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Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona

The Holy Family is a church in the capital of Catalonia, Barcelona (in northeastern Spain)

The cathedral, Antoni Gaudi’s impressive yet unfinished work — the Holy Family — is one of Barcelona’s most visited monuments.

The project did not belong to him from the beginning, as another architect was commissioned to carry it out — Francisco del Villar — who would apparently fall into a deep depression because the size and complexity of the project simply exceeded him. Gaudi will be surprised when the authorities assign him the project he has dreamed of since his university days — a cathedral. He said: “This cathedral, once finished, will be my thanks to the Holy Family who helped me to achieve everything I set out to do”.

The idea of building a cathedral belonged to an organisation whose aim was to put an end to the degeneration that had taken hold of the locals with industrialisation and enrichment.

A piece of land was purchased in 1877. The architect Francisco de Paula del Villar designed a neo-Gothic cathedral and supervised the work which began in 1882.

A year later, modernist architect Antoni Gaudi took over the project, aged just 31. Since then, Gaudi has devoted his entire life to the monument. Instead of sticking to the original plans, Gaudi almost radically changed the shape of the building.

For 43 years, Gaudi added bizarre improvisations and chimney-like towers to the original Gothic structure. Though unfinished, the Sagrada Familia remains the architect’s masterpiece. The neo-Gothic style was replaced by Gaudi’s modernist style, which was based on forms found in nature.

The huge neo-Catalonic building, rich in ornaments, is still unfinished and has been under construction since 1882. It is financed by public money, as was the custom in the Middle Ages. The Sagrada Familia was never finished because Gaudi wanted it to be perfect and this delayed the work that continued after his death. Even today, hundreds of sketches can still be found in his studio at the School of Architecture in Barcelona.

Several new stylistic elements have been added to Gaudi’s design (the south façade, four more towers, and the nave, begun in 1978 and still being worked on).

When he died in 1926, only one facade was finished (the Nativity), a tower, apse and crypt. This is because Gaudi was constantly changing the design, which is why no concrete plans are kept, and what remained disappeared in the civil war of 1936.

The last version of the project gave the church the following dimensions — 95 meters long and 60 meters wide, and could accommodate up to 13,000 people.

After Gaudí’s death, work was slow due to lack of funds and civil war. Work restarted in 1950, when two more facades and eight towers would go up. The central nave will be covered in 2000.

When completed, the cathedral will have 18 towers. There will be four towers on each of the three facades, representing the 12 Apostles. The towers vary in height — between 90 and 120 metres.

Another four towers will represent the four evangelists, and will surround the central tower, 170 metres high, dedicated to Christ. And the last tower, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, will be erected above the apse.

Work is currently underway on the interior of the central nave, as well as on the cathedral facades. A special feature of the cathedral is the bell tower, which reaches 170 meters, the highest bell tower ever built.

The cathedral has three large facades, which dominate the exterior.

The first façade, facing east, is known as the Nativity façade. It was finished by Gaudi and decorated in the Baroque style with motifs from nature.

On the opposite side is the Passion façade, whose construction began in 1952, and whose abstract statues of Jesus were added in 1978. The statues bear the imprint of Josep Maria Subirachs and have led to some local conflict that this is not in keeping with what Gaudi intended. The style differs greatly.

The Slava facade, the one most worked on today, is more hidden under architectural elements and arches.

The top of a tower symbolises the tree of life, adorned with free-flying doves. This detail is not known to be part of the original plan.

The last facade is almost finished, but it is expected that it may take another 25–30 years for the whole construction to be finished.

One problem was that the great Gaudi left few plans for it (he died in 1926, run over by a Barcelona tram) and those that existed were lost in a fire in 1936. Another thing worth mentioning is that the entire cathedral was built on donations (not to mention annual ticket sales for tourists).

Even though the church is a long way from being considered finished, it is well worth a visit.

You can see the crypt where Gaudi is buried, as well as a museum that talks about the history of the architect and the great project. The museum is at the base of the cathedral and holds many pictures of the cathedral during the construction stages, many models of scaffolding and architectural drawings.

Visitors wishing to climb the tower have to climb about 350 steps, and those with altitude sickness and claustrophobia are advised not to resist. It’s a bit scary to climb the steps of the narrow spiral staircase, knowing that some of Gaudi’s contemporaries felt that the geometry of his construction is made in such a way as to defy the logic of mathematics, and therefore cannot stand.


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