In-spired thinking

Spain’s Sagrada Família — which is still unfinished after 123 years — is at last being completed with the help of state-of-the-art software technology. Charles Clarke reports.

For most engineers Barcelona is synonymous with Antoni Gaudí, the genius who dreamed up the unfinished ‘shaggy gothic’ masterpiece La Sagrada Família.

Gaudí — a reclusive eccentric who rarely and reluctantly left his native Catalonia — designed Sagrada Família for its crusty stone and ceramic spires that soar like primeval trees. He planned two grand portals with sculpture as elaborate as any in the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe. Work started in 1882, and the project is still estimated to be many years from completion.

But even though Gaudí died in 1926 aged 74, and his office and original drawings were destroyed in the anti-Catholic backlash following the Spanish Civil War in 1936, designers currently working on the cathedral are using state-of-the-art software technology to help interpret his original designs and hasten its completion.

Donations for the cathedral dwindled in the early 20th century, as Barcelona’s citizens became disenchanted with the radical conservatism espoused by Sagrada’s main backers.

Work continued sporadically, but at the outbreak of the civil war work stopped completely. Catalan republicans, angered by the Catholic church’s support for Franco, ravaged Barcelona’s churches, including the Sagrada Família, but left the four-spire structure intact.

In the early 1980s, work resumed in earnest. The nave is scheduled to be ready by 2007, but the complete church, with a dozen spires, will nor be finished until well into this century. Critics complain that contemporary artists, operating without Gaudí’s plans and drawings, are producing ugly and incompatible work.

Designers working on completion of the cathedral are using Product Lifecycle Management Solutions from IBM to help interpret Gaudí’s original designs.

Since his death, work on the highly-complex stone structure has been under the auspices of the Sagrada Família Foundation. IBM business partner Gedas Iberia, and the foundation are using CATIA V5 to help complete the cathedral. The foundation commissioned Gedas Iberia to incorporate new approaches to computer-aided design into the construction process. CATIA V5 is helping the company overcome challenges such as ‘linking’ the software to the tools used to prepare granite from a local quarry.

‘The granite used poses a real challenge,’ said Juan José Blasco, Gedas Iberia operation manager. ‘Because of this, we needed an intuitive software that would enable machining tools to react to the hardness of the material. Using CATIA V5, we were able to create a reliable rendering of a drawing, which offered us unlimited 3D movement for the tools.’

The technology represents an important, evolutionary step for Gaudí’s design because, prior to the introduction of advanced design software to the project in 1989, work had been undertaken by hand. The introduction of CATIA V5 enables virtual models to be converted directly into actual stone prototypes, eliminating the need for additional steps and achieving greater efficiency and precision. This specific application of the software, which has been customised by gedas for the project, is the first of its kind to be implemented.

‘We still have many challenges ahead, and we haven’t found answers for all of Gaudí’s proposals — such as the cross that will top the cathedral,’ said Jordi Bonet i Armengol, chief architect and project manager. ‘It will probably take another 20 years before we reach this phase, but by that time, I am convinced that even more advanced technology from IBM, Dassault Systèmes, Gedas and others will be there to assist us.’

The CAM part of the solution is Alphacam software from Planit. Alphacam is playing a major role in streamlining the production of components from the locally-quarried stone, not just to ensure that they are available on time, but also that they fit together ‘right first time’.

The use of Alphacam closely mirrors the principles employed by Gaudí from his earliest days in charge of construction, because the software is employed to produce accurate models — typically at 1:10 scale. Installed in 2004, along with a multi-axis Bermaq machining centre, the software helps the team make models in foam and plastics, before committing to full-size production in stone.

‘This is very much the way Gaudí worked a century ago, making miniature versions of all types of architectural details to determine how complex intersections in the geometry could be produced successfully,’ said Ignacio Lumbreras, head of alphacam’s operations in Spain.

‘It’s strange to talk about what are effectively rapid prototyping techniques in the context of a project that is still nowhere near finished after 123 years. But that is exactly how our software is used.’

Much of the cathedral’s top level design is undertaken to Gaudí’s specifications in CATIA. This is imported directly into Alphacam, where it is converted into fully specified NC code for the Bermaq machining centre. When the proportions of the finished model exceed the z-axis capabilities of the machine, Alphacam sub-divides the design data into layers, then automatically generates the NC programs to produce a set of laminated components for final assembly.

‘The system’s powerful programming capabilities are backed by ease of use,’ said Lumbreras. ‘This is where Alphacam really scores over most high-end systems. Furthermore, with post-processors available for all major stone-working machines, including IMT, Breton and OMAG, Alphacam is rapidly establishing itself as the system of choice for many Spanish stone cutting firms.’

Previously, all the scale models constructed in the Sagrada Família’s workshops were produced manually which was both labour and skills-intensive, and open to interpretation and human error. Now the project engineers can employ advanced, on-screen visualisation checks and clash detection routines to prove out every component’s design and manufacturing method fully — from the structure’s massive support pillars and windows, to intricate roof joints. In addition, Alphacam is employed to produce templates, jigs and fixtures used throughout the cathedral’s on-site laboratory and model making areas.

Once design and manufacturing details have been confirmed, the Sagrada Família Foundation has the option of producing finished components in house, or supplying CATIA and/or Alphacam data for the stonework to be outsourced from a panel of up to 15 sub-contractors.

‘Speed and accuracy are the key advantages delivered by the software,’ said Lumbreras. ‘It has been in use for more than a year now and the foundation’s engineers are gaining some major benefits. However, they also recognise that while Alphacam is easy to use, further training would help them move up a gear in terms of getting the best from their system. Once this has been undertaken, maybe completion will come about all the sooner!’

For its part the Catholic church wants to make Gaudí a saint. The Vatican authorised the start of the beatification process in 2000 after Cardinal Ricard Maria Carles of Barcelona proclaimed that Gaudí could not have created his architecture ‘without a profound and habitual contemplation of the mysteries of the faith.’ But that, say critics, is going too far. Professor of communications Miquel de Moragas said: ‘We think of him as Gaudí the engineer, architect and artist, not Gaudí the saint.’

But whether he is a saint or not, there is no doubt about the power of his architecture to excite wonder and awe. As Joaquim Torres-García, an artist who worked at the same time as Gaudí, put it: ‘It is impossible to deny that he was a creative genius for whom the awareness of higher order was placed above the materiality of life.’