La Sagrada Familia: The Great Work-in-Progress of Antoni Gaudí, “God’s Architect”
How much does it weigh to carry the title of being “God’s Architect”? The phrase suggests big shoes to fill, but Antoni Gaudí was more than happy to step up to the role. His devotion as an architect for La Sagrada Família, the great unfinished basilica in Barcelona, earned him the pious title.
The construction of this Roman Catholic basilica has been under Gaudí’s supervision since 1883 when he was called in by the church sponsor to spearhead it. Gaudí had not been religious at the beginning of the endeavor, but as time passed, he found himself drawn to it — and his Christian faith — almost devoutly. Eventually, Gaudí expressed that he wanted to create “the perfect temple” for the greater glory of God.
With determination, perfectionism, and passion, Gaudí had worked on La Sagrada Família for 43 years. He wanted to make the grand vision come to life — from the highest spire to the tiniest vector. But in 1926, during a walk saying his morning prayers, Gaudí had been struck by a tram. He didn’t live to see the completion of the basilica.
But even if he’d been spared from the accident, he probably wouldn’t have lived to see its completion at all. In 2020, only 70% of La Sagrada Família has been completed, although the building process was halted when the COVID-19 pandemic began. This was the only time construction was stopped since the Spanish Civil War.
Because of Gaudí’s imaginative — almost unattainable — ideas about the landmark, critics and historians had long contended on whether it was still an endeavor worth pursuing. But as it turns out, this had not been a problem for Gaudí: “My client is not in a hurry,” he said once. That client, of course, was God.
In time, efforts would be made to continue building the great basilica despite setbacks in funding and expert opinion. Some believed that Gaudí was far too ambitious with the project: La Sagrada Família was described as excessively intricate to the point of impracticality.
But it was Gaudí’s “ambitious” creative vision that would start revolutionizing art and architecture in 20th century Catalonia. Posterity would later come to know Gaudí as the “Father of Catalan Modernism,” a cultural movement along the lines of Art Nouveau.
The movement is a Renaissance in its own right — Barcelona is now one of the world’s most beloved cultural centers. The spawn of creative activity during Catalan Modernism (also known as Modernisme) is to thank for that.
From the earliest vestiges of his life as an architect, Gaudí had harbored ideas that were far from pragmatic. They were so unconventional that they were either dismissed as utter lunacy or recognized as illustriousness. Fresh out of the Barcelona School of Architecture, one of Gaudí’s mentors Elies Rogenth spoke of him: “I do not know if we have awarded this degree to a madman or to a genius; only time will tell.”
Even “the calling of Gaudí” for La Sagrada Família sounds like a prophecy of sorts. As the story goes, the Catholic philanthropist Josep Maria Bocabella had dreamt of a knight who would build the basilica. He’d then recognize Gaudí as the man in that dream and eventually convinced him to spearhead the construction.
Gaudí, in his early 30s, hardly had the professional experience to lead such a monumental project. But, as time would tell, it was his great dedication and raw talent that brought about the world-renowned basilica — and the dawn of a revolutionary art movement.
La Sagrada Família as a Blueprint of Modernisme
If Gaudí had not stepped in on the project, the construction of La Sagrada Família would have been finished far, far earlier — and drastically different from how culture knows it today.
The former architect for the project, Francisco de Paula del Villar, designed it to be of Neo-Gothic fashion. But when Gaudí took over after Del Villar’s resignation, he reimagined and redesigned it completely.
Gaudí patterned architectural techniques after his personal religious beliefs. As a Christian, he wanted to build a church that, as he’d believed, truly pleased God. Beyond his imaginative ideas, Gaudí took inspiration from nature and its laws, and his religious beliefs were among the primary reasons why the original concept of the project was overhauled.
“There are no straight lines or sharp corners in nature. Therefore, the buildings must have no straight lines or sharp corners,” Gaudí reportedly said. The spires and the walls of the basilica had thus resembled the branches of trees. He experimented with more curves, arches, and ornate patterns, rather than the palatial medieval style of Gothic architecture.
Although beautiful, Gaudí’s revisions were as risky as they were ridiculous; ostentatious to the point of being almost implausible. But Gaudí hammered on, insisting that his client — God — “was not in a hurry” anyway. He didn’t want to rush such a delicate project, and fortunately, his painstaking effort did pay off. The result is nothing short of magnificent.
Gaudí had dedicated the majority of his life to bringing the Sagrada Família into fruition. But while the beautiful church remains the quintessential example of Catalan Modernism, Gaudí would also participate in other architectural prospects in Barcelona — such as the Casa Vicens — that would become definitive of the genre.
Architects of his time would also take inspiration from the ornamental quality of Modernisme. Other notable buildings of the style are the Palau de la Música Catalana and the Hospital de Sant Pau (now a museum). They featured patterns like paisleys and curves, brightened with myriads of color combinations.
Making Gaudí’s Visions Come to Life
La Sagrada Família is set to be finished in 2026 — almost a hundred and fifty years since the project first launched.
Gaudí had undoubtedly set quite a standard as “God’s Architect,” and the position is far from the easiest to fill. Still, Jordi Faulí, head architect for the Sagrada Família since 2012, finds that the challenge — as arduous as it is — is an optimistic one. After all, it should be faced with the enthusiasm Gaudí had so lovingly applied.
“We followed the path laid by Gaudí, and I believe it will be most valuable to follow his version of the church,” said Faulí in a conversation with STIRworld, an architectural publication.
In November 2010, pope emeritus Benedict XVI consecrated La Sagrada Família despite it being unfinished. And aside from the monumental church, several of Gaudí’s works have also been recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.
Extravagant, joyful, and luminescent: Gaudí’s architectural projects would come to define the diverse society and rich culture of Barcelona. It seems as if his transformative visions in art and architecture have always been integral to who he was. Whether he was truly sent by God in a dream to finish the Sagrada Família, or perhaps just as mere luck and raw talent would have it — there’s no denying that Gaudí’s creative visions were nothing short of revolutionary.