Visitors to Barcelona flock to the city centre neighbourhood of Eixample with one main aim; to visit perhaps Europe’s strangest cathedral – the “Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia”. Easily seen from the air, towering above the square neighbourhood blocks, the Holy Family Cathedral is one of Barcelona’s nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and a masterpiece designed by Antonin Gaudi, the famous Catalan artist, whose keen eye and gifted hand was also responsible for 6 of the other UNESCO Sites. In 1883, Gaudi was commissioned to continue a project already started one year earlier by diocesan architect Franciso Villar.
What makes the visitor figures even more bizarre is that despite dedicating the latter part of his life to the construction of the looming edifice, it is actually incomplete. Gaudi died tragically in 1926 while working on the “people’s Cathedral” and is buried in the crypt. The Cathedral is a stunning example of Modernista Gothic architecture, and currently has two facades, often mistaken for the front and the back. The Nativity Façade was the first to be built and completely overseen by Gaudi himself and is an intricate depiction of the birth of Christ. Comparisons have been made to a melting candle and no words on paper can do this part of the Cathedral justice – especially seen illuminated at night.
The opposite side is the Crucifixion façade, which was completed after Gaudi’s death. Original plans were destroyed by rioters and antagonists during the civil war, and although this has been used as an excuse by current planning officials, one suspects that an architect never works with the same enthusiasm if it’s not their own work. As a consequence, this façade has been designed by various leading world architects and pays homage to the rooftop chimneys of Casa Mila (also known as La Pedrera), which was another of Gaudi’s unmistakeable constructions across town.
The fascinating museum in the crypt of the Cathedral included in the entrance fee has photos, details and, more importantly, scale models of what the Cathedral will look like when finished. With 18 towers, the highlight will surely be the central tower dedicated to Jesus, which will have a huge stained-glass window, giving an impressionable light to the altar, 170 metres below.
Sagrada Familia is a controversial building, and indeed has various organisations headed by extremely influential authorities in the world of Arts, culture and architecture who object at the variations in Gaudi’s plans. Gaudi himself said that “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.” And it is this very point that angers protesters. Rumours exist of many foreign corporations offering to finish the work due in rapid time, but all have been rebuffed, as this would go against Gaudi’s wishes. The current funding comes from the foundation, donations and money from all other works by Gaudi in the city after overheads. For this reason progress is slow, and speculation about the completion date is a daily topic around the coffee shops and parks of Barcelona from residents and tourists alike. What is strikingly clear however, is that you absolutely must visit this unfinished masterpiece when you visit the city of Barcelona so that you can decide for yourself.