A Basilica Built to be Completed in 144 Years

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Robison Wells
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La Sagrada Familia, or the Church of the Holy Family, is one of the most long-running architectural projects in the world. The Sagrada Familia, a Catholic basilica in Barcelona, was begun in 1882 by the architect Francisco Paula de Villar, who worked on the project until it was taken over by Gaudi, a prominent architect in Spain, who had a flair for the unconventional—his designs, fluid, bulbous, and flamboyant, look more like a combination of Tim Burton and Dr. Seuss. Always whimsical, without a right angle in sight, he was an incredible influencer on the Art Nouveau movement. But despite this unusual pick to finish a cathedral, Gaudi was a national hero.

While the building is often referred to as a cathedral, it is in fact a basilica (not the seat of a bishop). This gave more leeway to the plan—it need not follow the cross-like layout that is common in churches like St. Peters or Notre Dame. Also, instead of two towers, the Sagrada Familia has eighteen: twelve representing the twelve apostles, the four Evengelists, the Virgin Mary, and tallest, Jesus Christ. That said, the majority of Gaudi’s fingerprints exist on the exteriors, not the interior. The facades are ornate and striking, and Gaudi originally planned them to be polychromatic. But the whimsy is there: the base of a column is a giant turtle.

Gaudi died long before completion of the Basilica—in 1926, in fact. Construction has continued ever since, and completion is planned for a hundred years after his death—2026. Describing the Sagrada Familia, art critic Ranier Zerbst said, “It is impossible to find a church building anything like it in the entire history of art.” Another critic said it is “the most extraordinary personal interpretation of Gothic architecture since the Middle Ages.”

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