Gaudí's incomplete masterpiece is one of the city's more idiosyncratic creations -- if you have time to see only one Catalan landmark, you should make it this one. Begun in 1882 and incomplete at the architect's death in 1926, this incredible temple -- the Church of the Holy Family -- is a bizarre wonder. The languid, amorphous structure embodies the essence of Gaudí's style, often described as Art Nouveau run wild.

The Sagrada Família became Gaudí's all-encompassing obsession in the last years of his life. The commission came from the Josephines, a right-wing, highly pious faction of the Catholic Church. They were of the opinion that the decadent city needed an expiatory (atonement) temple where its inhabitants could go and do penance for their sins. Gaudí, whose view of Barcelona's supposed decadence largely coincided with that of the Josephines, was given a free hand; money was no object, nor was there a deadline to finish it. As Gaudí is known to have said, "My client [God] is in no hurry."

Dripping in symbolism, the Sagrada Família was conceived to be a "catechism in stone." The basic design followed that of a Gothic church, with transepts, aisles, and a central nave. Apart from the riot of stone carvings, it owes its grandeur to the elongated towers: Four above each of the three facades (representing the Apostles) at 100m (330 feet) high, with four more (the Evangelists) shooting up from the central section at a lofty 170m (560 feet). The words SANCTUS, SANCTUS, SANCTUS, HOSANNA IN EXCELSIUS (Holy, Holy, Holy, Glory to God in the Highest) are written on these, further embellished with colorful geometric tilework. The last tower, being built over the apse, will be higher still and dedicated to the Virgin Mary; it may be complete by 2014.


It is the two completed facades that are the biggest crowd pleasers. The oldest, and the only one to be completed while the architect was alive, is the Nativity facade on the Carrer Marina. So abundant in detail, upon first glance it seems like a wall of molten wax. As the name suggests, the work represents the birth of Jesus; its entire expanse is crammed with figurines of the Holy Family, flute-bearing angels, and an abundance of flora and fauna. Nature and its forms were Gaudí's passion; he spent hours studying its forms in the countryside of his native Reus, south of Barcelona, and much of his work is inspired by nature, so he added birds, mushrooms, and even a tortoise to the religious imagery on the facade. The central piece is the "Tree of Life," a Cyprus tree scattered with nesting white doves.

On the opposite side of the cathedral, the Passion facade is a harsh counterpart to the fluidity of the Nativity facade. It is the work of Josep M. Subirachs, a well-known Catalan sculptor whose highly stylized, elongated figures are of Christ's passion and death, from Last Supper to the crucifixion. The work, started in 1952, has been highly criticized. In the book Barcelona, art critic Robert Hughes called it "the most blatant mass of half-digested moderniste clichés to be plunked on a notable building within living memory." Despite his voice of dissent, work goes on.

In 1936 anarchists attacked the church (as they did many in the city), destroying the plans and models Gaudí had left behind. The present architects are working from photographs of these plans, aided by modern technology. The central nave is starting to take shape and the Glory facade is progressing well. It is estimated that the whole building will be completed by 2026 (the centenary of Gaudí's death), funded entirely by visitors and private donations. Another step in this direction will be the completion of the roof, hopefully due by early 2011 (at the time of writing).


Admission includes a 12-minute video on Gaudí's religious and secular works and entrance to the museum, where fascinating reconstructions of Gaudí's original models are on show.

Gaudí's Resting Place -- Before you leave the Sagrada Família, pay a visit to the crypt, Gaudí's resting place since his death in 1926. The architect spent the last days of his life on site, living a hermitlike existence in a workroom and dedicating all of his time to the project. Funds had dried up, and the modernisme movement had fallen out of fashion. In general, the Sagrada Família was starting to be viewed as a monumental white elephant.

In contrast to the rest of the Sagrada Família, the crypt is built in neo-Gothic style. The first part of the building to be completed, it is the work of Francesc de Villar, the architect who was originally commissioned for the project until Gaudí took over. Villar was a religious architect who studied at Madrid's prestigious Academia de San Fernando and whose important works included restoring the Barri Gòtic church of Santa María del Pi and building the apse in the mountaintop Monastery of Montserrat. He quit the Sagrada Família project for unknown reasons and died in 1901. During 1936's "Tragic Week," when anarchists went on an anti-clerical rampage in the city, the crypt was ransacked. Ironically, the only artifact left intact was Gaudí's tomb.