I‘ve had three architectural experiences that have, literally, brought me to tears: Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut de Ronchamp, Carlo Scarpa’s Brion Cemetery and most recently, Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. This wasn’t my first visit to Barcelona or to Sagrada Familia, but it was my first visit in twenty years and a lot has changed. Sagrada Familia (the Church of the Sacred Family) has been under construction since 1882. Yes, 1882. At 131 years it’s one of the longest running construction projects in history, and it still has a projected twenty-plus years to go. At least that’s the target because June 7, 2026 will be the 100-year anniversary of Gaudi’s death and that’s the planned date to finally complete his vision. But there’s still plenty of work to do, including ten more spires in addition to the eight already built. The central spire, representing Jesus Christ, is designed to be 560 feet tall, which is twice as tall as any of the other spires and will make Sagrada Familia the tallest church building in the world.
It is a work that is in the hands of God and the will of the people.
The Sagrada Familia was Gaudi’s passion and the culmination of his life’s work. He spent fifty-three years of his life on this project and dedicated his last twelve years to it exclusively. As a devout Catholic (he was nicknamed God’s Architect) it held great personal meaning for him. It’s unlike any built structure on the planet, and with every detail having structural purpose, symbolic meaning, or both, it can be overwhelming; especially when you add in the scaffolding, the construction workers, the cranes, and the hordes of tourists. The fact that they’ve managed to continue construction while remaining open to the public is an amazing feat in itself. It’s also essential, as this project is an expiatory church, which means it is funded by private donations and ticket sales only with no public monies, and it’s an added layer of complexity to one of the most highly complex building projects ever conceived. As Gaudi said, “The expiatory church of La Sagrada Família is made by the people and is mirrored in them. It is a work that is in the hands of God and the will of the people.”
Two of the three main facades have been built to date: the highly ornate and detailed Nativity façade, and the more recently completed stark Passion façade. Both are rife with symbolism and you could walk past either of them every day and find something you hadn’t seen before. But for me, it’s the nave that moved me the most. It’s so unexpected and so strikingly different from the exterior – which is amazing in itself – that it rendered me awestruck and teary-eyed. It was beautiful beyond words. Experiencing the surprise of the nave wasn’t so different from many of our meals in Barcelona. Try as you might, you never could predict what each beautiful, artful bite would taste like until you put it in your mouth; and then it was unlike anything you could ever have expected, even when it seemed very familiar. I think some chefs learned a few things from Gaudi, including his desire to break new ground and to share a bold, creative vision.
Nature plays a crucial role in all of Gaudi’s work. He felt God was perfect and was the creator of nature, so utilizing natural forms brought both God and perfection to his work. At Sagrada Familia, the nave is a forest of trees that serve as the structural columns. But it’s more than mere decoration. The inclined columns with their tree-like branches help distribute the load in such a way that he could remove the load from the exterior walls, eliminate the use of buttresses, and provide more surface area to bring in abundant natural light through the brilliant stained glass windows. During his design process, Gaudi discovered a method of testing his structural concepts by creating a weighted model using chains or strings and hanging it upside down. Sagrada Familia has since been evaluated with computer modeling to ensure it meets modern-day codes, showning that Gaudi’s original assumptions were on target.
The central nave is over 147 feet tall which is equivalent to a twelve-story building. Light permeates through the white stone forest canopy from above, blurring the line between interior and exterior. On the sides of the nave the light progresses from bright white as it pours in through clear glass, which represents purity, to cool blues and greens, and then on to deep reds and oranges as you move further towards the altar. I’ve never seen more intensely colored stained glass. You can feel the space change as the sun moves, as you move, as light and color hit the columns and the floor, and as it envelopes the visitor. It’s a magical feeling unlike any other.
Being an architect, I’ve often been witness to a suggested idea whose response is that it can’t be done, or that it’s too difficult. And yet, when I see buildings like Sagrada Familia, and all of Gaudi’s other work, designed and built over 100 years ago and that still standing, still occupied, still examples of forward-thinking innovation, imagination and beauty, and still bringing joy and awe to millions of visitors each year, I’m reminded that, yes, it can be done. Maybe it’s difficult, maybe it’s not standard, but with creative thinking, craftsmanship, and determination (a willing patron also doesn’t hurt) anything is possible.
That’s what Sagrada Familia reminds us of every day, and will continue to do for generations to come.