If you would ask me to name the one building that defines the skyline of Barcelona, it would have to be the Sagrada Familia, undoubtedly. Having heard volumes about the structure and the man behind the masterpiece, Antoni Gaudi, a visit to the Sagrada Familia was at the top of my to-do list in Barcelona. My apartment was just ten minutes away from it and so after I had settled in, I decided to take a walk to the place, and have a look at it myself. Walking along Carrer de la Marina, I inched closer to those looming cranes in the sky and then I saw it – a huge basilica, still in the process of construction, with hordes of people queued up around it, waiting to get inside. I clearly recall the first impression I formed after I had walked around the Sagrada Familia- “This building doesn’t work for me. There is so much happening – the facades are beautiful individually, but altogether – no. There is some sort of a disconnect”. I went back home thinking that this has got to be yet another one of those structures that fail to live up to the hype and that Gaudi must be overrated.
What is the Sagrada Familia? It is a minor basilica dedicated to the Holy family. The church has been under construction since 1882 and isn’t going to be finished for at least another fifteen years. This expiatory church has been built entirely on donations and money that comes in from tourists. Although the Sagrada Familia is considered the brainchild of Gaudi, one of the most celebrated Catalan architects, he was not involved in the beginning of the project nor did he live to see its end. Gaudi took over as chief architect in 1883 and continued until his death in 1926. Since then, there have been many other architects involved in the construction of the church.
The destruction of Gaudi’s drawings and initial plans of the structure, the use of materials of construction different from the ones used in the original structure and a lack of the architects’ insight into the eccentric mind of Gaudi washed any plan of making the structure as ‘Gaudian’ as possible, down the drain. This has been the centre of much controversy and the main cause of a growing unrest among some factions as the basilica nears completion. The very detailed and intricate Nativity facade ensconced with symbolism is the only facade that is entirely supervised by Gaudi but the Passion facade, although visually appealing in its own way, lacks the decorative detail that characterizes a Gaudi work. The Glory facade, which will have the main entrance to the church, is still under construction. Apart from these three main facades, the fourth facade which is the apse facade, is dedicated to Mother Mary.
A few days later, I was told by one of my friends who had visited the interior of the church that it was incredible and he had never seen anything like it before. I decided that I would go back again, and this time I would check out the interiors, but my plans never materialized. Disheartened by the never-ending queues, I kept postponing my visit to the basilica. I was pleasantly surprised when the Professor at our university informed us that there would be an upcoming technical visit to the Sagrada Familia. We were a group of students from our University led by two Professors and one of the engineers involved in the current construction. That reminds me, if you are visiting the Sagrada Familia as a group, it is recommended that you book your tickets at least fifteen days in advance. A group booking saves you the hassle of waiting in those ever-so-long queues.
After making sure that everyone had turned up, headphones were handed to us, so that we could listen to what the engineer had to tell us about the building. We entered the church and I had just one word – wow! It’s the most natural-looking man-made structure that I have ever seen. The columns branch out at the top, analogous to trees with branches and the church is illuminated by light which filters through the stained glass windows and the hyperboloids on the ceiling that reflect natural light. I was in a stone forest and it was just wonderful 🙂
Coming to the columns -none of the columns inside the church are straight, they are all leaning at angles decided by Gaudi. How did he determine these angles? – Gravity.
Gaudi developed a model of the church using string and let it hang upside down. The inclination of the strings in the model gave the leaning angle of the columns in the church. Gravity showed how the structure would be stable. It all sounds so simple, but takes genius to apply that logic.
The columns are also made from different materials, depending on the load they carry. In the picture below, you can see the tallest columns which are made of red porphyry with a concrete interior, carrying symbolic images of the four evangelists- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It is said that more than twenty kinds of stone have been used in the construction till date.
A crucifix adorns the altar, which is otherwise quite plain. It is hard to maintain a prayerful atmosphere in the main part of the church because of the scores of tourists flitting about and chatting away. Service is usually held in the crypt, but due to ongoing restoration work, it is held in a section of the main area of the church at present. The crypt contains the tomb of Gaudi.
After having a good look at the interior of the church, we headed to the part which is currently under construction – the central tower, which when complete will be the reason behind the basilica’s claim to fame. This tower, called the Jesus tower, will be 170 metres tall and will make the Sagrada Familia the tallest church in the world. My respect for Gaudi increased when I heard the guide say that the height of the tower would be restricted to a metre less than the peak of Montjuic, a mountain in the southwest of Barcelona, as Gaudi believed that no man-made creation should surpass God’s creation. (The concept of building grandiose and imposing places of worship has existed since times immemorial, as we know how some people associate height with prestige -a concept I don’t agree with). In addition to the Jesus tower, the final structure will have 17 other towers, of which only 8 are ready as of now.
We got out of the temporarily built elevator and made our way through scaffolding, eager to get to the most interesting and exciting part of the visit. We felt privileged to see the construction activity first-hand. Work was going on in full swing with supervising engineers and construction workers bustling about. Although Gaudi made minimal use of concrete, modern day construction relies heavily on the use of reinforced concrete. We also saw some of the plaster moulds used for shaping the pinnacles of the columns.
From here, we proceeded to the choir loft. You can observe the ceiling a lot better from here and I got a nice shot of the central nave flanked by columns.
As I had mentioned before, there is a lot of hidden meaning in the different sculptures and elements of the church. One of them is the anagram of the Holy Trinity which is seen crowning the cypress on the Nativity facade. The dove perched at the top is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, the cross of Jesus is depicted in the cross piece on the letter ‘tau’. Tau is the first letter of the word Theos, the Greek name for God. Amazing, isn’t it?
As you descend the staircase, pause for a bit and look down to the bottom (not recommended for those with altophobia 😛 ). In addition to giving you some respite from the dizziness, you will notice that the staircase is shaped such that it seems like you are being taken into the inside of a snail.
Look out for the statue of the six-toed man about to slaughter a child (depicting Childermas), the angels with musical instruments, the tortoises at the base of the column, and try spotting the different sculpted birds.
There is also a museum on the premises that takes you through the various stages of construction in the form of paintings, photographs and models. A short Catalan movie on the Sagrada Familia with English subtitles is screened in one of the rooms at regular intervals.
In the picture above, the two tall buildings you see in the distance are the Torre Mapfre and the Hotel Arts, two of the most famous skyscrapers in Barcelona.
My final verdict:
With regard to my first impression of the building- scratch that. If you ever go to Barcelona, the Sagrada Familia is a must-see. It is worth every cent – the entrance fee for an adult is 13 euros and an additional fee of 4 euros is charged for an audio guide, which I recommend, you must take. Gaudi is NOT overrated and I am a huge fan 😀