The Unfinished "La Sagrada Família"

Of all of Gaudi’s works, I am most familiar with the Casa Mila. (1907; Barcelona, Spain) However, I think that the cathedral La Sagrada Família (also in Barcelona) is the most fascinating of Gaudi’s masterpieces. This cathedral has been under construction since 1882, and will probably be finished in about twenty years from now (which will be around the 100 year anniversary of Gaudi’s death).

Gaudi lived during the turn of the century (fin de siècle) from 1852-1926. His architecture has been classified as Art Nouveau, but really, there isn’t a category or movement which completely fits for the work of this original, innovative thinker. The thing that I like most about Gaudi’s mature style is his fascination with natural forms; his architecture often mimics or recalls things found in nature. Gaudi believed that his buildings were “symbolically a living thing.”1 Although I have never personally been inside a building by Gaudi, I think that his architecture really looks animated and vivacious in photographs. In La Sagrada Família , I love how the inclusion of gables (the triangular shape framing the portals and doorway) follows the Neo-Gothic tradition, but Gaudi has morphed the triangles to appear more naturalistic, as if canopies of stalactites are forming in place of static architecture. (You can see more detail of the gables by enlarging the photograph above.)

This inclusion of stalactites and naturalistic features helps to ease the transition between modernism and traditional Neo-Gothic elements, with the (literal) pinnacle of individualism finding itself in the four towers. 1 I think these towers are so interesting and striking. They are simple paraboloids in shape, with the sides perforated for acoustic reasons (the towers were intended to hold tubular bells). The plan of this church calls for eighteen towers – what a spectacle! You can see a model for the completed church here.

I also think it’s interesting that Gaudi was able to design this cathedral in such a way that it does not employ flying buttresses. However, I think he kind of mimics and alludes to flying buttresses in his decoration of the Passion portal (shown to the left), with the slightly curved supports that lean into the building. Once again, I feel like he is alluding to traditional architecture, but changing it to be original and modern.

The interior of this building will finally open for services sometime next year. It would be fun to go inside then, but I really am excited to go inside when this cathedral is finally completed. Plus, I’m curious to see how much of the final product compares to Gaudi’s original plans.

1 Fred S. Kleiner and Christin J. Mamiya, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, 12th ed., vol. 2 (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2005), 896.

2 For more information, see Jordi Oliveras. “Gaudí, Antoni.” In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, accessed May 13, 2009).

  • Emperor of EUtopia says:

    What a gorgeous building! I wish I had something more intelligent to add, but really how can I compete with you M. Maybe in twenty years when you’re rich and famous you can take me to see it and blow my mind with all the stuff you know. K?

  • Emilee . . . says:

    That is really beautiful.

    Perhaps I missed it in your writings (it is 12:30am after all), but why is it taking so long to complete? I mean, that’s a REALLY long time.

  • joolee says:

    Just beautiful. I’d seen photos of Gaudi’s fabulously designed buildings, but didn’t know much about them. Amazing!

  • Kiersten says:

    I love Gaudi’s architecture! I got really into art nouveau while doing that database project last summer–and I really enjoyed doing research on Gaudi.

  • M says:

    Emilee, I don’t know all of the details as to why its taken this cathedral so long to be constructed. From what I can tell on the official website for La Sagrada Familia, part of the reason for the delay is due to war, like the Spanish Civil War in 1936. At this time, revolutionaries set fire to the crypt and burned a lot of the original documents and plans. Setbacks like that seem to slow the construction process. In addition, this is an expiatory church, which means that its construction is completely contingent upon donations. Financial issues are probably a setback, especially during hard economic times.

    It’s interesting, though, that Gaudi never intended to see the church finished during his life. Gaudi said (as quoted on the official website), “There is no reason to regret that I cannot finish the church. I will grow old but others will come after me. What must always be conserved is the spirit of the work, but its life has to depend on the generations it is handed down to and with whom it lives and is incarnated.”

    I would really recommend looking at this website and reading a little bit more of the history and architecture of his church. It’s absolutely fascinating. (You can click on the English version at the top of the main page for the site.)

    I also wanted to mention that the building plans of some urban cathedrals have taken decades or centuries to complete. Financial issues, political problems, war, and fires have often interrupted or stopped work. In England, Salisbury Cathedral began construction in 1220. The west facade of the building was finished in 1265, but the spire was not added until 1320-1330. Similarly, the Milan Cathedral was begun in 1386, but construction spanned into the Renaissance period. (And in truth, the cathedral wasn’t really finished until the 20th century, although some people could argue that the cathedral is still unfinished – some uncarved blocks remain which need to be made into statues.)

  • e says:

    Awesome! Thanks for posting on Gaudi.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.