“My client is no hurry” – Antoni Gaudi

Rising into the skyline of Barcelona, this decadent fusion of Gothic and Art Nouveau can always be pictured with cranes as high as the majestic structure. Every year, over ten million tourists from around the world flock to see this work of art in the making. One hundred thirty-seven years after laying the first stone, La Sagrada Familia has had a tiresome and controversial history. Let’s discover why so many structures have come and gone, yet we have never seen Sagrada Familia without its scaffolding.

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StitchPassion Façade of Expiatory Temple of the Sagrada Familia
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View of Sagrada Familia from Placa de Gaudi. The cranes have been digitally removed.
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The slender towers of Catalan Architect Gaudi’s brainchild are the most famous structures and the tallest in the world, and they are not even finished. But he wasn’t the first architect that the church had approached for the designs. Originally in 1882, the commission for this church was given to Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano. However, a year later, Gaudi was asked to take over the project. The client Bocabella and del Villar had disagreements over the columns’ sizes, and he abandoned the project. Myth has it that Bocabella dreamt of his knight in shining armour coming to rescue him, quite literally. The facial features of the knight in his dream resembled those of Gaudi’s. Although strangely after this incident, Gaudi, in his early thirties, bagged the commission.

Gaudi decided to start afresh and replace the previous neo-gothic blueprints with something that had never been built before. He worked with miniature models to exhibit his new ideas, which were marvels in themselves. His fresh style of manifesting nature in his buildings can be seen prominently in this structure. The slender towers of the basilica, as seen today, seem to be branching towards the sky just like a nurtured tree.

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The nave in the Sagrada Familia with a hyperboloid vault. Inspiration from nature is taken from a tree, as the pillar and branches symbolise trees rising up to the roof.
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La Sagrada Familia under construction, 1887. ©Photo by PHAS/UIG via Getty Images.

As Gaudi started to earn a reputation for his unique style and modernist movement, his focus shifted for a few decades from the basilica to other private and public structures around the world. After entering his late fifties, he turned into an ascetic, fasting and praying all day long. Gaudi turned into a catholic while working on the joyful Nativity façade. He regained his devotion and decided to dedicate his life’s last years to the basilica. The construction on the towers started in full-swing.

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La Sagrada Familia under construction, 1905.
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La Sagrada Familia under construction, 1915 
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In the summer of 1909, workers’ uprising and anarchists’ clashes created havoc in Barcelona. Several structures were destroyed, but Sagrada Familia got out unscathed. Gaudi’s layer of devotion perhaps protected it. 

In 1925, after 15 years of commitment, Gaudi saw the first of the 18 bell towers come to life. On June 7, 1926, he departed from this world at the age of seventy-three, leaving behind an unfinished masterpiece. He left all his earnings for the basilica’s construction. In the next ten years, Gaudi’s closest assistant – Domènec Sugrañes, took the role of realizing the vision of his master. The other three towers were completed under his captainship.

Tragedy struck at the onset of the Spanish Civil War. For the first time in 54 years, the construction of the basilica came to a standstill. This time the anarchist labour groups were set to vandalize Sagrada Familia. The rebels torched several offices, a provisional school, and the crypt, erasing numerous drawings, plans, photographs, and models of the basilica that would hinder its further construction. They also intended to plant an explosive to damage the Nativity façade, but they did not execute their plans. La Sagrada Familia came out of the revolution, scarred but alive.

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La Sagrada Familia under construction, 1925.
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La Sagrada Familia under construction, 1953.
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La Sagrada Familia under construction, 1992.
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La Sagrada Familia under construction, 1995
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The following years saw slow but steady developments at the construction site. It started to take shape as a culmination of various materials, techniques, and styles of building under the leadership of several architects, each with their interpretation of Gaudi’s work. Several frontrunners in the field, such as Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto, ran a petition in the 1960s against this interpretive license. They wanted to put the construction on hold as it disgraced the architect’s original vision. Development, however, continued, and in 2005, the monumental cathedral was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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La Sagrada Familia under construction, 2002
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La Sagrada Familia under construction, 2005
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differences between the older and newer parts of the Sagrada Família
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The Spanish Government undertook the plans of running high-speed trains through the city of Barcelona. It required a 39-foot-wide tunnel to be dug near the foundations of the Sagrada Familia, which could prove fatal. Special work had to be done to ensure that the high-speed trains that ran through the tunnel from 2013 did not have any impact on the foundations. The basilica survived another blow!

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La Sagrada Familia under construction, 2013
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Nativity Façade at Expiatory Temple of the Sagrada Familia
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In 2016, the Government asked the church trustees to pay a hefty fine. It came as another surprise in basilica’s long journey that the building permits for a construction spanning over a century were never approved! The original blueprints signed by Gaudi were submitted but never recorded as being granted or rejected. The La Sagrada Familia Foundation has been tied to the Government under new agreements as construction continues. The current project architect Jordi Faulí i Oller aspires to complete the installation of all eighteen towers by Gaudi’s death centennial in 2026.

As campaigns for Gaudi’s beatification are on the rise, many people joke that he would not want to be hurried in his Sainthood, just like he refused to be pushed as an Architect when he was alive. However, after so many years of workers toiling and continuous shifts from one architect to another, will the church still be a symbol of Gaudi’s eccentricity? Or will it be reduced from an architectural magnificence to a large-sized mock-up of his ideas?

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The cover of the July 8 international issue of TIME.
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Author

Radhika Jhamaria, an Architecture undergrad at NIT Jaipur, loves to travel and explore the world as a design enthusiast. She believes that one should always follow their heart and she pours hers into literary escapades. You may occasionally find her strumming her beloved guitar.

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