Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia church, one of Spain’s most famous landmarks despite its unfinished state, will start hosting religious events in 2010, chief architect Jordi Bonet said confirming that the interior of the Catholic basilica will be finished by September 2010.
Viewed from a distance, the four main towers of the Sagrada Familia stretch above Barcelona like a giant drip sandcastle on a beach. But the closer you get, the more intricate the conical monoliths become, until you find yourself overwhelmed by this mind-bending masterwork of the late Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926). A monument to Gaudi’s outsider genius, this church, still incomplete after some 125 backbreaking years, also measures the patience and tenacity of generations of his countrymen. Some Barcelonans love the church, others not so much, but even its detractors have (mostly) learned to accept its role in the city’s history and skyline: Paris has the Eiffel Tower, London has Big Ben, and Barcelona has the Sagrada Familia.
Completion of the interior means that the church will finally be more than a breathtaking stop on an architectural sightseeing tour. For the first time in its history, Sagrada Familia will host a Catholic Mass in its main nave. (Gaudí, who was a devout Catholic, would surely approve.) After the interior is finished, the final spire — the lordly 550-foot-high “Tower of Jesus” — will soon follow. Of course, “soon” is a relative concept.
The stumbling blocks to Sagrada’s progress are myriad. They began to crop up the moment Gaudí first set pencil to drafting paper. “Gaudí worked on Sagrada Familia for 43 years, and during his last 12 years, he worked on nothing else,” the 83-year-old Bonet says. The architect oversaw every aspect of the construction — from the drawing to the masonry — until he was killed in a 1926 streetcar accident that happened as he was walking to the job site. Gaudí designed the church with 18 towers — 12 for the apostles, four for the evangelists, and one each for the Virgin Mary and Christ. Each completed tower, and practically every crevice of the church, is adorned with intricate geometrical designs and sculptures. The interior spaces are buttressed by forms that Gaudí culled from nature, thus resemble towering animal bones or the articulated trunks of massive trees. His renderings were so dynamically puzzling, the builders couldn’t figure out how to realize them. The challenges didn’t end with geometry. Disease epidemics, labor strife and chronic gaps in funding (the church has been constructed solely through private contributions) persistently slowed construction. And then, in 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out; building ground to a halt. General Francisco Franco’s army attacked Barcelona three years later, and during the ensuing street battles, parts of the church were destroyed, along with the studio housing much of Gaudi’s planning work. In a display of typical Catalan fortitude, building recommenced when the war ended, with designers painstakingly redrafting the damaged plans.
Then came inevitable political complications. The most recent battle erupted last year, when a group of prominent architects, artists and critics — including the heads of the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, the Miró Foundation and the Tàpies Foundation — penned an aggrieved manifesto demanding that construction cease. “Work should have ended when Gaudí was killed in 1926,” it declared. The central complaint is that the church bears little resemblance to Gaudi’s original vision. The group’s quest is distinctly quixotic since the Sagrada Familia has vanquished stauncher rivals by far over the years. “These are extreme preservationists,” says Edward Keegan, a Chicago architect who teaches at the University of Notre Dame. “They are all about hero worship and the 20th century’s ‘cult of the genius,’ which says that you can’t touch the master’s work.” But Keegan points out that cathedrals regularly took decades to build and thus required several designers. “Only in the last 100 years have we become interested in the sole architect as a genius creating a quickly built masterpiece,” Keegan says. “Let’s face it, now we build entire cities in 10 years.” Ironically, Gaudí himself would have objected to extreme preservationist ideas. “I know that the personal taste of the architects who follow me will influence the work, but this does not grieve me,” he wrote. “I believe it will even benefit the church. It will mark changing times within the unity of the overall plan.”
The project also faces a potentially devastating new structural problem: The city is excavating a tunnel for a new high speed train that will pass below the main façade. Although Spain’s Ministry of Public Works assures the church that the digging is too deep to disturb the foundation, engineers are concerned.