Why did Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia take over 100 years to be built?
It is said that Rome was not built in a day, just like Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia.
This weekend, a giant five-ton star was hoisted to the top of the ever-incomplete Basilica’s new Virgin Mary tower, the tallest of what will one day be 18 spiers.
Construction of the religious masterpiece has been underway since 1882.
Reactions to the “Star of Bethlehem” suggest that this addition marks yet another blow to “the oldest construction site in the world”.
But why did it take so long for the Sagrada Familia to arrive in the first place?
Here is a timeline of all the wars, conflicts and deaths that halted its progress.
1874: Campaign begins for a new Spanish religious building
Bookseller Josep Maria Bocabella returned from a trip to the Vatican in 1872 inspired by the great Catholic works of art that dominated the city skyline.
He spent eight years campaigning and fundraising for Barcelona to develop a brand new cathedral.
Using his connections as the founder of one of the city’s spiritual associations, Bocabella hired architect Francisco de Paula del Villar to come up with a design inspired by neo-Gothic cathedrals across Europe.
The land was purchased in the Eixample district of Barcelona for an equivalent of € 1,034 at the time.
Their partnership would last less than a decade of the building’s arduous lifespan after a number of disputes erupted over the intricate design of the Sagrada Família.
Bocabella envisioned it to be the tallest in Europe, eclipsing the likes of St. Peter’s Basilica.
It soon became clear that the project required someone able to cope with its immense technical demands and monetary costs.
From the original vision of this architect, only the crypt of the building remains. Bocabella continued on his way, looking for someone with dreams as big as his.
1882-1884: Land found and foundations laid, introduction by Antoni Gaudí
Antoni Gaudí’s unbridled ambition saw the project take on a whole new form in 1883, a year after the laying of the cornerstone by Bishop Urquinaona.
As chief architect, he reimagined the basilica as a vast form influenced by nature, full of Art Nouveau-inspired curvatures and 12 towers – one to represent each disciple.
Its intricate designs that would come to fruition would make La Sagrada the tallest Catholic hub in Europe.
Modernist Gaudí knew from the start that this would not be an easy task – he said the construction work would not be completed during his lifetime.
Much of his work has gone into developing highly detailed 3D models instead of traditional sketches to ensure that whoever the project is passed on knows exactly what it is meant to look like.
When asked if this would be a problem for his vision, he replied, “My client (God) is in no rush. “
The architect juggled the Sagrada with other clients until 1914, when he put everything else aside to work there exclusively.
Gaudí will go so far as to leave his native park Guell (today a museum in his name) to settle on the site.
1926: Gaudí dies in a tragic accident
After devoting himself to the Sagrada for 43 years, Antoni Gaudí was run over by a tram as he walked to confession, as he did every day.
The unkempt appearance of the 73-year-old suggests he was a beggar rather than Spain’s most famous architect. Hygiene and nutrition had been shunned in the name of his passion project.
A funeral procession brought together thousands of mourners, ending at the incomplete, but huge church.
Gaudí only lived to see one of the iconic spiers of the sacred space completed the previous year.
The basilica was 15-25 percent complete the year it lost its creator.
His accidental death completely derailed all progress for over a decade.
1936: personnel killed, models destroyed during the Spanish Civil War
A period of civil unrest sees anarchists breaking into Gaudí’s former office.
Models are smashed, blueprints are burned, and the church’s crypt is ruined in the process.
More devastation ensues as 12 people involved in sustaining creation are killed in the war.
Construction is increasingly halted as the remaining members of the La Sagrada Familia team painstakingly try to put together the salvageable parts.
Although its exterior remained intact, no real progress was made until the end of the war in 1939.
1938: George Orwell proposes the design
Influential British novelist George Orwell visits the site in one of its greatest periods of stagnation.
He described the cathedral as “one of the most hideous buildings in the world”.
“Unlike most churches in Barcelona, it was not damaged during the revolution – it was spared because of its ‘artistic merit,’ people said. I think the anarchists were in bad taste by not blowing it up when they had the chance.
1939-1986: A revolving door of architects and funding problems
The work continued during Francisco Franco’s long dictatorship over Spain.
Franco showed little interest in La Sagrada, but there was little he could do. Gaudí had insisted that it be funded by members of the Spanish Catholic community.
Four different architects then took control of the works: Francesc de Paula Quintana in 1939, Isidre Puig i Boada and Lluís Bonet i Garí in 1966, Francesc Cardoner i Blanch in 1983 and Jordi Bonet i Armengol in 1985.
No benchmarks were reached until 1976, when the bell towers accompanying Gaudí’s Passion facade were completed, giving the Spaniards a real idea of what the final product might become.
2007: the Spanish government proposes a controversial rail tunnel under the building
After Gaudí’s contributions to the cathedral were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, things were going well for the team of 200 behind La Sagrada.
That was until the government tabled proposals that would see a high-speed rail network operate under foundations nearly a century old.
Questions have been raised about how this might affect the structural integrity of the building. With so much to do, this was the last thing architects and engineers needed,
Construction began in 2010 after government officials insisted the underground tunnels would not hamper ongoing work.
The service became active in 2013, making a six-year battle to stop it unnecessary.
2010: Consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI visited La Sagrada in 2010 to consecrate it as an official basilica.
6,500 people watched Mass from the inside and over 50,000 people gathered in the streets to receive communion from hundreds of bishops and priests.
Barely 15 years ago, there was no roof inside the church, as it stood between two facades with eight bell towers, one resembling a sand castle, the other a work of art inspired by cubist painting.
An organ is installed and the main nave covered to allow the celebration of religious services.
As with everything else La Sagrada, an official weekly service hasn’t been put in place for seven years.
From now on, it is open to visitors every Sunday at 9 a.m.
2019: completion date set for 2026 after approval of new permits
The Sagrada Familia is now so old parts completed at the start of the 20th century had to be refurbished.
At this point, the Spanish government decides to step up the pressure in a long battle for some sort of financial contribution from the developers.
Threats were issued that if the project did not have a license, construction work could no longer take place.
UNESCO was able to help in 2017 by paying 37 million euros for permit monitoring. But the government insisted it needed reassurance that the planning was flawless from now on.
A seven-year permit is granted and a completion year of 2026 is set.
If the deadlines are met, the basilica will be completed on the centenary of Gaudí’s death.
That was, of course, until COVID-19 hit Europe two years ago.
2021: Where are we now?
Things were going well for two years until a global pandemic erupted in society as we know it.
COVID has halted construction of the structure for the first time since the Spanish Civil War devastated parts of it.
Several months of inaction last year have likely pushed back the 2026 deadline as the team behind its completion try to cover lost ground.
It also turned out to be a tragedy for La Sagrada’s funding pipeline – at Gaudí’s request that the project not work with corporate donors, personal donations and ticket sales would ensure that 36 million euros were paid. to the Spanish government in arrears until 2026.
20 million people visit the neighborhood each year to admire the exterior of the church and 4 million of them end up being paying customers at the price of € 26 a ticket.
All is not catastrophic – crucial stages are underway, such as the completion of the towers and the addition of decorative elements like the aforementioned “Star of Bethelem”.
And La Sagrada Familia has also been reopened for public entrance for some time.
Gaudí was right – he would never live long enough to see the day when this project reached its immense potential.
A lot of people don’t. Russia’s famous St. Basil’s Cathedral took 123 years to repair, St. Peter’s Basilica has reached 150 years. Stonehenge won 1,600.
While this process has been hampered by misguided decisions, finances, and global disruption, it lies at the heart of a team of people keen to maintain the integrity of a space they have worked so hard to build.
We can’t wait to see it come to life, when it can.