B arcelona’s most famous cathedral is by far the La Sagrada Familia by Anthony Gaudi. It is now so popular it has developed a thriving tourist trade with restaurants, bars and guides to cater for everyone. Every year over 3 million people walk through its doors, with even more visiting just to view it from the outside. Arguably, it is as impressive from the outside as it is from the inside, which is something you don’t get to say often.
Spain is no stranger to gothic churches, from Leon, Burgos to Toledo, Barcelona or Sevilla. However, Gaudi’s creation is different. Not many people would distinguish this as a gothic church; aesthetically, yes, although it just looks a bit different. Maybe it’s the colour difference in the stone, or maybe the fact there is a crane and scaffolding around it. This is because although Gaudi began construction in the early 19th century, it has largely been built over the last 40 years.
The biggest issue over those decades has been that for multiple reason’s, Gaudi’s vision has been lost. It is now up to a panel of experts in architecture, design and construction to piece together what the finished La Sagrada Familia should look like. Most importantly, how Gaudi wanted it to look.
They have been piecing together the process using fragments of models that have been destroyed by time, fires and civil war. Although there are many that said the construction of the building should have ceased when Gaudin passed away, it is still underway. It currently stands as the longest running construction project of all time.
L et’s go back a little and start from the beginning. Gaudi was born in Catalonia, and much like many Catalan people today, he was a fervent supporter of Catalan independence. Gaudi was an inquisitive child, spending days outside on his own being completely enthralled by the natural world. He watched, and saw everything, finding beauty in everything around him.
Growing up in an extremely Catholic neighbourhood it became obvious to him that the architect behind these incredible creations was God himself, and so his two passions became intertwined.
After graduating from architecture school in Barcelona, people began noticing his potential although the timing was anything but perfect. The industrial revolution had brought with it disease, famine and thousands of people in search of jobs, just like Gaudi was.
As with many similar situations, there is always someone who takes these opportunities in their stride. This man was Josep Maria Bocabella. During these times of terrible famine and disease, he began to print his own newspaper detailing to the general public that their lives in squalor and desperation was in fact punishment from God. Surprisingly; it was a huge hit and began making more money than he knew what to deal with. So much so, that rumour has it that he had to hide his hoard under his shop floorboards.
As any good, humble, rich catholic man does, he decided to build a church. After dreaming about a ginger haired blue-eyed architect who would create his church for him, he found one. The very next day. The church would be named La Sagrada Familia, or the ‘sacred family’ and Gaudi began working on the church built in their honour.
It was to be built in the neo-gothic style which was extremely popular at the time. Gaudi set about on his dream building, a chance to celebrate the wonders of Gods handiwork. He was, however, careful not to outshine his Lords work, and so made sure that the height of the building was 1 meter shorter than the nearby mountain in Barcelona, mount Montjuik.
In 1883, he began work finishing the crypt. It was big enough to hold large services which was a good plan considering how long the project was taking. After Bocabella passed away, many of the management staff charged with keeping it on track, implored Gaudi to speed the process up. To him however, you could not rush something so important, especially, as it was Gods will.
T he nativity wall is one of the greatest attractions of the entire building. A beautifully carved wall in painstaking detail of all of Gods creations. From the smallest bugs to a donkey which was actually chloroformed and plaster cast (it survived). Unfortunately, work began to become even slower with the tides of communism and socialism creeping into the city. Many believed that the church was benefitting from the swathes of poor, malnourished and suffering people, which led to a rise of leftist parties fighting back against the church. Towards the end of the century, bombs and violence in the city, were a daily occurrence.
In 1926, while working on La Sagrada Familia, he was also working on many other projects throughout the city and so as the years progressed, work began to slow down. As a result, passion for the project began to wane amongst his supporters. It was now over 20 years since the project began, and the architect charged with its creation, was starting to show signs of his age.
Gaudi met an unromantic end when he left work late and…..was hit by a tram. He died in hospital three days later and was buried in the crypt he created under his monumental work. It is supposed that more than a third of the population of Barcelona came to mourn his death. Luckily for his apprentices, Gaudi new that he would not see the end to his work, and so left copious amounts of detailed drawings and models for his colleagues. For the next 10 years they slowly chipped away at their extensive task.
I n 1936, the conflict between the Republicans (formations of leftist groups) and the Nationalists, (right wing fascists) broke out into civil war. The nationalists however, had the support of most of the Spanish catholic population.
A week after the breakout of the civil war, a group of Republican anarchists broke into the studio of Gaudi’s apprentices and after smashing all of the plaster models, then proceeded to burn the studio to the ground; with all the notes and technical drawings along with it. A few days later, the same group of men attempted to bomb Gaudi’s finished masterpiece, the finished nativity scene. Luckily for us, this attempt failed.
In 1939 the war came to an end, and the Nationalists had won and General Franco took power and control of the country. After everything had settled down, a few of the surviving workers and apprentices, went back to the burnt down studio to salvage what they could. They pulled boxes and boxes of burnt drawings, pieces of broken models and any information they could. Unfortunately, work over the next few decades was slow, if not non-existent.
In 1960, a group or architects, artists and intellectuals including Le Corbusier and Alva Aalto, argued that the work should cease. They argued that Gaudi was more than an architect, he was an artist; and no one should finish the work of an artist without them present. However, work continued, as the patrons believed that the work was not of only Gaudi, but it was the work and will of God, and no one is too big or important to get the way.
In the 1970s, work carried on, and the interior was the next project. However, the drawings and models, were running out, and the architects in charge were getting older. The interior of the church was a mystery to even people closest to the project. It was only until parametric design (article on its way) was introduced to the studio, that they began trying to crack Gaudi’s complex geometrical design, or algorithm for what he wanted the interior to look like.
A fter decades of computer analyses and comparing notes with architecture studios around the world, the interior was completed in 2010. Although the interior is finished, the towers which spring out from the roof of an already imposing structure, are waiting to be completed. The hope is that the 18 towers will be finished on the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death, in 2026.
There is, however, a small opposition to the fact that it has taken so long and attracted so many tourists to what was supposed to be a place of workshop in a still very catholic city. When Bocabella picked the plot of land on which his church was to be created, he chose a place on the outskirts of the city. It was land that was still used for agriculture with wide open spaces and pastureland. It was hard for him to imagine how the city could grow even larger than it already has. Over the years Barcelona has grown and grown, and the church is now engulfed by the bustling city.
I t is a monumental achievement that the end of the construction is in sight. And it is a testament to the complicated genius of Gaudi that is has taken so long to discover his work in so much detail. It is also a testament to the willingness of the people, to overcome suffering and civil war, and for the project to carry on to this day.
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