“My client is not in a hurry,” architect and sculptor Antoni Gaudí famously responded to someone asking when his last masterpiece, the Basílica de la Sagrada Família in Barcelona, Spain (shown above), would be finished. It remained largely unfinished upon Gaudí’s death in 1926. Now, thanks to computer simulations, we can finally see (via YouTube) what the Basílica would look like completed—a feat organizers hope to accomplish by 2026 for the centennial of Gaudí’s passing. Assuming that the engineering is possible and, perhaps more importantly, the funding is there, the completed Basílica would become the tallest church in the world. But, assuming that they can do it, the question rises once again if they should do it. Surrounded by controversy since Gaudí first put his creative stamp on it, the Basílica stirs strong emotions—good and bad—in Spaniards, Catholics, and anyone who’s followed its century-long ascent. Should Gaudí’s Basílica de la Sagrada Família be completed?
Gaudí only joined the project in 1883, a year after construction began. Inspired by a trip to the Vatican in Rome, a Catalan bookseller named Josep Maria Bocabella, who also founded the Asociación Espiritual de Devotos de San José, began raising funds to build a massive basilica dedicated to the Holy Family (or “sacred family,” the more direct translation of “Sagrada Família”) of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and Saint Joseph. Architect Francisco de Paula del Villar originally conceived a Gothic revival style for the church, but when Gaudí succeeded him, the visionary architect added his signature Art Nouveau touches to the original plan. The combination of the project’s size, its erratic primary funding through donations, and Gaudí’s difficultly unique design left the Basílica only about one quarter completed after 44 years of work in 1926, when Gaudí died. The Spanish Civil War and World War II essentially stopped construction until the 1950s. It wasn’t until 2010—128 years after Bocabella’s beginning—that the project even reached the halfway point, with many of the tallest and most difficult work still to be done.
Gaudí wasn’t kidding when he said that his “client”—the Big Guy in the sky—would wait. It wasn’t unusual in the Middle Ages for epic church architecture to take centuries to complete. Work began on the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Mary in Cologne, which held the title of tallest church in the world briefly in the late 19th century, in 1248 and, after some interruptions, didn’t finish until 1880. Chartres Cathedral, a “minor basilica” like Sagrada Família, contains elements as old as the 12th century and as “recent” as the 16th, with most of the building happening in a half century burst in the 13th. If builders meet their self-imposed 2026 deadline, the Sagrada Família will clock in at a little under a century and a half, a blink of an eye in the grand scheme of eternity.
The YouTube video gives you a “God’s eye view” of what the last decade or so of construction would look like. The towers rise magically one by one and the grand facades emerge out of thin air. Looking at still images from the video, you get a sense of just how powerful a symbol this completed church could be. As impressive as the current version is, a completed version would seem like a whole new work. Gaudí originally pictured 18 spires rising into the sky: 12 spires for the Twelve Apostles, 4 slightly taller spires for the Four Evangelists, an even taller single spire for the Virgin Mary, and the tallest of all the spires for Jesus Christ himself. Only 8 spires stand now—part of the shortest set for the apostles—so the “skyline” of the Basílica only hints at the grandeur (and engineering challenges) to come.
But not everyone’s happy with the Basílica’s building plans. Some believe that it should have been left the way that Gaudí left it when he left this world. To those who argue that they’re simply carrying out Gaudí’s plan, others question just how much the post-1926 work actually reflects Gaudí’s ideas. To those who see the huge construction costs as money well spent for a grand religious statement and possibly profitable tourist destination, others question the wisdom of sinking funds into the construction that could be better invested in the flagging Spanish economy. Then there’s the issue of a nearby tunnel for a proposed high-speed train between Spain and France and how the vibrations from that train might damage the Basílica. For those who champion the high-speed train as a symbol of modernization and a conduit for tourism (and tourist cash), the Basílica literally stands in the way of progress.
Personally, I believe that they should complete Gaudí’s Basílica de la Sagrada Família. The Colloseum in Rome has dealt with train vibrations for years, so I’m sure some engineer’s already working on the problem. Already a tourist destination in Barcelona, a completed Basílica could revitalize the whole city both economically through increased tourism and emotionally as a lasting symbol of community pride, the same way that cities in the Middle Ages would build bigger and better churches in a theological-sociopolitical “race to the top.” Church spires rise higher and higher to inspire those below. They become lightning rods to catch that divine spark. Our age is an increasingly secular one, so many might see completing Gaudí’s Basílica as an anachronistic gesture out of step with the times. But I see completing Gaudí’s Basílica on a scale with the first moon landing. President John F. Kennedy justified the moon landing when he said that “We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Even if you’re not religious, you should have faith in the human drive to do big, difficult things, to climb that mountain just because it’s there. To paraphrase Robert Browning, humanity’s reach should exceed its grasp, or else what’s a Heaven, or a Basílica for?