La Sagrada Familia: Spain’s Most Visited Monument

The most famous project of master architect Antoni Gaudi.

At the top of any list of Spain’s must-see sights attractions sits La Sagrada Familia, the most famous project of master architect Antoni Gaudi. La Sagrada Familia is vast and grand on any scale.  Around 2.5 million visitors descend on this, one of the world’s most famous unfinished building projects, every year. For a while construction began on the iconic, modernist-gothic church in 1882, its complexity and beauty mean that work on the site is not expected to be completed until at least 2026.

The History of La Sagrada Familia

The foundation stone for La Sagrada Familia, or The Church of the Holy Family, was laid on 19 March 1882, the day of the feast of St Joseph. Antoni Gaudi, the best-known representative of Catalan Modernist architecture, took over the project in 1883, completely revising the design and architecture of the building. Gaudi dedicated many decades of his life to the project, right up until his death in 1926. Gaudi completely re-envisaged the form La Sagrada Familia would take. While he maintained a basic Gothic cross-shaped floor plan, his many amendments included a vast temple with the capacity to hold more than 10,000 people.

From its 19th century origins, it was clear that the extremely long construction period could take at least a century. On this subject, Gaudi is quoted as whimsically saying, ‘my client is not in a hurry.’ At the time of Gaudi’s death, less than a quarter of the project was complete. While construction continued without this master, it was significantly slowed due to the Spanish Civil War. During this time, many of Gaudí’s original models and plans were destroyed. Thus, the current design for La Sagrada Familia is drawn from reconstructions of the lost plans, together with some modern adaptations.

Since 1940, work on the site has continued under the supervision of architects Francesc Quintana, Isidre Puig Boada, Lluís Bonet i Gari, and Francesc Cardoner. For the past two decades, computers and new technology have played an essential role in the church’s construction processes, spurring hopes that work will be completed in 2026 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death.

From its earliest origins over a century and a quarter ago, La Sagrada Familia has been an expiatory church. This means its entire construction has been funded by private donations, including now the ‘denotative’ admission fees paid by the millions of visitors to the site. Gaudi himself believed 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.’

La Sagrada Familia

In La Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi sought to improve on the ubiquitous Gothic architecture of existing European cathedrals, and on the original plans of the sites’ first architect, Francisco de Paula del Villar. Gaudi envisaged a balanced structure of towers that branched out like trees, drawing the vast knowledge of structure and engineering that he developed on his earlier projects, which also dot Barcelona’s skyline. When the church is finished it will have 18 towers: 12 dedicated to the apostles, 4 to the evangelists, one to Jesus Christ, and another to the Virgin Mary. As of 2010, eight of these spires have been completed.

For most visitors, though, the most striking features of La Sagrada Familia are the grand façades. When it is complete, the site will feature a total of three grand façades: the Nativity façade to the East, the Glory façade to the South, and the Passion façade to the West. The Nativity façade was completed under the guidance of Gaudi. The Passion façade, the most controversial of the three, is based on the designs of Josep Maria Subirachs, who did not make any concessions to Gaudi’s architectural style. Construction on the third and final façade, the Glory façade, began in 2002. It will be the largest façade and represent one’s ascension to God.

Visiting La Sagrada Familia

In spring and summer, La Sagrada Familia is open between 9.00 am and 8.00 pm. In winter and autumn, the site closes two hours earlier. Full price tickets cost €12.50, and concessions are available for retirees, students, and children under the age of 18. Audio guides are available in many European languages for an additional €4.  Expert guided tours in English run up to three times per day and last for approximately 50 minutes.

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