La Sagrada Família, Barcelona, by Gaudí 17.04.14

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"Don't worry, my client isn't in a hurry." The time it has taken to construct Antoni Gaudí's masterwork would test the patience of a saint. But his remark was not a glib one; rather it was one of Gaudí's many acknowledgements that the design was so complex it could not be realised in his lifetime.

In 1881, the Associación Espiritual de Devotos de San José purchased a block of houses on the edge of Barcelona. The site was cleared and the architect Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano was commissioned to design a Church of the Holy Family, funded by donations and tithes and intended for the poor. Del Villar built the crypt before withdrawing from the project. He was replaced, somewhat controversially, in 1883 by Gaudí. The son of a stonemason, Gaudí had, by the age of 31, established himself as an unconventional talent. A keen student of Viollet-le-Duc, his style was an evolution of art nouveau and gothic. But his buildings were derided in the press and ignored by the establishment; a few wealthy patrons kept him in work.

Gaudí's designs for the Sagrada Família developed through complex models that explored its structural system – he was as much an engineer as an architect. He also preferred to create atmospheric drawings over architectural plans, often changing his ideas on site after discussions with construction workers. By 1914, he had stopped work on all other projects to concentrate solely on his masterpiece.

The Sagrada Família is loaded with enough symbols to earn a starring role in a Dan Brown novel. The facades depict the stories of the Passion, the Nativity and the Glory, which face west, east and south respectively. The Nativity facade was designed by Gaudí himself and the Passion is the work of the modernist sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs. Over each of these facades will sit four 100m-high bell towers that represent the apostles; above the nave will be five towers, representing Christ and the Evangelists. As the towers exalting the glory of God continue to rise, the construction cranes, seemingly an integral part of the structure, exalt the firms building them.

Inside, the plan follows del Villar's original cruciform plan, but Gaudí, critical of flying buttresses, developed the gothic techniques and used angled columns and vaults to transfer loads through interior columns. The 45m-high central nave is supported by Montjuïc stone and granite piers that lead the eye towards the light filtering through the Venetian glass portals.

In Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell called the Sagrada Família "one of the most hideous buildings in the world", adding that "[the anarchists] showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance". Louis Sullivan said it was "spirit symbolised in stone". Pevsner thought that Le Corbusier's chapel at Ronchamp was indebted to it, and Evelyn Waugh thought it should be abandoned: "It seems certain to me that it will always remain a ruin, and a highly dangerous one, unless the towers are removed before they fall down."

The construction is ongoing and seven architects have led the project since Gaudí died after being hit by a tram in 1926. More recently, computer technology and modern construction techniques have speeded up the process. Currently, Mark Burry and a team at MIT are applying parametric processes to develop the perpetually incomplete design. Estimates for a date of completion range from 2025 to 2040.

The Sagrada Família is an original fake; the initial design no longer exists except as a romanticised idea – Gaudí's papers were lost when his workshop was destroyed in a fire during the Spanish Civil War. The church is an enigma, an evolving ruin that is restored and rethought as it is being realised. It remains the ultimate unbuilt project.





Owen Pritchard

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The Nativity facade was designed by Gaudí himself and the Passion is the work of the modernist sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs

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