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Sagrada Família

Inching towards heaven

Nativity facade by night

My client is not in a hurry. Gaudí, on God

Gaudí's extraordinary unfinished church with its massive 'hock bottle' towers looming high over the Right Eixample has become the most instantly recognised symbol of Barcelona. Filling an entire Eixample block and only slightly smaller than St Peter's, it plans to tickle the very heavens above when finished. The Expiatory Basilica of the Holy Family is the most compelling, controversial and unfinished building site in the world. Nothing better symbolizes the scale of Barcelona's ambition—even though the city itself, surprisingly, has almost nothing to do with it. Some call it a masterpiece, others look at it as kitsch taken to a lunatic extreme. The truth may be somewhere in between.

The Origins of the Sagrada Família

In 1882, Josep Bocabella Verdaguera, a book dealer and follower of reactionary Pope Pius IX, founded a society dedicated to St Joseph known as the ‘Josephines’, whose purpose was to build a church to expiate the sins of modern life.

The Josephines hired Francesc del Villar (one of Gaudí’s professors), who started building a typical neo-Gothic church. The crypt was barely started in 1883 when the Josephines replaced del Villar with Gaudí, then only 31, with hardly a building to his name. But he was pious, his fees were low and Bocabella had had a dream that his architect would have 'piercing blue eyes'— like Gaudí. The job was his.

Gaudí would spend the next 43 years with the Sagrada Família, working off and on, his plans growing like Topsy as the years went by. The Josephines were happy to let him do as he pleased: nothing was too big for the Holy Family.

The church in 1915

The then-stump of a church managed to survive the church arsonists during the 1909 Setmana Trágica (allegedly only because the project at the time employed 300). For Gaudí this was a key event and marked his withdrawal from the bourgeois world he had served, lastly at La Pedrera. In his eyes, it was no longer the sins of modernism that needed to be expiated, but all the anarcho-atheist sins of Catalonia.

The Big Idea

Gaudí wanted every aspect of Catholic doctrine to be expressed somewhere in the Sagrada Família. There would be three façades, dedicated to the Birth, Passion and, the main one, Glory.

Each façade would have four towers, symbolizing the 12 Apostles. Four taller towers over the crossing would be dedicated to the Evangelists, around a truly colossal 575ft tower in the centre for Jesus- the tallest church spire in the world, with another large tower for the Virgin, too.

Gaudí promised the Josephines a church that would go beyond Gothic, without buttresses, or ‘crutches’. Instead, it would be supported by the same system of inclined columns and parabolic arches that he experimented with between 1908 and 1914 in the crypt at the Colonia Guëll.

It starts to appear in a big way

Gaudí became so obsessed with the Sagrada Família that it took over his life. When funds dried up, he began selling everything he owned, even his house, to pay for the building. In 1925 he moved into a hut on the construction site. Once a dandy, he was becoming increasingly unkempt, living on bread, water and vegetables (burnt toast for breakfast, lettuce leaves in bowls of milk for lunch) begging door to door for more pesetas to build the church. People were losing interest, even as he managed to complete the Birth Façade (critic Josep Pla dismissed it ‘as a pile of enormous chicken guts’) and one of the towers, before wandering in front of the No 30 tram. No one recognized the tramp, whose underpants were held together with safety pins, and he was taken to the indigents' ward in the medieval Hospital de la Santa Creu, where he died three days later.

Gaudí's followers finished the other three towers according to his models in 1935— just in time. In 1936, the Anarchists, who hated everything about the Sagrada Família, broke into its workshops, burned nearly all the plans and models, and desecrated the tombs of Bocabella and Gaudí in the crypt.

Controversy rears its ugly head

Gaudí and his plans and models may have been gone, but the Josephines survived the Civil War, and by 1954 they had raised enough money to continue building the Sagrada Família, telling architects to try to guess the master’s intent from the photos of a few surviving drawings.

Gaudí's sketch that survived the Anarchists

Purists and many architects howled: the church (now considered a work of genius) should remain untouched as a memorial to Gaudí. Gaudí, after all, was always improvising as he built and hardly even followed his own plans—it would be a travesty to even try to build 'in his style'.

The Josephines countered that Gaudí very much wanted them to continue: he envisioned the church like a medieval cathedral, built over the generations – he himself had estimated it would take two centuries to complete. For him, every day of work atoned for a few more sins: finishing it was almost irrelevant.

in 1987, Jordi Bonet (whose father had worked with Gaudí) and sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs were put in charge of the Passion Façade. Subirachs (an avowed atheist born exactly nine months after Gaudí died) took the job on the condition that he had complete artistic freedom.

As the façade went up, artists, architects and religious conservatives held a massive protest demanding that Subirachs stop; instead, with funds flooding in since the 1992 Olympics—which helped make the Sagrada Família internationally famous, he completed the Passion Façade in 1998, three years ahead of schedule.

The 21st century: full steam ahead

As over two million people a year visit and money pours in (tickets provide the bulk of the annual budget), the pace of building has speeded up. In There was much concern and protests over the construction of the new high speed AVE train tunnel alongside the massive church, which the courts finally approved.

In 2005, some signed, long lost plans by Gaudí were discovered in the city archives that showed he intended the Virgin's tower to be rather shorter than the Evangelists', so the building has been adjusted accordingly.

In 2010, with the vaulting over the nave complete, the the Glory Façade underway and foundations ready for the enormous central towers, construction reached its midway point; an organ was purchased and in November, Pope Benedict XVI consecrated the Basilica in front of a congregation of 6,500, including King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia. In April 2011, an arsonist set fire to the sacristy, causing considerable damage. In the future visitors may have to pass through metal detectors.

In the meantime, the Josephines hope to complete the church by the centenary of Gaudís death in 2026. With €23 million or so a year plus coming in through tickets, 300 full time workers, computers and high tech stone cutting tools on the job, the giant cranes that have dominated Barcelona's skyline for decades may come down even sooner.

Sagrada Família, 2015

The Birth Façade

Those who have not tasted his superbly creative bad taste are traitors.Dalí, commenting on the Birth Façade

Because of its gentle, hopeful theme, Gaudí started with the Birth Façade, and oversaw the sculptures in a textured organic setting of plants and animals, filled with what Dalí described as a ‘terrifying, edible beauty’. He used working class Barcelonans as models, including a six toed barman who became a Roman soldier. There's even an Anarchist with a bomb somewhere in the ensemble.

The newer work and restorations on this façade are by the Japanese sculptor Etsuro Sotoo, who was so struck when he first set eyes on the Sagrada Família that he immediately converted to Catholicism.

As Gaudí finished his first 394ft tower with its ceramic finial, a bishop asked him why he fretted so much over things that were too high up to view properly, Gaudí replied: ‘Your Grace, the angels will see them.’

The Monserrat Cloister nearby has a film on Gaudí's relationship with nature.

The Passion Façade

Subirachs used synthetic stone and reinforced concrete with resin-bonded finishes to beat the clock with his controversial mechanical, sinister façade, as purposefully brutal as its subject matter— following Gaudí's intent that the façade should frighten viewers; the centurions are derived from the ‘witch-scarers’ on La Pedrera.

The façade features a controversial naked Christ on the Cross, a magic square based on the number 33, a bronze door carved with 8,000 letters from a page of the Gospel, four huge travertine statues of the apostles and a 25ft metal Christ between the two central towers.

The Glory Façade

The main and largest of the Sagrada Família's façades was begun in 2002: the theme will be humanity's rise to the glory of God through Death and the Last Judgment.

Gaudí intended this enormous façade to nudge into Carrer de Mallorca, with a wide stair cascading into the next xamfrà; part of it will be underground, with scenes from Hell and Purgatory. The video link below shows what it may well look like 15-20 years from now.

The Interior

Ceiling of the Sagrada Família

Although still a construction site, enough of this has been completed to give a hint of what's to come—and even naysayers have to admit it's breathtaking, with its lofty branching columns invented by Gaudí rising 198ft to the central vault like a forest of magic trees. When completed, the apse alone (constructed over del Villar's foundation) will be large enough to contain Santa Maria del Mar, with a choir be enough for 1500 singers. And each tower should be filled with peeling bells. Gaudí wanted his church to be heard as well as seen.

The Museum

Down in the crypt, this has an audio-visual about the church. It's is full of fascinating odds and ends: scale models and the workshop of the model makers, photographs and diagrams, and Gaudí’s famous catenary model, made of chains and small sacks weighted in proportion to the arches and the load they would have to bear, which he used to build the Güell Crypt.

The School

This were built to house the children of the workers, and contains a turn-of-the-century classroom and a reproduction of Gaudí's workshop, with a display on his use of geometry.

Lastly, come back after dark when all the crowds have gone to Nativity facade beautifully illuminated (there's a monthly schedule on the website).

Practical Info Practical Info icon

Carrer Mallorca 401

Hours Nov-Feb: 9am-6pm, Mar & Oct 9am-7pm; Apr-Sept 9am-8pm.

Adm €15, under 10 free. Skip the often 1-2 hour long queues by purchasing time-stamped tickets online through the website, where you can also purchase timed tickets for ascents into the Nativity and Passion facade towers for a whooping €29, including an audio guide (note that you can't purchase tower tickets once you're inside). Under age tens are free, but require tickets to get in. You can also book guided tours and audio tours in English (for adults and kids at the same time: €19.50 per adult).

Note that visitors are asked 'to dress with decorum' to enter the basilica and that access to the towers (you take the lifts up, then walk down) may be closed may be closed in bad weather.

metro: Sagrada Família




+34 932 080 414

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: PD Art, Ralf Roletschek, Creative Commons License, Łukasz Dzierżanowski, Euku, Creative Commons License, Yakinodi