be used at that time. The humbleness of this building is also a reflection of Gaudí’s humble nature, and it is very likely that he put up some of his own funds to build this structure.

Regarding the structure of the building, Gaudí took advantage of conventional wooden beams often used for smaller spaces. He used his ingenuity, however, to create a system for rain water to run off the roof. Since he didn’t opt for a perfectly flat surface here, he avoided the solution of the Barcelona-style rooftop, which has a double covering supported by cockloft slight wand.

The need to save was so imperative that the walls are very thin. The two layers of brick and mortar is not even 10 centimetres thick, well under the 15 centimetres modern building standards require as the minimum for brick buildings. So, how do they hold up and not fall down? Well, this is thanks to the shape Gaudí gave them. The wavy shape of the walls isn’t a question of form, organic shape or decoration. It is, as we noted at the beginning, geometry and mechanics that come together here successfully to create this result. Such a thin wall wouldn’t have withstood the first windy day if it hadn’t had this wavy form, which gives it inertia and makes it stable and strong.

The roof of the building is also designed with this wavy form. Each of the wooden beams that create the waves rests on a central metal girder, which is very straight and horizontal, passing from one end of the building to the other, longitudinally. Additionally, the beams also rest on the long façades of the building, creating a wavy cornice with higher points and lower points. So, if a beam rests on the highest point of the façade on one side, the other end, with the centre resting on the central girder, rests on the lowest point of the wave on the other façade. This way, rain can’t pool anywhere on the roof, as it is funnelled off to one side or the other, alternatively.

So, the walls and roof, with two layers of brick, transformed the traditional technique of flat brick vaults. Because, as the Schools of the Sagrada Família set out to open up new paths in teaching, so did Gaudí with his new architecture.

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