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La Sagrada Família in Barcelona: Antoni Gaudi's Endless Construction

"My Client is in No Hurry"

View of La Sagrada Familia
La Sagrada Familia in process: "My client is in no hurry."

Often Covered in Cranes, Surrounded by Scaffolding

There are monuments around which you plan your visit depending upon whether they are under construction or not. The La Sagrada Família church in Barcelona, however, has been been covered by cranes and scaffolding for quite some time now. So much so, that at this point the cranes can almost be considered part of the church’s architecture; they even appear on numerous postcards as there is no other way building may be photographed. But to be fair to the genius, Gaudí is attributed to have said that "his client is in no rush."

Symbol of Barcelona

It is highly likely that even if you have never traveled to Barcelona that you have seen a picture of the Sagrada Família associated with the Catalan city. A church in the center of Barcelona, it has over time become an symbol of the city, and even Spain as a whole. Though it is most commonly associated with architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926), it was begun by the architect Francisco de Paula del Villar (1828-1901) on March 19th, 1882. It was only at the end of 1883 that Antoni Gaudí, Barcelona’s architectural master, was commissioned to continue working on the church. In fact, Gaudí didn’t stop working on La Sagrada Família until he died in 1926. Ever since, a range of architects have continued Gaudí’s legacy, trying to finish the church according to the plans he had devised. 

The Importance of Donations

Since its very outset, La Sagrada Família has been an expiatory church, meaning that it is built from donations. In Gaudí’s words, “La Sagrada Família is made by the people and is mirrored in them. It is a work that is in the hands of God and the will of the people." Precisely because its construction is dependent on donations, it has still not been finished. 2026 is the stated project termination date, but experts are keener to say “some time in the first third of the 21st century.”

Nave of La Sagrada Familia
Nave of La Sagrada Familia.

From Traditional to Modern

In this day and age, we see powerful cranes used ubiquitously. But this was not always the case. When the construction of the church began in 1882, the architects, the bricklayers, and other laborers worked using very traditional methods. Gaudí, in turn, tried to take advantage of more modern techniques when he took over the direction in 1883. For example, he started using railway tracks with small wagons to transport materials from one place to another. He was also the first to bring in cranes to lift weights. Relocating the workshops to the actual site, another of his pioneering ideas, also made the construction easier.

The building techniques used today follow Gaudi’s initial ideas and continue to bring in the safest, most comfortable, and fastest construction techniques. The old wagons have been replaced by the powerful cranes that tower above the spires. Similarly, the old (manual) tools have given way to more exact electric machines. The Church Technical Office and management oversees the completing of Gaudí’s initial project, including the necessary calculations, building plans, and overall direction.

When you visit the church today, you can tour much more than the interior. Part of the visit moreover includes a museum where the history of the church is well documented, You can even peer into the studio of the pedreros, meaning the masons that work on the stone carvings for the church to this day.

A statue on the facade of La Sagrada Familia
A statue on the facade of La Sagrada Familia.
A statue on the facade of La Sagrada Familia
Crucifixion scene on the facade.

The Construction Trajectory

Though the foundation stone was laid on March 19th, 1882, the origins of the church date all the way back to 1866. That year, Josep Maria Bocabella i Verdaguer founded the Spiritual Association of the Devotees of St Joseph, which promoted the construction of an expiatory church in honor of the Holy Family. One year before beginning the actual construction, this Association purchased a plot of land with a 12,800 m² surface area. The Carrer de Marina, Carrer de Provença, Carrer de Sardenya and Carrer de Mallorca were to become the future of the site.

Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano began with building the crypt beneath the apse following a neo-Gothic design. But soon after, the architect resigned (due to disagreements with the promoters) and this is when Antoni Gaudí became involved.

Gaudí and La Sagrada Família

Shortly after taking over as architect, Gaudí finished the crypt and then started working on the apse and the cloister. After 1889 he was giving a large anonymous donation and then came up with the idea of a new, bigger work, discarding the neo-Gothic project of his architectural predecessor. Instead, he proposed a more monumental and innovatory construction including a Latin cross ground plan and high towers. It was a project with important symbolism, both architecturally and sculpturally. The ultimate aim was for it to be a “catechistic explanation of the teachings of the Gospels and the Church.”

After finishing the Nativity façade in 1892, the apse façade in 1894 and the Roser door in 1899, Gaudí built the Temporary Schools in 1909, designed for the children of the workers on La Sagrada Família and the local children who were members of its parish. One year later, the Grand Palais in Paris showed a model of the Nativity façade at an exhibition of Gaudí’s work as a whole, promoted by his friend and patron Eusebi Güell, whose name you may have heard of in association with Parc Güell, another of Barcelona’s architectural highlights.

Nave of La Sagrada Familia
Nave of La Sagrada Familia.

After Gaudí

Upon Gaudí’s death in 1926, the construction was taken over by Domènec Sugrañes, one of his close associates. Sugrañes worked on the site until 1938, when further associates of the master, including Francesc de Paula Quintana i Vidal, Isidre Puig i Boada and Lluís Bonet i Garí, directed the construction until 1983. Subsequently, Francesc de Paula Cardoner i Blanch assumed the post of director, and most recently, Jordi Bonet i Armengol, who has occupied the post since 1984.

Destruction and Re-Construction

Unfortunately, the church’s construction has not always been completely seamless. July 1936 marked the time of a military uprising and specifically the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. It was that very year that revolutionaries set fire to the crypt, and the Temporary Schools as well as the workshop were also destroyed. Nevertheless, the management is proud to say that the original plans of Gaudí continue to be followed to this day.

Visiting Barcelona and the Sagrada Familia

A visit to the church is highly worth it, despite the cranes and scaffolding. As mentioned above, the Sagrada Família is located in the center of Barcelona, and welcomes millions of tourists each year. You can buy just the ticket, or the ticket along with an audio tour. Guided tours for individuals and groups can also be booked. Opening times from October to March are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., while from April to September, the church is open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Note that December 25th, 26th, and January 1st to 6th, the church closes early at 2 p.m.

You can read more about visiting the church, including details on the accompanying museum, temporary and permanent exhibitions, and activities.

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