Antoni Gaudí and Barcelona’s La Sagrada Família


Antoni Gaudí, the 20th century Spanish-Catalan architect, was part of the Catalan Modernisme (Modernism) movement in Barcelona. He possessed his own individualistic style that went beyond the precincts of Modernisme. It was free-flowing and organic, sometimes dream-like and inspired by nature. The architect’s work was predominately composed of the collocation of geometric forms and enlivened exteriors with patterned brick or stone, vivid ceramic inlays and flowered or reptilian metalwork.

The survival of Gaudí’s work bears witness to his remarkable artistic role in the growth of late 19th, early 20th century architecture, and building technology. The architect was given free rein in all aspects of his projects from the garden and sculpture designs to the decorative arts and architecture.

Modernisme was an expression of Catalonia’s struggle for independence. Beginning in 1878 and lasting until the beginning of World War I, it corresponded to other movements such as Arts and Crafts, Naturalism and Art Nouveau. However, the movement also deviated from others because it became an important demonstration of cultural identity to Barcelonans. It was observed in music, literature, the arts and architecture.

With an architect’s diploma in hand, Gaudí began his architectural ambitions in 1878. He accepted his first commission from the Barcelona Council to design street lamps.

Gaudí’s architectural aspirations reached their high point in 1883. On a grand scale, it was the Basilica de La Sagrada Família (Cathedral of the Holy Family) in its entire splendor. Probably Antoni Gaudí’s best-known work, the cathedral is located in the center of Barcelona with towers that reach over 328 feet high.

Considered his largest undertaking, it has always been an “expiatory church,” built solely on donations. Gaudí once said that La Sagrada Família is created by the people, and “is mirrored in them.” He considered it a work that was in God’s hands and the “will of the people.”

In 1882, work on the church was started by the architect, Francesc de P. del Villar in the conventional neo-Gothic style.  A year later, Gaudí took over the project, and made fundamental changes, applying all his architectural knowledge.

The architect began building the crypt, which he finished in 1889. Then, Gaudí commenced work on the apse and cloister. When he obtained a sizeable donation, he considered something grander. Gaudí discarded the old project and suggested something epic and groundbreaking in both form and construction.


His design was bold and the only capital was through charitable donation so his grand vision proceeded in a discontinuous manner. For Gaudí, it was advantageous because it allowed him to improve on his designs. His stylistic changes can be seen throughout the church from the neo-Gothic crypt to the pinnacles of the bell towers.

Firstly, his plan included a large church with a Latin cross ground-plan and high towers. He began work in 1892, with the foundations of the Nativity façade, which he finished two years later.

His project conveyed extensive symbolism. It was awash in sculptural elements, religious motifs and the “mysteries of the Catholic faith,” it narrated narrate Jesus’ early years,  zodiac signs relating to Christmas Day, flora and fauna that representational of the Holy Land, just to name a few. He also designed the candelabrum used at the end of Holy Week and the confessional boxes, iron lectern, and a bench for officiates.

Its façade showcased icicles, clouds and other stone elements. The four bell towers featured a circular base and a ceramic finial of geometrical shapes. Stonework seemed to flow over the towers and portals like a dribbled sand castle.

In 1906, the public saw his complete project for the first time. From that time forth, what had begun as the creation of a traditionalist group that was far removed from general public interest, had become a fundamental part of Catalan culture.

While Gaudí worked on La Sagrada Família, he also worked on other projects as well. His work on the residence, Casa Vicens was a combination of Valencia tile and brick with Catalan influences.

He also worked on many designs for the industrialist Eusebi Güell which included the Güell estate pavilions with its imaginative dragon gate. Palau Güell used original forms as seen in his parabolic arches and vaults. There was also Barcelona’s Güell Park that reflected 19th century eclecticism.

Even though, Gaudí had many other projects, including a summer residence in Northern Spain, he ignored them all to concentrate solely on the church.

Towards the end of Gaudí’s life, he lived at the church as a recluse. He had his workshops on site, and he lived and worked on the church until his death from a street accident in 1926. He only witnessed the completion of one of the towers. Since his death, different architects have continued the work based on his original ideas based on his drawings and models saved from the Spanish Civil War.

When work began on the church, it was approached in a very traditional way. When Antoni Gaudí took over the project, he had a vision that displayed dream-like architecture that incorporated many movement elements. Still incomplete, there is the likelihood that it will be completed by the “first third of the 21st century.” It is the most personal and possibly the most important religious edifice of the 19th century.

Today, the Basílica de La Sagrada Família in Barcelona follows his original idea, and even though materials and technology have improved, the result is in true Gaudí form, straight out of a fairytale.

By: Dawn Levesque


Basilica de La Sagrada Familia


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