Cork Flooring in Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia

Interview with architect Jordi Bonet i Armengol

In perfect harmony with Gaudí’s philosophy, cork won over Jordi Bonet i Armengol, the architect in charge of the construction of the Sagrada Família, who told us about the reasons behind his choice of cork for the crypt of the majestic Cathedral in an informal chat.

“I have always regarded cork as an excellent material, and have used it in a number of projects designed by myself. Whenever I have used cork the results have been good, and it is also an interesting option from the economic perspective. This flooring (points at the floor of the workshop in which the interview was conducted) has been here for 25 years, has witnessed several floods, and remains in good condition. In my architecture studio I also have cork flooring, so my experience led my to choose the same material for this great work by Gaudí.” – he states at the beginning of the conversation.

Why did you decide to use cork in this project?

First of all, when it was decided that in 2010 this location would be used to celebrate mass, it was clear that a major investment would have to be made, However, Gaudí did not specify which flooring was to be used. The use of sandstone from the Montjuic area was customary in most churches in Catalonia, but this caused the sound to reverberate. As the surface of the Sagrada Família is very large (4500 m2, with capacity for 9000 people), using sandstone would make the building acoustically uncomfortable.

On the other hand, we had some difficulty sourcing the stone used for the columns (porphyry), in accordance with Gaudí’s specifications. This stone – the most resistant in the world – is from Iran, as there are no quarries in Europe able to produce blocks large enough.
When I realised the stone wasn’t coming, and that we had to meet our objective of opening the church in late 2010, I made a decision, in the knowledge that it could be either provisional or definitive, depending on the results. As acoustic is of extreme importance in a project of this scale, I did not hesitate to use cork.

Although there was a great deal of opposition from various fronts to the use of cork in such an important building, I always argued: “If Gaudí always used fundamentally natural materials and took inspiration from Nature, why not use a natural product such as cork?” The reply was an odd one: “It’s only for sealing bottles!!!”.

Nonetheless, encouraged by the excellent acoustic and thermal properties of cork I decided it was the perfect choice, as it matched the other materials already used from the aesthetic perspective. Looking at it now, after it has been installed, the results are very good… and there are still some people who aren’t sure exactly what type of flooring it is!!! But everyone is surprised by the acoustics and comfort the Cathedral now has to offer!

It was an interesting experiment, but I don’t know what the future will bring… But I believe in the effectiveness and resistance of cork (it does not rot, it is aseptic, it is comfortable to walk on, it offers far greater thermal comfort than cold marble, making it unnecessary to install artificial heating…). And that was how we opted for cork. I believe that the experiment will end up speaking for itself, with positive results. I believe it is a material with a clear future!

We know that in Gaudí’s work, everything has a defined symbology. What is the symbology of cork in this project?

We kept the Gaudí quote which says that “Nature is my Master” The tree before me is my Master.” This means that we should use what Nature gives us, in a rational way. The bark of the cork oak – cork – can be removed without causing any damage (as it grows back in a few years), just as fruit trees give us fruit year after year…

One of the greatest problems of the modern world is that we use to much energy, and to get that energy we continue to harm the atmosphere, making it almost unbreathable. So, any use of natural products is a good thing, particularly when they have such a positive impact on the Environment as cork.

Was cork used in other parts of the project?

Right now, only in this part of the Cathedral, but it will probably be used in other areas such as the Assembly Hall.

And do you intend to use cork only for flooring?

We may use it for other surfaces due to the need for thermal and acoustic insulation, but we are still working on that project: the room will have capacity for 250 people, so once again cork would be perfect. Although I am the chief architect and director, I still need to persuade others… the trendsetters have still not entirely grasped the immense potential of cork.