The Incredible Engineering of Antonio Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia, the 137 Year Construction Project

When (or if) it is final­ly fin­ished in 2026, a full 100 years after its archi­tect Antoni Gaudí’s death, the Basil­i­ca de la Sagra­da Famil­ia will be the largest church in the world — mak­ing it, on the one hand, a dis­tinct­ly 19th cen­tu­ry phe­nom­e­non much like oth­er struc­tures designed in the late 1800s. The Brook­lyn Bridge, for instance, became the longest sus­pen­sion bridge in the world in 1883, the same year Gaudí took over the Sagra­da Famil­ia project; the Eif­fel Tow­er took the hon­or of tallest struc­ture in the world when it opened six years lat­er. Biggest was in the briefs for major indus­tri­al build­ing projects of the age.

Most oth­er mon­u­men­tal con­struc­tion projects of the time, how­ev­er, excelled in one cat­e­go­ry Gaudí reject­ed: speed. While the Brook­lyn Bridge took 14 years to build, cost many lives, includ­ing its chief architect’s, and suf­fered sev­er­al set­backs, its con­struc­tion was still quite a con­trast to the medieval archi­tec­ture from which its designs drew. Prague’s 14th cen­tu­ry Charles Bridge took 45 years to fin­ish. Half a cen­tu­ry was stan­dard for goth­ic cathe­drals in the Mid­dle Ages. (Notre-Dame was under con­struc­tion for hun­dreds of years.) Their orig­i­nal archi­tects hard­ly ever lived to see their projects to com­ple­tion.

Gaudí’s enor­mous mod­ernist cathe­dral was as much a per­son­al labor of love as a gift to Barcelona, but unlike his con­tem­po­raries, he had no per­son­al need to see it done. He was “unfazed by its glacial progress,” notes Atlas Obscu­ra. The archi­tect him­self said, “There is no rea­son to regret that I can­not fin­ish the church. I will grow old but oth­ers will come after me. What must always be con­served is the spir­it of the work, but its life has to depend on the gen­er­a­tions it is hand­ed down to and with whom it lives and is incar­nat­ed.”

Per­haps even Gaudí could not have fore­seen Sagra­da Famil­ia would take over 130 years, its cranes and scaf­fold­ing dom­i­nat­ing the city’s sky­line, decade after decade. A few things — the Span­ish Civ­il War, inevitable fund­ing issues — got in the way. But it’s also the case that Sagra­da Famil­ia is unlike any­thing else ever built. Gaudí “found much of his inspi­ra­tion and mean­ing in archi­tec­ture,” the Real Engi­neer­ing video above notes, “by fol­low­ing the pat­terns of nature, using the beau­ty that he saw as a gift from God as the ulti­mate blue­print to the world.”

Learn above what sets Sagra­da Famil­ia apart — its cre­ator was not only a mas­ter archi­tect and artist, he was also a mas­ter engi­neer who under­stood how the strange, organ­ic shapes of his designs “impact­ed the struc­tur­al integri­ty of the build­ing. Rather than fight against the laws of nature, he worked with them.” And nature, we know, likes to take its time.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Japan­ese Sculp­tor Who Ded­i­cat­ed His Life to Fin­ish­ing Gaudí’s Mag­num Opus, the Sagra­da Família

Watch Antoni Gaudí’s Unfin­ished Mas­ter­piece, the Sagra­da Família, Get Final­ly Com­plet­ed in 60 Sec­onds

A Vir­tu­al Time-Lapse Recre­ation of the Build­ing of Notre Dame (1160)

An Ani­mat­ed Video Shows the Build­ing of a Medieval Bridge: 45 Years of Con­struc­tion in 3 Min­utes

How the Brook­lyn Bridge Was Built: The Sto­ry of One of the Great­est Engi­neer­ing Feats in His­to­ry

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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