Published  05/06/2007

Gaudi Tremors

The tremors are still just threatening, but Antonio Gaudi's famous Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona (work commenced in 1882) is currently on red alert on account of a plan to force a tunnel for high-speed trains close by its own foundations, in Barcelona. Government authorities in Barcelona claim there is no danger. However chief architect for the cathedral, which is still under construction, Jordi Bonet is concerned that a distance of only 12 m (39 ft), for the tunnel itself, with a protective wall only 75 cm, (30 ins) from the foundations, is too close. Mega-tunnelling site machines will bore through the soft, waterlogged ground below the cathedral, bringing not only the major risk from vibrations, but also the risk of subsidence, floodwater, or both. Once the tunnel is complete, the rapid passage of the trains themselves could well create continual vibrations (at a high frequency), which will crack the masonry above, or cumulatively weaken the ceiling tiles above the altars of worship, or the congregations. Apart from the local and Barcelona inhabitants, some 5 million tourists every year visit the cathedral. It could be the case, once the rail link between Madrid and Sants, Barcelona (the penultimate stop before the city centre) is complete, that the visitor from Madrid reaches Sants to find the cathedral is no longer accessible. Barcelona is part of Catalonia, a devolved state within Spain under Spain's constitution. Who will win?

The International Council on Museums and Sites, advising UNESCO on such World Heritage sites, opposes the project. But the cathedral has not always had total cultural support. No less a literary figure than Eric Blair (better known as the author George Orwell) criticised anarchists in the Civil War for not taking the opportunity to blow it up. Today, it would be a major catastrophe if Transportation took priority over World Heritage. Where now Opus Dei?

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