The Basilica of the Holy Family, or Sagrada Familia for short. It is the only building in the world that has been listed as a World Heritage Site before it was completed. For more than a century, the Sagrada Familia Cathedral has not only become a landmark of Barcelona, but is also considered one of the greatest works in the history of human architecture, perfectly demonstrating Gaudi’s wild imagination and the limits of human architectural aesthetics.
In December 2021, after almost 140 years of construction, the second tallest building of the church, the Tower of Our Lady, was officially topped off with a glowing “star”, which means that the completion of the Sagrada Familia Cathedral is just around the corner! So, why did the Holy Family Cathedral take so long to build? What is the past life of it and its designer, Gaudi?
Was he a genius or a madman? The legend of a master architect
If we were to describe Gaudi, it would be “a genius of unearthly proportions”. He became famous as a young man, never married, and devoted his life to architecture, religion, nature and art.
As one of the top architects in Spain and the world, Gaudi’s architectural style is known for its absolutely exaggerated imagination and stunning artistic effects. He designed numerous classical works, 17 of which are classified as national monuments by Spain and seven as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Now the master has long passed away, but the architectural works he left behind are still regarded as treasures, and his life story has become a legend ……
Gaudi was born on June 25, 1852, in Reus, a small town not far from Barcelona. Gaudi’s full name was Antonio Gaudi, his father was a boiler maker and his mother ran the household. As a result of his childhood rheumatism, Gaudi spent his childhood not playing with other children, but often alone, which led him to develop a withdrawn and introverted personality that remained so into his youth. At school, he received moderate grades, but he had a talent for drawing and often published illustrations in the school’s weekly handwritten magazine. At that time, Barcelona was undergoing a wave of complete renovation, and the rich and powerful were spending a lot of money to join the process of the city’s renovation, and an original building was erected, making architects a popular profession.
Gaudi was one of them. In 1870, with his dream of architecture, Gaudi enrolled in the Barcelona School of Architecture, as he had hoped, but in these two years he encountered a difficult situation in his life: first, his older brother, who had just graduated from medical school, died. He had to take his older brother, who had just graduated from medical school, and then his mother, who was ill, and his sister, who died, leaving behind only a young daughter. In a series of blows, his father had to take his granddaughter and move to Barcelona to live with Gordy, and Gordy was forced to start a life of going to school and supporting his family at the same time.
Fortunately, before graduating, Gaudi participated in some architectural design in Barcelona and worked as an assistant to several famous architects. With the experience he gained, Gaudi was bold enough to propose a more daring project for his graduation project – an auditorium for a university, which was controversial at the time, but was finally approved. The rector exclaimed, “I don’t know whether I gave my diploma to a genius or a madman!”
In 1878, Gaudi officially received the title of architect, and in that year he made a close friend, which led to a major change in his life. This man’s name was Eusebio Cuell, who was a typical “wise man” who didn’t care about Gaudi’s eccentric personality, but was very much in tune with his whimsical ideas. With Quayle’s financial support, Gaudi designed and built a large number of architectural works, and Quayle also introduced Gaudi to high society, many rich people have asked Gaudi to design buildings for themselves, including all kinds of public houses, villas, pavilions, cemeteries and so on.
One day in 1900, Quayle had an idea to build a park, and he bought a hill in the suburbs of Barcelona and gave the plan to Gaudi to complete. After 14 years of construction, Parque Quell was finally completed. During the massive project, Gaudi perfectly integrated his love for nature and his understanding of architecture, making it the most mature work of his own style. The moment you step into Quail Park, you can feel the surprise, it is like a fairy tale world of light, and like a giant work of art floating on the top of the mountain; uniquely shaped fountain, inlaid with colorful porcelain promenade and sculpture, winding bridges and water, columns supporting the vast space of the Hall of 100 columns …… Even today, a hundred years later , the various wonderful things in Quayle Park still look bold and avant-garde and amazing.
Of course, there are many more of Gaudi’s classics besides Quail Park, such as the House of Bartolo and the House of Mira. But his most personal achievement, and the work that sparked the most debate in later generations, was not born after his middle age when he matured in style, but rather the magnificent building that he took on as a young man, but was far from finished until his death, the Basilica of the Holy Family.
The ill-fated Basilica of the Sagrada Familia, “the greatest building to fail” 140 years after its construction
In 1865, after a serious cholera in Barcelona, a bookseller named Joseph Maria Bocabella proposed the idea of building a new cathedral of the Holy Family, the Cathedral of the Holy Family, in order to revive the prestige of the Catholic Church.
As the founder of the Religious Society of St. Joseph, Joseph’s proposal was supported within the Society, and in 1882, after raising funds, the Society bought 12,800 square meters of land in Barcelona and hired architect Villar to design and build it. Initially, Villar designed the church in Gothic Revival style, incorporating typical elements such as spire windows, buttresses, flying buttresses and bell tower, but after only one year of construction, just after completing the underground sanctuary, Villar disagreed with the association and announced his withdrawal. It was Gaudi who took over at the age of 31.
Prior to this, Gaudi had no experience as the chief architect of such a major project, but perhaps it was because he had the courage of a “newborn calf not afraid of tigers” that the association let him take over this difficult project. From the beginning, Gaudi expected that the project would take a very long time, so he did not care about the construction schedule and worked on other projects while telling others: “My customers (God) are not in a hurry.”
In the first few years of his work on the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi continued to follow his predecessor’s ideas, slowly adding and refining them. But after the 1890s, Gaudi boldly overturned his original ideas and proposed a completely new plan.
Compared with the old plan, Gaudi’s conception can be described as a complete transformation, from the overall framework and structure of the church, to the interior design of the building and various details, all of them were completely new. As a devout, even fervent Catholic, Gaudi’s entire concept is based on religious elements, which he tries to embody in every detail of the church. In the new scheme, the main body of the church will have three main facades representing the different stages of Jesus’ life: the Nativity, Passion and Glorification facades; the entire church will have 18 towers representing Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the twelve disciples of Jesus and four important evangelists; the exterior walls and interior will be filled with sculptures and frescoes of various stories… …
As time passed and Gaudi reached middle age and later in life, he invested more and more effort in the Basilica of the Holy Family, realizing that it would take at least a few more generations to complete the church. In order to ensure that this magnificent project would be perfected in the future, in the last ten years of his life, Gaudi left all his other jobs and lived directly in the church, directing the construction while preparing the drawings and materials for the later stages and making models of the building so that future generations could continue to complete the construction.
In 1925, the first bell tower of the birth façade was finally topped off, and at that time, with the part of the walls already completed, the whole church was less than a quarter of the way finished – and unfortunately, at the age of 73, Gaudi did not get to see much more. The city was in high spirits as the tram, decorated with flags and flowers, ran through the streets to the accompaniment of music and the sound of laughter and applause. However, the tram suddenly ran over an old man with a withered description, who was taken to the hospital and died not long afterwards. Since the old man had no papers on him, no one knew his identity until it was time to bury him in the public cemetery, when a priest recognized: the dead man turned out to be Gaudi! In the end, Gaudi was buried in the crypt of the Holy Family Cathedral, where the whole city came to pay their respects.
After Gaudi’s death, the architect Dominique Sugerlaine took over the construction of the Basilica of the Holy Family, and in 1930 the “birth façade” was officially completed. Soon afterwards, due to the war, the Cathedral was almost forgotten and the construction was halted; to make matters worse, a group of anarchists stormed Gaudi’s former studio, destroying and setting fire to it. During this chaotic and long period of time, only Gaudi’s former assistants continued the construction of the church slowly and restlessly. After the end of the war, and with most of the 20th century behind us, the Holy Family Cathedral came to mind, but because the church was built without any financial support from the government or the church, but relied only on individual donations and ticket revenues to sustain it; and because the construction process had to constantly refer to and restore Gaudi’s ideas, progress was very slow.
From the mid to late 20th century, the construction of the Holy Family Cathedral was intermittent, with more than a dozen architects changing hands. But fortunately, the succeeding architects have been trying to fulfill Gaudi’s legacy by following up the construction through the remaining manuscripts, drawings, models and other materials. Today, nearly 140 years later, the news of the topping out of Santa Maria del Fiore has finally arrived. This indicates that the completion of the Sagrada Familia Cathedral, once known as the “world’s greatest building in ruins,” is just around the corner.
An architectural spectacle of great beauty to realize the “lifetime” of people
Although still incomplete, the Sagrada Familia Cathedral is more than 70% complete, and a great building, which “to a great extent fulfills Gaudi’s vision”, has been presented to the world.
The Sagrada Familia Cathedral we can see now is a Gothic church with an irregular multi-columned façade, yellowish gray in color, and the main structure consists of five naves and three flanking naves. If you look down from above, you will see that the whole church is rectangular in plan, like a cross prostrate on the ground that is not completely symmetrical. The “cross” is placed somewhat askew, with the top facing northwest and the bottom pointing southeast – this was Gaudi’s thinking: he designed the church with three elevations: the birth, the crucifixion and the glory, with the birth elevation located just to the right of the “cross”. “On the other side of the cross, the Crucifixion façade is the opposite of the Nativity façade, which is the direction of the setting sun and symbolizes the suffering of Jesus; the Gloria façade is located at the bottom of the church (the southernmost point). It is the final main façade of the entire church.
The three façades are the symbols of the Sagrada Familia, each with a different symbolic meaning and built with very different effects. The Nativity façade, built under Gaudi’s auspices, has three porticos separated by two tall columns, and is characterized by a large number of statues and motifs carved into the walls, using many elements related to nature and life, in addition to the religious story related to the birth of Jesus. Upon closer inspection, the carvings are all exquisite and intricate, as if growing out of the wall, they seem to be independent of each other, but also seem to be connected as a whole, and the visual effect is extremely stunning.
Unlike the Nativity façade, the Crucifixion façade is much more “polished,” with several groups of carvings depicting the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, supported on the outside by six huge, inclined columns. Above it, there are 18 bony pillars arranged in a pyramidal triangular frieze, the tops of which are connected by a continuous corolla, ultimately forming the shape of a crown. As a whole, the crucifixion façade is colored in gray and black, the sculpture group is shaped with cold, angular lines, the crucified Jesus is thin and bony with a painful expression, and the contrast between light and dark formed by the wall and the pillars creates a horrible, heavy atmosphere.
The Gloria façade, which is still under construction since 2002, shows the final moment of Jesus’ ascension to heaven. According to the design, the portico of the Gloria façade will have seven stone pillars to symbolize the gifts of God, and the pillars will have the symbols of the “Seven Deadly Sins” at the bottom and the “Seven Virtues” at the top, and the stairs in front of the door will connect to the The staircase in front of the door also connects to the underground passages symbolizing sin and hell.
The exterior of the Basilica of the Holy Family is impressive enough, but the interior is even more beautiful. When you enter the nave along the birth façade, it is a vast and solemn space with dozens of huge polygonal columns standing between them. These columns are like a forest, and when they reach a certain height, the tops will diverge and connect with each other, supporting each other’s dome, which is 30 meters at its lowest point and 60 meters at its highest point, making it a strange and mysterious world. Standing in the center of the temple to look around, decorated with the most beautiful altar, deep cloister, from the sky hanging down the crystal lamp …… every one of them is mind-blowing. The most wonderful thing is that all directions of the nave are carefully installed with stained glass windows, whenever the sun passes through, a variety of wonderful colors and light will shine in all corners of the nave, as the time of day changes, the angle of the sun shifts, the angle and brightness of the light also changes …… picture is incomparably beautiful and holy.
Today, the main building of the Sagrada Familia Cathedral and its interiors are almost complete, and the remaining work is the 18 towers that surround the main body of the church. Gaudi’s faith was so strong that he believed that man-made buildings should not exceed God’s creations, and the highest point of Barcelona’s elevation is 171 meters above sea level at Montferrige Hill, so the highest tower Gaudi designed is the 170-meter Jesus Tower, while the second highest tower, Our Lady’s Tower, is 140 meters.
The topping of the Tower of Our Lady means the installation of the “Star of Bethlehem” at its top. It is made of glass and steel, weighs 5.5 tons, has a diameter of about 7 meters and is shaped like a star with many angles. After workers have assembled it on the ground, it is then transported high up in the air by crane, with computers controlling the delicate angles, and finally lowered slowly to place it at the tip of the tower.
On the evening of December 8, 2021, under the intense gaze of countless people, the star finally shone brightly, as Gaudi had envisioned, dotting the night sky of Barcelona …… This beautiful scene sparked admiration from all over the world, and to see the star of Santa Maria del Fiore light up with my own eyes was another event worthy of being included in The “lifetime” series of events. At the same time, the official announcement, for the unfinished project, the construction will continue to work closely, in order to strive for the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death (2026) officially completed, then, will hold a grand ceremony to commemorate Gaudi.
”The straight line belongs to man, the curve belongs to God.” This famous quote from Gaudi will eventually be immortalized along with his architecture.