Sagrada Familia is a symbol of Barcelona, yet it remains unfinished more than thirteen decades since its construction began. The church’s unique design has drawn millions of curious visitors, yet few of them understand the layers of controversies that almost kept it from ever being built.
It was the brain-child of a tortured genius whose work fills the city that he loved so much, yet his magnum opus has received more hate and criticism than anything else he created. His devotion to this project became so extreme that he lived in a small home on its premises until he died broke and decrepit in his old age.
The church has survived a handful of architects, multiple attempts to deface or destroy it, a Civil War, the destruction of its plans, and decades of bickering among politicians and artists. Still, it stands as an icon of its home, and will continue to do so far into the future, whether or not it’s ever completed.
Let’s dive into the Sagrada Familia.
In 1872, a small-time bookseller from Barcelona named Josep Maria Bocabella took a religious pilgrimage to Italy, the capital of his Catholic faith. His pilgrimage had a significant impact on his faith, and he grew jealous of the countless beautiful cathedrals and basilicas throughout Italy.
He was particularly inspired by the Basilica of Loreto, a relatively small church in a little Italian town, renowned among the pious for enshrining the house that the Blessed Virgin Mary may have lived in. While visiting this basilica, Bocabella was struck by the lack of notable churches in his hometown, and he decided then and there that he would personally change that.
Now, Bocabella wasn’t a wealthy man. But he had extensive connections throughout the local church because of his role in starting the Spiritual Association of Devotees of St. Joseph. He returned to Barcelona, determined to make his dream come true, so he spread the word of his plans and began to collect donations from locals who also wanted to see his spectacular vision brought to life.
With the collections, he purchased a large swathe of land in the Catalonian city and contracted an architect named Francisco de Paula del Villar. Villar was the official diocesan architect, meaning he was officially sanctioned by the catholic faith to design churches.
Villar’s design followed traditional standards for Gothic Revival churches, as he was under strict direction from the local religious officials to ensure that his church did not overshadow the Basilica of Barcelona. Work began in 1882, but disagreements over material costs quickly led to a falling out between Villar and Bocabella. So, in 1883, Villar left the project, and a young upstart named Antoni Gaudi was placed in charge.
New Architect, New Design
When Antoni Gaudí took over the project in 1883, he was little more than an up-and-comer in the world of Spanish architecture. He completed a few relatively small projects in the years prior, including a pharmacy, a textile mill, and a few pieces of furniture for a wealthy family. While insignificant compared to his modern legacy, these pieces must have impacted the local community because 1883 was when his career took off.
Besides the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi also began work on the famous Casa Vicens and El Capricho in that same year. One thing that everyone seemed to agree on was that Gaudi had a unique vision and the ability to draw from many different influences to create something eye-catching and, oftentimes, magnificent.
Gaudi immediately trashed all of Villar’s designs and started from scratch. Though his work was informed by those who came before him, Gaudi hated the recent explosion of revivalist architecture, seeing it as tired and played out. After all, what significance was an architect who simply redid what had already been done? So, like all of his work, he set out to make something grand and bizarre.
Word of this new architect’s ambitious plans reached Catholic authorities in Barcelona, and they responded by again discouraging Gaudi and Bellaboca from building anything grander than the local basilica. But Gaudi, despite his enduring devotion, if not obsession, with the church, did not heed their warnings.
Bellaboca was willing to allow the master to pursue his craft however he saw fit, even if that meant completely casting aside the image of the basilica that inspired it.
Though Gaudi completed a handful of incredible pieces between 1883 and 1906, he seemed to always see Sagrada Familia as the most significant work he would ever do. In his later life, he dedicated nearly every waking moment to the church’s construction, and in the moments where he was not redesigning or managing construction, he could be found walking the streets or entering churches to collect alms from faithful members to continue the construction project.
As Gaudi grew older, his influences became even more rooted in two of his favorite things: religion and nature. He determined to make the entire church a reflection of the beauty of the world that God had created. It would depict images and stories from Christ’s life throughout the architecture’s exterior and interior.
His plans included three facades called the Nativity, Passion, and Glory, each meant to depict a different portion of Christ’s life.
The Glory would be the principal facade and would celebrate the Celestial Glory of Jesus Christ and his path to return to God in heaven.
The Passion would be most austere, modeled after the human skeleton, as it was meant to depict the crucifixion. Gaudi wanted this section to be jarring and intense, reflecting the pain that could be inflicted on the human body.
Finally, the Nativity would depict the story of Christ’s birth and include images that celebrated the creation of life. It would face North East so that it could bask in the glory of the rising sun each day, and it would include what would become Gaudi’s trademark trait of ornamental displays and outlandish lines and shapes.
Gaudi knew that he would not live long enough to oversee the construction of the entire church, saying that “My client [God] is not in a hurry.” So he focused his time on building the Nativity facade, as he felt that its optimism and ornamentality would inspire locals’ devotion to see the project through to the end. He saw it as the tone-setter for the entire church and knew that if he began with the Passion facade, its ugly appearance would discourage continued engagement from locals and donors.
Aside from the three glorious facades, perhaps Gaudi’s most striking design feature was the eighteen spires, representing the twelve apostles, the four evangelists, the Mother Mary, and Jesus Christ. The tallest spire would be topped by a cross, and it would stand at 172.5 meters (566 ft). The specific height was of extreme importance because it would make Sagrada Familia the tallest church in the world, but ensure that it remained smaller than Montjuïc Hill in Barcelona, as Gaudi wanted to ensure that his creation did not stand taller than God’s.
In fulfillment of his own prophecy, Gaudi would not even live to see the first facade finished, dying in 1926, four years before the Nativity Facade’s completion. In his final years on Earth, Gaudi lived inside the unfinished church. Now, he is buried in its crypt alongside Bellaboca, the man who picked him for the project. Following his death, thousands of Barcelonans flooded the streets to show appreciation for the artist who gave his life to their city.
The Ensuing Years: War, Fire, Controversy, and Christening
Following Gaudi’s death, a new architect was placed in charge of the Sagrada Familia project, but his tenure would not last long, as Spain’s descent into Civil War stopped all progress on the church.
Anarchists wreaked havoc on Barcelona’s infrastructure throughout the civil war and even broke into the unfinished chapel. But, once inside, they refused to lay a finger on its structure, instead, only destroying Gaudi’s models for the rest of the church.
This action led to speculation as to the anarchist’s intentions. Were they attempting to halt construction on the building so that its image would always reflect Gaudi’s work? Or did they understand that damaging the local icon’s creation would ruin any goodwill they may have built up with the city’s populace?
In the years following the civil war, fragments of Gaudi’s designs were recovered and pieced together as best as possible, and work continued. Construction on the skeleton-inspired Passion facade began in 1954 and continued until 1976 when it was completed. Work on the interior and the spires continued for the next several decades, and the final facade was started in 2002.
Throughout all of this process, the controversy surrounding the building refused to go away. The most common issue is the simple fact that the building hasn’t been completed in well over one-hundred years. Locals are tired of construction noises, and they claim that the church looks fine just the way it is.
There were political obstacles as well, since the team in charge of construction had never managed to secure a building permit. When this was pointed out in 2018, after 135 years of unapproved development, the city government determined that the project owed 36 million Euros in backpay to the city ($41 million).
To top it all off, the church was the target of an arsonist’s attack on April 19th, 2011, though, thankfully, the fire was contained within 45 minutes.
Despite the decades of contention, construction has progressed glacially yet steadily. On November 7th, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI (the sixteenth) consecrated the church in front of a congregation of 6,500 people. Now, Sagrada Familia is Barcelona’s most popular tourist attraction, regularly welcoming 3 million visitors each year, with an additional estimated 10 million visiting the nearby area to catch a glimpse of the iconic structure without waiting in line for hours to see the inside.
While the outside is an absolute spectacle to behold, the interior is perhaps even more magnificent, though admittedly less iconic, trading in biblical motifs for those inspired by Catalonia’s forests. Not only does it follow the exterior’s example of shunning straight lines and right angles, but it is almost entirely devoid of any flat surfaces.
Instead, it incorporates parabolic arches, hyperbolic vaults, and slanted, helical columns. Gaudi felt these shapes better inspired the reverence he felt when standing in the middle of a large wood. For the most overwhelming example of this intention, visitors stand beneath the central nave’s forty-five meter (148 feet) tall vaults and look upwards at the multi-colored concrete forest.
The columns branch outward as they ascend, like the oak trees that fill the Barcelona streets. Their surfaces unfold to include more and more sides, often starting with a square base, evolving into an octagon as the column rises, then a sixteen-sided form, and eventually a circle.
If you want to see the interior, you’ll have to purchase a ticket and wait in line, but you’ll be giving to a good cause. The remaining construction is entirely financed by ticket sales.
What Does The Future Hold?
As of 2020, the projected completion date for the structure is 2026, though many observers believe this is unreasonably soon, as the Glory Facade has yet to be completed, and its construction may require the demolition of nearby buildings. Furthermore, only eight of eighteen spires have been completed, with the largest one yet to be built. Of course, modern technologies have sped up construction, but, perhaps influenced by the building’s 137-year process, the common belief is that construction will go on for at least a few more decades.
The current architect, a man named Lluís Bonet i Gari, seems to have a similar mindset to Gaudi, stating that he doesn’t feel that the church will be completed during his lifetime.
Even once construction is complete, many decorative pieces will still need to be added, including several hundred sculptures by the artist Josep Maria Subirach. Of course, Subirach’s statues have received their fair share of criticism as well, especially for their grotesque portrayal of famous biblical scenes, including Christ’s crucifixion. Like Gaudi, Subirach plans to dedicate the remainder of his life to completing his contributions, and he now lives in the tiny onsite residence that the original architect once called home.
Architecture as Ever-Changing Art
While the Sagrada Familia is undoubtedly one of the most controversial and unique churches in the entire world, it is also perhaps the most engaging springboard of discussion surrounding the role of architecture as art, particularly with long-term projects like this one.
Given his saint-like stature throughout Barcelona, many locals believe that the church should serve to honor Gaudi’s vision, but the question is how best to do that. From the architect’s death in 1926, some locals have urged an end to the construction, claiming that the best way to preserve its creator’s legacy is to halt all progress where it was when he died. Of course, the continued construction has ruined any chance of that.
Others believe that the best way to honor the artist is to follow through with what remains of his original design. But, opponents point out that we have no clue what the original design was, given that the only existing models were pieced together from the fragments that survived the Spanish Civil War. The remaining plans are, at best, an estimation of what Gaudi originally wanted.
Yet, Gaudi’s view may be the most romantic of all. After all, he was fully aware of his inability to ever finish the structure, and he hinted on occasion that he preferred to allow future artistic and architectural visionaries to assert their own styles and tastes into the building. In this way, it would never stand as a monument to Antoni Gaudi, but it would stand as a monument to the religion it is dedicated to and the city it calls home.