Editorial Feature

Building La Sagrada Familia


Image Credit: Valery Egorov/Shutterstock.com

The Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family, commonly known as Sagrada Família, is a large Roman Catholic Church in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. It was designed by Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudí.

In November 2010, La Sagrada Familia was consecrated and proclaimed a minor basilica by Pope Benedict XVI in the presence of King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia of Spain, attended by a congregation of 6,500 people inside and about 50,000 people outside the basilica. Reports state that when the spires are completed, Sagrada Família will be the tallest church building in the world.

Designing La Sagrada Familia

It was the inspiration and dream of a Catalan bookseller, Josep Maria Bocabella, founder of Asociación Espiritual de Devotos de San José to build a magnificent church in Spain after visiting the Vatican in 1872. The construction of the crypt of La Sagrada Familia began in March 1882 under the guidance of architect Francisco de Paula Del Villar. Its ground-plan had a resemblance to earlier Spanish cathedrals such as Leon Cathedral, Burgos Cathedral, and Seville Cathedral.

Antoni Gaudí’s design has Roman Catholic symbolizations throughout the entire structure. His plan to have a total of 18 spires had a deeper meaning. In ascending order of height, the spires were to represent the Twelve Apostles, the four Evangelists, the Virgin Mary, and the tallest one being, Jesus Christ.

Gaudi knew that La Sagrada Familia would not be completed in his lifetime due to monetary constraints and manual labor. Barcelona city hall has only recently (in 2019) issued a work permit, 137 years after construction began as there was no record showing whether a building permit first requested in 1885 had ever been granted or rejected.

The Structure of La Sagrada Familia

The radical and spectacular structure of the Sagrada Familia is known for its complexity of parts, which include an ambulatory with a chevet of seven apsidal chapels, double aisles, 18 spires, and four façades with three portals each, all uniquely different in structure as well as ornaments. Another complex feature is the covered passage or cloister, which forms a rectangle, enclosing the church and passing through the narthex of each of its three portals.

Aesthetic Components of La Sagrada Familia

The Evangelists' spires will be surmounted by sculptures based on their traditional symbols: a bull for St.Luke, a winged man for St. Matthew, an eagle for St.John, and a lion for St. Mark. The central spire of Jesus Christ will be surmounted by a giant cross, which will measure 172.5 m (566 ft). The entire structure of the Sagrada Família is symbolic of the lifetime of Christ.

Interior Design of La Sagrada Familia

The church plan resembles a Latin cross with five aisles. The central nave vaults measure 45 m while the side nave vaults measure 30 m. The transept has three aisles. The columns are placed on a 7.5 m grid. The columns of the apse, however, do not adhere to the grid and require a section of columns of the ambulatory to transition to the grid, thus creating a horseshoe pattern to the layout of those columns. The crossing lies on the four central columns of porphyry, supporting a great hyperboloid surrounded by two rings of 12 hyperboloids. The apse is capped by a hyperboloid vault measuring 75 m. Gaudí envisioned that a visitor standing at the main entrance should be able to see the vaults of the nave, crossing, and apse. There are gaps in the floor of the apse to provide a view of the crypt below.

Gaudi’s columns alone are masterpieces, incorporating numerous geometric patterns. For example, the columns of the interior have ever-changing surfaces, which are the result of the intersection of various geometric forms - a square base evolves into an octagon as the column rises, then a 16-sided form, and finally to a circle. With advances in computer power, precise 3D scanning of the existing building, and 3D prototyping has allowed faster progression. Formerly, the decorative details produced by skilled artisans can be done by fast-moving CNC (computer numeric control) cutters working from digital patterns and complex structural issues can be more easily overcome.

Today, a total of eight of the eighteen spires have been built at La Sagrada Família, four on each facade. The facades are not connected and therefore have independent entrances. The visit to the spires is only by lift, one on each façade. The layout of the cloister of the church is completely original in the history of Christian architecture.

Construction of La Sagrada Familia

The construction of Sagrada Família commenced in 1882. Gaudí became involved only in 1883. He transformed the structural plan into his architectural and engineering style, which is a combination of gothic and curvilinear Art Nouveau forms.

Gaudí devoted most of his time to this project until his death in 1926. However, only less than a quarter of the project was complete. After Gaudí's death, the project continued under the guidance of Domènec Sugrañes i Gras until the Spanish Civil War in 1936. The project resumed in 1940 under the joint leadership of architects Francesc Quintana, Isidre Puig Boada, Lluís Bonet i Gari and Francesc Cardoner. More recently, in 2012 Spanish architect Jordi Faulí was appointed to lead the project. Well experienced, Faulí had both completed his Ph.D. thesis on the church’s design and spent more than 20 years as a junior architect on the scheme. 

Today, more than 24 architects are working on the project with 200 workers involved in the construction. The anticipated completion date is set to be in 2026, which marks the centennial of Gaudí's death. It makes it the longest-running, active building project on Earth.  Where record-breaking is concerned, the recent building permit is the most expensive ever, costing $5.2 million (4.6 million euros). 

Interesting Facts about La Sagrada Familia

La Sagrada Familia’s distinctive silhouette has become symbolic of Barcelona.

La Sagrada Família is currently one of Spain’s most visited tourist attractions. More than 4.5 million people visit annually and pay €17-€38 each to tour the church which helps fund the project.

Visitors can access the Nave, Crypt, Museum, Shop, and the Passion and Nativity towers. The rule to enjoying this spectacular church is –‘the closer you scrutinize the decorative details, the more you will see’.

Although La Sagrada Família is still incomplete, the church has been selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. La Sagrada Família is also referred to as Temple Expiatiori de la Sagrada Familia, Basilica de la Sagrada Familia; Basilica of the Holy Family.

Antoní Gaudí dedicated more than 40 years of his life to its construction. He was killed after being knocked down by a tram in 1926 and is buried in the Sagrada Familia crypt. 

According to the Sagrada Familía foundation, the ongoing work is based on Gaudi’s plaster models, photos, and writings of his original drawings, which were destroyed in a 1930s fire. 

Barcelona has the largest concentration of buildings designed by Gaudí.

Sources and Further Reading

This article was updated on 7th February, 2020.

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