Spain

Sagrada Familia, A Battle For Barcelona’s Soul

The architectural icon begun by Antoni Gaudi in the late 19th century is still incomplete. Now city hall wants to end a century-old legal exception, as debate continues about protecting the original architectural vision.

A human tower in front of the Sagrada Familia
A human tower in front of the Sagrada Familia
Cécile Thibaud

BARCELONA — "It looks like a giant Easter egg!" This sentence, pronounced a few weeks ago by Barcelona's city council member in charge of urban planning, provoked outrage and shock. Who does he think he is to belittle the Sagrada Familia, the city's best-known landmark?

Each comment, each hitch, every question really, about the architectural jewel imagined by Antoni Gaudí is bound to start a fiery argument in this Spanish city. And city hall's recent announcement that it would start overseeing the longstanding work-in-progress, with new rules for checking licenses and permits, was no exception.

Barcelona's icon is no laughing matter. Inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage list in 2005, the Expiatory Church of the Holy Family (its official name) is visited by nearly four million people each year, hypnotized by the sight of this expressionist-gothic 19th-century cathedral that is still under construction in the 21st century.

For this is one of the things that sets this monument apart: Initiated in 1882, it's still uncompleted, 134 years later. And according to the latest estimates, it won't be finished before 2026, which would be just in time to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the architect's death.

Gaudí, the mystic, imagined a gigantic temple financed by the offerings of worshippers, a living expression of faith. The work started slowly. "My client is in no hurry," the old man used to say, immersed in his dialogue with the heavens. As a matter of fact, nothing stopped this infinite construction: not the death of the architect, who was hit by a tram in 1926, nor the loss of the original blueprint, burned during the Spanish Civil War. Those were eventually redone from models and sketches that were miraculously kept unspoiled.

But which parts of the edifice that overlooks Barcelona today actually belong to Gaudí, and which should we credit to his successors? He never saw the nave columns and their palm-leaf pattern rise. When he died, there was only one facade — the Nativity facade — and one campanile. The building now has three facades and eight towers. And there's a lot of work left to do. The final cathedral will have a total of 18 towers, with the highest reaching 172 meters.

"It isn't one of Gaudí"s works, but rather a plan-less project that is carried out in his name," says the city council member in charge of urbanism, Daniel Mòdol, a Socialist representative who joined the team of mayor Ada Colau of the upstart Podemos party.

End of an exception?

Despite the monument's size and the scale of the project, it had long benefited from a major legal exception, without technical supervision from the local authorities nor administrative controls — nobody until now has ever been willing to deal with this thorny case.

An extravagant monument and endless construction site, the Sagrada Familia is a part of Barcelona's very soul. It is the symbol of 19th-century triumphant Catalanism, a source of pride for the inhabitants who've seen it grow, little by little, even as the rhythm has increased these past few years, accompanying the city's tourism boom. The works are financed by the tickets sold to the visitors. The more visitors, the faster the works can progress. And what was, just 20 years ago, a strange and rough outline has now become an imposing edifice.

"We want to know the construction works and carry out a technical monitoring," Mòdol says. "It doesn't seem reasonable to us that city hall should have no first-hand information on a site that will alter the city's skyline."

He plans to look for a solution to the absence of a construction permit, together with the foundation in charge of the site and headed by the Archdiocese of Barcelona. "In this city, where you need an authorization to install even the smallest scaffolding, it's not acceptable that the Sagrada Familia has no license. We cannot just sit there and wait for the construction to be completed."

The local authorities let it be understood that the end of the Sagrada Familia's exceptional treatment could mean it must pay local tax. A difficult topic given that, under the agreement signed with the Vatican in 1979, after Franco's death, the Spanish church is exempt from paying property tax.

But the generations of architects who loyally took the project's reins after Gaudí always claimed they were working with a permit: the one signed in 1885 by Gaudí in Sant Marti de Provençals, the small village where the site was originally located and which, since then, was absorbed by the municipality of Barcelona. What did the document say? Is it still valid today? Nobody at city hall yet has dared look into it, not even the Socialists, who ran the city between 1979 and 2011, and the works continued, taking advantage of the authorities' silence.

Pompous monsters?

"What's the meaning of all this?" asks the philosopher Josep Ramoneda, appalled by this laissez-faire approach. He calls the works' continuation an "aberration."

"This leads to the destruction of Gaudí"s work, the way we could still perceive it in the 1980s with its aura of mystery and incompleteness," he says. Ramoneda is among those local citizens who has asked hundreds of times for the works to be stopped. Unmoved by the building in its current state, he sees it as a "pompous misinterpretation. It's become a gigantic, disproportionate monster. And the worst thing is that it's being financed by all these visitors, who come in good faith to see Gaudí"s work. Without knowing it, they're accelerating the destruction of what used to make it unique."

Ramoneda welcomes the new mayor's willingness to control the site's construction. "It's about time! It's the first time and it's praiseworthy. But the disaster has already happened," he says.

Already in 1965, a group of famous artists and intellectuals, among them Le Corbusier, Miró and Tapies, had gathered to protest in a letter that the construction of the Sagrada Familia shouldn't have continued after Gaudí"s death. It was to no avail. Architect Jordi Capella had also made himself heard. But perhaps battle weary, he's changed his mind since then. "Of course, we should explain more clearly to the tourists what belongs to Gaudí and what doesn't," he says. "But to change architects is every cathedral's destiny."

The many tourists who visit the site every day don't even wonder about Josep Maria Subirachs' angular structures made in the 1980s, even though they're very different from Gaudí"s plant-inspired structures. "It's normal that current sculptors stamp their own style on the building," says historian Pere Figuerola, curator at the Diocesan Museum of Barcelona and founder of the Gaudí Research Institute. "How many churches have evolved from a Roman to gothic style? That's just the way it goes for such a huge project."

Political columnist Pilar Rahola goes further and accuses the mayor, Ada Colau, of using the debate over the landmark as a distraction. "That's her way of doing things, she'd rather have people fighting over the Sagrada Familia than having to account for the shortcomings of her municipal policies," she says. "I was always critical towards the new facades, but now, when you're in the nave, you're stunned by the light and peacefulness of the site, you really perceive to what extent Gaudí"s project is alive."

Beyond issues of aesthetics or architectural identity, the interminable construction site also poses a challenge in terms of urbanism. Those who live in the neighborhood worry about the local impact. According to Joan Itxaxo, who's part of a neighborhood association, 8 million people, on top of the 3.7 million visitors that paid a ticket to enter the Sagrada Familia last year, come to see the cathedral from the outside and take pictures.

"It's so crowded that people sometimes struggle even to get home. Tourist buses are a source of pollution, the whole traffic plan has to be revamped so the area is livable again," he says.

Itxaxo also worries about the monument's integration in the urban space and about potential expropriations that might result should the surroundings of the cathedral need redesigning. "Gaudí"s plans included the creation of a huge square, but the city grew around the cathedral. We want to know what's going to happen now."

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