Nothing – really, nothing – prepares you for the impact of the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família which occupies an entire city block between c/de Mallorca and c/de Provença, north of the Diagonal; the metro drops you right outside. In many ways the overpowering church of the “Sacred Family” has become a kind of symbol for the city. It is the most fantastic of the modern architectural creations in which Barcelona excels – even the coldest hearts will find the Sagrada Família inspirational in form and spirit.
Although the church survived the Civil War, Gaudí’s plans and models were destroyed in 1936 by the anarchists. Nonetheless, work restarted in the late 1950s amid great controversy, and has continued ever since – as have the arguments. On balance, it’s probably safe enough to assume that Gaudí saw the struggle to finish the building as at least as important as the method and style. However, the current work has attracted criticism for infringing Gaudí’s original spirit, while tunnelling under the temple for the high-speed AVE train line has kicked up a huge stink among critics who claim that the church will be put at risk (not so, say the tunnel engineers). All in all, though the project might be drawing inexorably towards completion (within the next twenty years, it’s said), there’s still plenty more time for argument.
The size alone is startling – Gaudí’s original plan was to build a church to seat over 10,000 people, while the iconic towers rise to over 100m high. A precise symbolism pervades the facades, each of which is divided into three porches devoted to Faith, Hope and Charity. Gaudí made extensive use of human, plant and animal models in order to produce exactly the sculptural likenesses he sought – the spreading stone leaves of the roof in the church interior, for example, were inspired by the city’s plane trees. Although parts of the interior still resemble a giant building site, and the Glory facade remains unfinished, the whole church will be roofed in due course, with a 170-metre-high central dome and tower to follow (which will then make the church the tallest building in Barcelona).
There are eight towers at the Sagrada Família, four on each current facade, though following Gaudí’s design there will eventually be eighteen – twelve symbolizing the Apostles, four dedicated to the Evangelists and one each for Mary and Jesus. They have been likened to everything from perforated cigars to celestial billiard cues, and to see them at close quarters take one of the separate elevators that run up the Passion and Nativity facades. Your entrance ticket also gives you access to the museum, which traces the career of the architect and the history of the church.
Begun in 1882 by public subscription, the Sagrada Família was originally intended as a modest, expiatory building that would atone for the city’s increasingly revolutionary ideas. When Antoni Gaudí – only 31 years of age – took charge, he changed the direction and scale of the project almost immediately, seeing in the Sagrada Família an opportunity to reflect his own deepening spiritual and nationalist feelings. Indeed, after he finished the Parc Güell in 1911, Gaudí vowed never to work again on secular projects, but to devote himself solely to the Sagrada Família, which became perhaps the most daring creation in all Art Nouveau. Gaudí even ended up living in a workshop on site, and he was adapting the plans ceaselessly right up to his untimely death. Run over by a tram on the Gran Vía on June 7, 1926, he died in hospital three days later – his death was treated as a Catalan national disaster, and all of Barcelona turned out for his funeral procession. Following papal dispensation, he was buried in the Sagrada Família crypt, a fitting resting place for an architect whose masterpiece was designed (he said), to show “the religious realities of present and future life … man’s origin, his end”.