When visiting Barcelona, I could not resist going to admire the famous, towering cathedral, known as the Sagrada Familia. This was the second time I had been to see the magnificent structure and once again sections of its grand exterior were concealed with scaffolding. Although the construction of the cathedral began over 130 years ago, it is not yet complete. I was bewildered by this, I understand these things take time, however the Taj Mahal only took 20 years to build so I was intrigued to find out why this was so much longer.
As it turns out, The Sagrada Familia has a long and eventful history. In 1874, Josep Maria Bocabella began campaigning for a new cathedral to be built after being inspired during a trip to Italy. Architect Francisco Paula del Villar made plans for a standard gothic revival church and the cornerstone was laid in 1882. However he resigned just one year later and Antoni Gaudi took over. After receiving a notably large anonymous donation, he drastically changed the original plans to create something much more extravagant. From 1914 onwards, Gaudi gave up all his other projects and dedicated his time to the construction of his magnificent cathedral. Unfortunately in 1926, he was tragically killed in a tram accident. At this point only a quarter of the structure was complete. He was buried in the crypt in the Sagrada Familia and his body still remains there today.
After his death, it was up to his close collaborator Domenec Sugranes to continue Gaudi’s vision. However this task drastically increased in difficulty after all of the original plans were destroyed in a fire in 1936 started by anarchists during the Spanish Civil War. There have been several head architects over the years, each attempting to give Gaudi’s vision justice. It’s a bit like Chinese whispers though and there has been some controversy over if this has been done successfully. In 2008, over 100 members of Barcelona’s art and architecture community signed a manifesto protesting what they viewed as errors in the direction of the design. Also the director of the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, Manuel Borja-Villel, said “What they are constructing has little to do with the spirit of Gaudi. It has more to do with building a tourist attraction and for propaganda purposes”. I can see the point he is making, it is easy for projects like these to become all about making money. The Sagrada Familia hasn’t exactly been a cheap build either. It is estimated that it costs approximately €25 million a year to continue construction. However, surprisingly, it has always been privately funded and never received any financial support from the government.
The cathedral is to have 18 spires when complete, currently only 8 have been fully constructed. These spires are to represent the Twelve Apostles, Virgin Mary, Four Evangelists and Jesus Christ. The height of the spires vary and relate to the hierarchy of each religious figure. The spire that symbolises Jesus Christ is to be the tallest, reaching 560 feet. This will make it just smaller than the tallest point in Barcelona, Montjuic Hill. This was deliberately specified as the architect believe that nothing man made should surpass what was made by God. I think this is a beautifully considerate approach as it really appreciates the importance of the natural world over man made structures.
I’ve never made it inside the cathedral, the day I visited the tickets had already sold out by 11am. This is no surprise, it is the most visited tourist attraction in Barcelona, with more than 3 million visitors every year. However I have read about the magnificent interior. The ceiling has been designed to represent trees, which is classic for Gaudi who was often inspired by nature. The 200 feet vaults create a space which symbolises a spiritual forest, with the columns mimicking tree trunks that branch out into the ceiling. Not only is this visually stunning, this design is also practical as it removes the need for buttresses which are a common feature of Gothic architecture.
In terms of maintaining Gaudi’s vision, from my perspective the structure does have strong visual links to Gaudi’s architectural style. If you compare it to the Casa Milà, one of Gaudi’s earlier works, the aesthetic similarity is hard to ignore. I have a lot of admiration for the visual impact that these buildings make, they may be a little grander than my usual taste but I can’t deny their architectural beauty.
If construction stays on schedule then the structure is expected to be complete by 2026, 100 years after Gaudi’s death. I’m sure I am not alone in saying I look forward to seeing Gaudi’s masterpiece finally standing free of any scaffolding so that it’s great design can be fully appreciated.