An Architectural Tour of Sagrada Família, Antoni Gaudí’s Audacious Church That’s Been Under Construction for 142 Years

In less than a year and a half, the cen­te­nary of Antoni Gaudí’s death will be here. Faced with this fact, espe­cial­ly ded­i­cat­ed enthu­si­asts of Cata­lan archi­tec­ture may already be plan­ning their fes­tiv­i­ties. But we can be sure where the real pres­sure is felt: the Basíli­ca i Tem­ple Expi­a­tori de la Sagra­da Família, Gaudí’s most famous build­ing, which — as of tomor­row — has been under con­struc­tion for 142 years. When it first broke ground in 1882, Gaudí was­n’t involved at all, but when he took over the project the fol­low­ing year, he re-envi­sioned it in a dis­tinc­tive com­bi­na­tion of the Goth­ic and Art Nou­veau styles. The rest, as they say, is his­to­ry: a trou­bled, unpre­dictable his­to­ry con­tin­u­ing to this day, explained by archi­tec­ture-and-his­to­ry Youtu­ber Manuel Bra­vo in the video above.

Though it isn’t yet com­plete, you can vis­it Sagra­da Família; indeed, it’s long been the most pop­u­lar tourist attrac­tion in Barcelona. The expe­ri­ence of mar­veling at the basil­i­ca’s aston­ish­ing degree of detail and not-quite-of-this-Earth struc­ture is worth the price of admis­sion, which has helped to fund its ongo­ing con­struc­tion. But you’ll appre­ci­ate it on a high­er lev­el if you go with some­one who can explain its many unusu­al fea­tures, both archi­tec­tur­al and reli­gious — some­one with as much knowl­edge ad enthu­si­asm as Bra­vo, whom we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture for his videos on Pom­peii, Venice, the Great Pyra­mids of Giza, and the Duo­mo di Firen­ze.

With Sagra­da Famíli­a’s pyra­mi­dal shape, Bra­vo explains, Gaudí “hoped to sug­gest a con­nec­tion between the human and the divine.” Its three façades are ded­i­cat­ed to the birth, death, and eter­nal life of Jesus Christ, to whom the cen­tral and tallest of its planned eigh­teen tow­ers will be ded­i­cat­ed. The cathe­dral’s exte­ri­or alone con­sti­tutes an “authen­tic Bible of stone,” but it can hard­ly pre­pare you to step into the inte­ri­or, with its “beau­ti­ful play of space, light, and col­or.” As Bra­vo puts it, “the pro­tag­o­nist here is the space itself,” envi­sioned by Gaudí as “a huge for­est” involv­ing no un-nature-like straight lines. All of it show­cas­es “the com­bi­na­tion of aes­thet­ics and effi­cien­cy” that defines the archi­tec­t’s work.

Bravo’s video runs a bit over twen­ty min­utes, but you could spend much, much longer appre­ci­at­ing every aspect of Sagra­da Família, those com­plet­ed in Gaudí’s life­time as well as those com­plet­ed by the many devot­ed arti­sans who have con­tin­ued his work for almost 100 years now. The archi­tect “knew quite well that he would not live to see the tem­ple com­plet­ed,” says Bra­vo, hence his hav­ing “left behind so many mod­els and draw­ings” for his suc­ces­sors to go on. They’re work­ing on a 2026 dead­line, but as Bra­vo notes, giv­en the inter­rup­tions inflict­ed by COVID-19, “that date seems unlike­ly.” But then, has there ever been as unlike­ly a build­ing as Sagra­da Família?

Relat­ed con­tent:

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

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

Venice Explained: Its Archi­tec­ture, Its Streets, Its Canals, and How Best to Expe­ri­ence Them All

Take a High Def, Guid­ed Tour of Pom­peii

How the World’s Biggest Dome Was Built: The Sto­ry of Fil­ip­po Brunelleschi and the Duo­mo in Flo­rence

What the Great Pyra­mids of Giza Orig­i­nal­ly Looked Like

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (5)
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  • Dan says:

    It’s not a cathe­dral, Barcelona ‘s cathe­dral is in the Goth­ic Quar­ter and will remain the cathe­dral. The Sagra­da Família is just a Basil­i­ca.

  • Ed Lewis says:

    Spell­bound upon enter­ing!
    Speech­less beyond belief!

  • Raul Macias says:

    Sagra­da Famil­ia is NOT a cathe­dral! It’s a basíli­ca. There can only be a cathe­dral in each city, which is the bish­op or arch­bish­op seat. Barcelon­a’s cat­e­dral is in the Goth­ic Area, in the city cen­ter, and it is not Sagra­da Famil­ia.

  • A Richards says:

    Cor­rect. Jour­nal­ists nev­er get this right

  • Nick McGarraugh says:

    JUST…? That,s like say­ing the sun is just a ball of gas!

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