Essential Architecture-  Barcelona

Sagrada Familia "Church of the Holy Family"


Antoni Gaudi




1882 to 1926


Art Nouveau 




  Part of Eixample and Sagrada Familia, viewed from Montjuic, June 2006

La Sagrada Familia (The Holy Family) is a large Roman Catholic basilica under construction in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. The formal title of the basilica is the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família or Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family. It is the last, and perhaps most extraordinary, of the designs of the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí.

The Sagrada Família was planned in the late 19th century and construction work, under the supervison of Antoni Gaudí, commenced in the 1880s. After disagreements between the founding association and the original architect Francesco del Villar, Gaudí was assigned the project in 1883 and created an entirely new design. At the time, the basilica stood in an empty field over a mile away from urban Barcelona.

Gaudí worked on the project for over 40 years, devoting the last 15 years of his life entirely to this endeavour; on the subject of the extremely long construction, Gaudí is said to have joked, "My client is not in a hurry." Work was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War in 1935 and recommenced in the 1950s.

Gaudí died in 1926. Parts of the unfinished building and Gaudí's models and workshop were destroyed during the Spanish Civil War by Catalan anarchists. The design, as now being constructed, is based both on reconstructed versions of the lost plans and on modern adaptations. Since 1940 the architects Francesc Quintana, Isidre Puig Boada, and Lluís Gari have carried on the work. Sculptures by J. Busquets and the controversial Josep Subirachs decorate the fantastical façades.

According to the newspaper El Periódico de Catalunya, 2.26 million people visited the partially built basilica in 2004, making it one of the most popular attractions in Spain, alongside the Museo del Prado and Alhambra. The main structure of the nave was completed in 2005, and work in 2006 concentrates on the supporting structure for the main tower of Jesus Christ.

La Sagrada Família is not a cathedral; the cathedral of Barcelona is the Cathedral of Santa Eulàlia, a Gothic building of the late Middle Ages.


Every part of the design of La Sagrada Família is rich with Christian symbolism, as Gaudí intended the church to be the "last great sanctuary of Christendom." Its most striking aspect are its spindle-shaped towers. A total of 18 tall towers are called for, representing in ascending order of height the 12 Apostles, the four Evangelists, the Virgin Mary and, tallest of all, Jesus Christ. (According to the 2005 "Works Report" of the temple's official website, drawings signed by Gaudí found recently in the Municipal Archives indicate that the tower of the Virgin was in fact intended by Gaudí to be shorter than those of the evangelists, and this is the design -- which the Works Report states is more compatible with the existing foundations -- that will be followed. The same source explains the symbolism in terms of Christ being known through the evangelists.) The evangelists' towers will be surmounted by sculptures of their traditional symbols: a bull (St. Luke), an angel (St. Matthew), an eagle (St. John), and a lion (St. Mark). The central tower of Jesus Christ is to be surmounted by a giant cross; the tower's total height will be one metre less than that of Montjuïc, as Gaudí believed that his work should not surpass that of God. The lower towers are surmounted by bunches of grapes, representing spiritual fruit.

The church will have three grand façades: the Nativity (eastern) façade, the Glory façade (yet to be completed), and the Passion (western) façade. The Nativity facade was built before work was interrupted in 1935 and bears the most direct Gaudí influence. The Passion façade is especially striking for its spare, gaunt, tormented characters, including emaciated figures of Christ being flogged and on the crucifix. These controversial designs are the work of Josep Subirachs.

The towers on the Nativity facade are crowned with geometrically shaped tops that were probably influenced by Cubism (they were finished around 1920). The intricate decoration is loosely related the style of Art Nouveau but reflects Gaudí's unique ideas.

Themes throughout the decoration include words from the liturgy. The towers are decorated with words such as "Hosanna," "Excelsis," and "Sanctus;" the great doors of the Passion façade reproduce words from the Bible in various languages including Catalan; and the Glory façade is to be decorated with the words from the Apostles' Creed.

Areas of the sanctuary will be designated to represent various concepts, such as saints, virtues, sins, and secular concepts such as regions of Spain, presumably with decoration to match.

The building works are expected to be complete around 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudi's death, although the likelihood of meeting this date is disputed. Computer modelling has been used for the detailed design of the intricate structure of supporting columns inside the basilica. See also catenary. CAD/CAM technology has been used to speed up the construction of the building; initially, the construction work was expected to last for several hundred years, based on building techniques available in the early 1900s. The construction work calls for many pieces of stone to be machined to unique shapes, each being subtly different from the next, and these pieces are now being machined accurately off-site reducing the overall construction time.

Antoni Gaudi used hyperboloid structures in the Sagrada Familia, there are a few places on the nativity façade - a design not equated with Gaudi's ruled-surface design, where the hyperboloid crops up. All around the scene with the pelican, there are numerous examples (including the basket held by one of the figures). There is a hyperboloid adding structural stability to the cypress tree (by connecting it to the bridge). And finally, the "bishop's mitre" spires are capped with hyperboloid structures .


Sagrada Familia was the last work of Gaudi's life. Once he started on it, he worked on it full time until he died as a result of a tram accident. During those last years he lived in a small house on the building site.

In the socialist ferment at the end nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, Catalunya was gripped by anti-clerical riots that resulted in the destruction of church property. Gaudi was a Catalan nationalist and he seems to have taken the regional affront to his Catholic God to heart. Sagrada Familia was built to atone for sin, those regional and perhaps those personal. This is reflected in the name: Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia. A temple built for the expiation of sin.

Sagrada Familia consumed Gaudi's life and became a constant struggle, which perhaps he welcomed (atonement requires pain and struggle, after all). Gaudi's funding from patrons for Sagrada Familia was limited and as the project progressed, Gaudi literally went door to door trying to raise money for his project. Apparently there are members of the Catholic Church on the Sagrada Familia board now, but Gaudi got no funds from the Church for construction.

Even if Gaudi had adequate funds, it is unlikely that a project as ambitious as Sagrada Familia would have been finished in Gaudi's lifetime. While Gaudi was alive four towers and an entrance were completed. As you approach Sagrada Familia from the subway it is these towers and the cranes and scaffolds of the continuing construction that you see.

These towers are famous from the books on Gaudi, so I was excited as I walked toward Sagrada Familia. The entrance is opposite Gaudi's towers. To enter you buy an 8 Euro ticket, which allows you to wander around the lower floor of the building. To ride the elevator to the top of one of the new towers costs another 2 Euros. In retrospect I wish I had saved the 10 Euros and spent them on lunch.

The new part of Sagrada Familia is a travesty. The entry to the cathedral is surmounted by grim modernist sculptures, which pay cartoon-ish homage to Gaudi by including the helmet forms from his Casa Mila chimneys. The sculpture in Gaudi's section is lifelike and fluid. The sculpture in the new entryway is angular and abstract. Walking through the doors into the cathedral you soon arrive at an interior that is largely obscured by construction scaffolds. The pillars that support the structure use modern concrete and steel. They branch at the top in a tree like form. A similar form was used by Gaudi at Colonia Guell. Like the sculptures, these pillars have none of Gaudi's fluid form and parabolic support structure. While this support structure might be interesting in a modern building, they are an insult to Gaudi's original design.

There will never be another Antoni Gaudi. It would be unreasonable to expect that the architects that have designed the new section of Sagrada Familia would do it exactly as Gaudi would have. What is remarkable is that they seem to have decided to entirely ignore Gaudi's design aesthetic. By grafting such an alien modernist structure onto Gaudi's original towers, the cathedral has been destroyed. I was so disappointed by my walk through the new addition that when I finally arrived at Gaudi's original structure, I could not fully appreciate it.