Chris Rogers | Writer on architecture and visual culture
Gaudi and the Sagrada Familia: The heart of stone
One day in the summer of 2026, a workman – perhaps a carpenter, or a stonemason, or a ceramicist – will wash off his tools, remove his hard hat and rub his aching back as he steps back and admires the results of his labour in the late afternoon sun.
He will be the last man to contribute to a building that has been under construction for one hundred and forty years and is one of the most arresting and dramatic architectural sights in the world.
Beginning when Queen Victoria still had twenty years left to reign and the first abortive attempt to build the Panama Canal was just beginning, and continuing through the invention of cinema and radio, the Wall Street Crash, two world wars, the Moon landings, the computer revolution, the fall of the Soviet empire and 9/11, construction of the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família in Barcelona has been considered a celebration, a waste of resources, and both the apotheosis and betrayal of its principal architect, Antoni Gaudi i Cornet.
And yet that worker, his colleagues and tens of thousands of tourists and residents will have witnessed something few in Europe have seen since mediaeval times: the raising of a cathedral. Most of those took at least a century to build, and indeed no-one alive today can remember a time when the Sagrada Família was not a work in progress. Its completion will represent the fulfilment of some of the greatest dreams of men; the men who conceived and designed it, built and decorated it, adorned and blessed it.
Its story therefore tells us much about what drives the pursuit of the art of architecture, and the experience of visiting it shows us why this matters.
To a significant degree, the stories of both architect and cathedral began in the particular situation of Catalonia and its capital. Even a thousand years ago, the region saw itself as independent, principled and, thanks to its position as the first constitutional government in Europe with a bill of rights, democratic. The area is Spanish and catholic but Barcelona is geographically closer to France than Madrid and the Counts of Barcelona allied themselves by marriage to Provence. The city resisted the Moorish invasion of Spain and displays little of that people’s influence, rebelled against the Spanish King’s order to fight the French centuries later and suffered again in the wars against Napoleon before stability, growth and a re-statement of Catalan values returned in the decades after his defeat. Today, it is more closely aligned in culture and temperament to northern Europe than the rest of Spain.
In 1854 the city tore down its restraining mediaeval walls to signal a break from its militarised past and give its population room to breath and live more healthily. A new district, eixample (‘expansion’), was laid out on rational gridline principles and filled with buildings in the style that became known as Modernisme, or Catalonian Art Nouveau. A quarter century later the citadel, which had acted as prison and garrison, was demolished and an international exposition held, always a useful pointer toward a city’s ambitions and in this instance providing Mies van der Rohe with the chance to propose his vision of the future with the Barcelona Pavillion, a simple name for a radically modern re-conception of architecture. Barcelona’s industry was earmarked for modernisation, which would included erection of the pioneering, electrically-powered Casaramona textile factory. There was even linguistic renaissance, with Catalan re-emerging after years of suppression.
A grand new church in the developing eixample would further cement this mood, whilst also making amends for any perceived lack of piety through this embrace of the modern. Assisted by adoption of the Virgin Mary as Catalonia’s patron saint, an expiatory church (that is, one founded by donation as atonement) dedicated to the Holy Family was duly founded.
Francisco de Paula del Villar i Lozano was the diocesian architect and was assigned to design it. His plan was wholly conventional, a Latin cross with three naves, a single tower and in neo-Gothic style throughout. Construction of the crypt began in 1882, but disagreements over materials and costs led to Villar’s resignation and the appointment of Gaudi via nomination by an assessor on the project.
Gaudi had built almost nothing by this stage; the glories of Park Guell (the English spelling is deliberate – Guell was inspired by the contemporary garden city movement in England when formulating his plans for what was intended as a residential development), Casa Mila, Casa Batllo and Palau Guell were years away. His selection was thus a risk. But for Barcelona, generating a maelstrom of industrial and artistic expansion and revived regionalist sentiment, it was a risk worth taking. And for the wholly sympathetic Gaudi, this was Catalonia’s – and his own – destiny.
Architecturally, Gaudi felt a close affinity for nature, and so Modernisme was an obvious movement for him to gravitate toward but he was soon to twist even this into a uniquely Gaudian world view. For now, though, he would have to wait.
Gaudi continued with Villar’s existing designs for some years, until the crypt and its chapels had been completed and the cloister begun, before what must have been a powerful desire to express this world view could be held back no longer. As would later be proven through his patronage by Eusebi Guell, Gaudi was always happy to work for a client with bottomless pockets, and the arrival of a single large donation to the church fund appears to have been the key to Gaudi’s conversion.
Gaudi took Villar’s plan and made major changes. First, he placed self-contained, monumental facades against three sides of the Latin cross, leaving only the apsidal end untouched. Then, he envisaged eighteen spires rather than one. Four bell towers would grow from each facade, one for each apostle. Their distinctive conical form and rough finish of voids and solids was intended by Gaudi to recall the Montserrat mountain range of Catalonia, home of the Virgin Mary monastery, though his interest in nature is hinted at in their resemblance to elongated pine cones and the fantastical tops capped with stylised Venetian glass mosaic flowers. Gaudi justified these as being visible by angels. Four higher towers would represent the evangelists, the penultimate tower stood for the Virgin Mary, and the central and tallest tower was dedicated to Jesus. Finally, a cloister would surround the entire building, linking the facades and the nave. The façades would be separately defined thematically, following the dedicatory framework of the church, and the entire edifice would be richly carved and decorated and loaded with symbolism.
Then there was the question of its placement. Urban churches today are viewed, and were often constructed, with other buildings packed tightly around them. The Sagrada Familia was to rise in a new quarter that was due to develop over decades. As such, Gaudi proposed laying out its immediate locale in a way that would allow the central tower and two facades to be seen from almost every angle of approach, regardless of how much construction was to come in the future. Such was the pressure on land that this scheme had to be trimmed, but it confirms the scope of Gaudi’s vision.
With all of these changes Gaudi began to move the building toward his own design. The same singularity of purpose drove him during its construction. He resisted the city fathers' demands for construction to begin with the Passion façade which faced the city, commencing instead with the Nativity façade since it is the liturgical east of the church and the logical starting point for a story of Christ’s life, additionally symbolised by it receiving the rays of the rising sun. Gaudi abandoned secular work in 1914 to concentrate solely on the church, and by the time of his death in 1926 the crypt, apse walls, one porch of the Nativity façade and a single bell tower had emerged.
The remaining three towers for the Nativity façade were finished in 1930. The Spanish civil and second world wars interrupted progress, which was further hampered by destruction of Gaudi’s plaster models and plans during the first of these conflicts. For years the Sagrada Familia stood only as the curving wall of the apse and the Nativity façade in a wasteland of rubble and grass. Tourists could wander within the walls which lay open to the sky. Finished windows gaped, their traceries empty of glass. Disconcertingly, images of the building at this time recall those of Coventry Cathedral after the second world war, a cathedral half destroyed rather than half built.
Work finally restarted in 1954 with the basic structure of the Passion façade, following Gaudi’s surviving sketches. Thirty more years passed, until it was time to furnish this new section with its sculptural groups. As the part of the building dedicated to Christ’s death and resurrection the Passion façade’s decorative programme had been fully set out by Gaudi, and so only the specific style of execution had to be decided. Josep Maria Subirachs is a Catalan artist whose vast output has encompassed drawings, painting and graphic art in an abstract, Modernist but humanistic style. Between 1986 and 2005, and amidst considerable controversy, Subirachs created the sculptures for the Passion façade, telling the story of Christ’s betrayal, execution and resurrection in a series of harshly-cut, angular figures seemingly hacked out of the rough stone of the building.
The Passion façade bell towers had been finished in 1977, with the walls for the nave begun the year after. Construction on this, the main space of the church, took over twenty years. Only in mid-2010 was the church finally roofed, allowing dedication by Pope Benedict XVI in November that year.
Although there is much still to build, the church is now usable as such, ninety years after Gaudi last saw it. It can be explored outside and in, and is a fantasy come to life.
Arriving by Metro, one rises from the depths to find the Passion façade’s bell towers soaring heavenwards above the street, their taper increasing their apparent height even further. Creamy white stone, freshly cut, stands out against the more mellow material of years past and the darker core of the apse. There is a graduation of scale, weight, shape and colour. As the latticework of tower cranes intersects with Gaudi’s ossified towers and diaphanous safety netting dissolves in the sun, seeing a cathedral from another time rising before one’s eyes and knowing you will live to see it completed sends a charge through the body and the mind. It is seeing what Gaudi would have seen, but knowing what he could never know. It is immediately apparent that that other controversy – whether it is right to continue with construction so long after the architect’s death – has an obvious answer. Gaudi was under no illusions that work could be finished in his own time and intended from the outset for the temple to be completed by others, in their own architectural and artistic styles, notwithstanding the overall scheme he set out. Subsequent generations have merely honoured this.
The Passion façade, caught in the evening sun, is magnificent and terrifying. Gaudi’s own raking columns – another illusion to heighten – frame Subirachs’ brutal figures. Just as the old cathedrals told their stories in stone to an illiterate congregation, so the essence of Christ’s death jumps out in these oversized, harrowing tableaux. A knight on horseback, his lance awkwardly buried in the stone as it will soon be buried in Christ’s side; soldiers, masked and thus blank-faced, stand oblivious; a stone serpent hisses behind Judas; a skeletonised Jesus hangs from the cross at the apex.
The Sagrada Familia from the south west showing the bell towers of the Passion façade, which were completed after Gaudi's death
From the west, with construction of the central towers under way
Detail of the Subirachs sculptures on the Passion façade
Ground plan of Villar’s scheme in blue with Gaudi’s additions in red (unrecorded website)
The church in context and in close up as it appeared in July 1962. The upper image is from roughly the same angle as the first colour picture on this page, taken fifty years later, and shows the interior of the Nativity facade before the Passion façade was completed to block the view (Alan Oakley)
Interior of the church in about 1990 (Taschen) with, below, a dramatic night-time view of the nearly completed nave about twenty years later (Construction Board of the expiatory church of La Sagrada Família Foundation)