Antonio Gaudi only came on board as chief architect for the magisterial Sagrada Familia in 1883, a full year after construction had already started. Yet his name is as synonymous with the building as Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, or Da Vinci and the Mona Lisa. Separating the two is unthinkable and, in retrospect, that is as it should be.
Incredibly, the magnificent, honey coloured colossus that looms over the brash, swaggering Catalan gem that is Barcelona is not a cathedral at all, but a mere church. Barcelona already boasts one superb Gothic cathedral.
Yet Sagrada Familia radiates a kind of awe inspiring sense of wonder fully equal to the Pyramids, or even St. Peter’s in Rome. The shapes, sheer, and sweeping contours that Gaudi folded in to his dream building are truly stunning statements of intent. For my money, it is the most staggering piece of architecture anywhere in southern Europe. A gigantic, gingerbread dream factory, clawing at a pale blue Catalan sky.
The man himself became obsessed with his creation as it staggered upwards. In his last years, he lived in a hut on the construction site, before being knocked down by a tram in 1926. When chided about the constant delays and the seemingly endless structural changes, the deeply devout Gaudi simply pointed at the sky, and said that his principal client was in no particular hurry.
Sagrada Familia has always suffered from the fact that it is funded by private donations, rather than state generosity. Work on it came to a complete halt during the Spanish civil war. Indeed, the church was lucky to survive the bloody and sustained siege of Barcelona that devastated swathes of the city.
The victorious General Franco did little to help the conquered Catalans during his decades in power. This goes a long way to explaining why the Catalan people are so fiercely set on autonomy from Spain. Throughout the long shadow of Franco’s Fascist experiment, the great towers of Sagrada Familia acted as a rallying point of sorts for the oppressed people of Barcelona; it remained a symbol of such power that even Franco recoiled from tampering with it.
Work stuttered and bumped along through the post war decades, with a variety of fresh architects trying to stay as true as possible to the Gaudi blueprint, while working in some more modern, contemporary touches of their own.
The result is stupendous; the church has become easily the most famous and visited sight in the city. Every day, it draws hordes of awe struck visitors like moths to a flame, come to gaze upon its gilded, Hansel and Gretel-style, fairy tale facade. And those crowds also draw the pick pockets, for whom the often rapt, forgetful and unsuspecting tourists really must seem like manna from Heaven.
Awarded UNESCO World Heritage status, Sagrada Familia has rightly taken its place in the pantheon of incredible Spanish churches. Had it been financed by the same gold supply as the original Gothic cathedral, it would have been finished decades ago. It’s singular misfortune was to rise several centuries after the Spanish Empire- and its glut of looted Aztec and Mayan gold- had long since disappeared.
Projected completion dates have come and gone with the regularity of the giant cruise ships whose passengers come to worship in droves at the altar of Gaudi’s dream building. The latest estimate for the final completion of the exterior is currently 2026.
That would coincide neatly with the centenary of the death of Gaudi himself. And whether this date is actually a practical possibility, or simply some whimsical, wishful thinking on the dreamy side of things, it really would be a fitting tribute if, somehow, it could come to pass. But in the current strained economic climate, even educated guesses are potentially bankrupt as soon as they are uttered. Only time will tell.
It hardly really matters in so many ways. Sagrada Familia always was, and still is, a labour of love. Quite literally. The people who have grown and died in its shadow took comfort and strength from it, and gazed in wonder at its clutch of spindly spires as they slowly ascended skyward. Generations to come will do the same. In the long, turbulent history of this proud, fiery Catalan culture, Sagrada Familia has become a benchmark for the pride, endurance and resilience of a truly remarkable people. Go see it if you possibly can.