Witnessing the construction of Gaudí’s masterpiece

Antoni Gaudí (1852 – 1926) was a Catalan architect and designer at the forefront of the Art Nouveau movement in Spain. He is synonymous with Barcelona and has created many of the city’s most notable landmarks, including the Park Güell, Casa Mila and his most famous work, the Sagrada Família.

The basilica is the most visited attraction in Spain, welcoming over 4 million visitors each year, and was my first stop on my first trip to the Catalan capital. Pre-booking is recommended, which I did online yesterday, with entrance, an audio guide and access to one of the towers costing €23.80.

You need to choose whether you want to visit a tower above the Nativity façade or the Passion façade (more on each of those below) and select a time slot for entering the tower (although you can stay as long as you like once up there). I’ve chosen to climb the Passion side, to the west, at 17:00.


Gaudí graduated as an architect from the University of Barcelona School of Architecture in March 1878 and, just five years later at 31 years of age, became head architect of the Basilica.

At that time, construction of the crypt was already underway, with the cornerstone having been laid the previous year. However, a disagreement between philanthropist Josep Maria Bocabella, who initiated the project, and original architect Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano led the latter to step down.

Gaudí spent his first few weeks on the project totally redesigning almost every aspect of the temple, aiming to tell the story of the Bible throughout the building and enlarging the project, which originally encompassed three naves, a crypt, an apse with seven chapels and a pointed bell tower rising 85 metres above street level.

These plans were replaced by Gaudí for his temple to include five naves, a transept, an apse with ambulatory, cloisters surrounding the building, twelve bell towers, six lanterns, three façades and the tallest tower (yet to be built) standing 172.5 metres above ground level.

Gaudí spent 43 years working on the Basilica (while also undertaking other commissions) and it was estimated to be between 15 and 25 percent complete when he died in 1926 following a collision with a tram at the age of 73.

A succession of architects have taken over the project since then, although work was halted during the Spanish Civil War, fought from 1936 to 1939. Anarchists broke in to the workshop at that time and burned plans, smashed models and even started a fire in the crypt.

A painstaking process then started to reconstruct the plans from charred remains and accompanying photographs, with construction work only recommencing in 1954. Work, which is funded by the entrance fees, has been uninterrupted since then.

The central nave was completed in 2000 and the still-unfinished church was consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, following installation of an organ earlier that year. The current ambition is to complete the building in 2026, in time to mark the centenary of Gaudí’s death, although signage in the workshop indicates a possible slip to 2030.

The workshop contains plaster models of the temple and its components (at a scale of 1:1, 1:10 and 1:25). These restored models form the basis for the construction, as Gaudí preferred working with models rather than drawings.

Passion façade

The Passion façade, depicting the Passion of Jesus, is austere and carved with harsh straight lines. This side of the building was started in 1954 and took two decades to construct. The sculptures, by Josep Maria Subirachs, have been added since 1987 (with more still to come) but initially received a cool reception from the public. I personally really like the modern feel of these geometric shapes.

Nativity façade

The Nativity façade represents the birth of Jesus and, appropriately, was the first to be built, with construction underway between 1893 and 1936. Gaudí was keen to have this one built first as he thought it would be more appealing to the general population at the time and could attract more donors to the project. While certainly very ornate, I find the sculptures on this side more traditional and less unique than their peers on the Passion side.


Gaudí sought out maximum contrast in his stained glass windows and, unusually, the most transparent pieces are high-up, while illustrations and text tend to be lower down and easier for visitors to see and read. The lighter glass at the top allows light to stream in to the nave, more so than in other churches.

The interior of the church is packed with unique characteristics and sculptures that match each of the two opposing façades already built. Supporting columns are inspired by the shape of tree trunks and are double-twisted to symbolise the ascent in to heaven.

In 2010, an organ with 1,492 pipes was installed as well as the baldachin, which is heptagonal to represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord. Grapes hang from it to represent the wine of the Eucharist and fifty lamps symbolise the days of Eastertide.

I recommend purchasing a ticket with tower access as these offer a new perspective on the architecture of the building and indeed great views of the city of Barcelona. These tickets also include a comprehensive audio guide to explain other elements of the building and its history.

The best time to visit is in the late afternoon when the sun cascades through the stained glass as it lowers in the sky, plus there tend to be fewer tour groups at the end of the day. It will take at least two hours to visit, although I spent almost four hours there myself and think it was a really good way to start my tour of Barcelona.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *