I mean the big Gaudí church in Barcelona, whose official name I can’t not include: Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família. Words are entirely inadequate to describe it, as are pictures. That isn’t stopping me, but what’s on offer here is a poor substitute for standing inside it with eyes wide.

It was a brutal day; raining and blowing hard and not much above 10°C; a weekday too, and thus no line-ups to get in, which I gather is unusual.

I remember as a kid staring for a long time at a picture (perhaps in Life magazine?) of one of its facades, which at that time was about all that was standing. It was only a quarter done when Gaudí died in 1926 and what with wars and Fascism and so on the work has often lagged. Now it’s in steady progress; the interior was good enough to be consecrated just a couple of months ago, and there’s a good chance it’ll be complete in my lifetime.

The aesthetic of the exterior facade is idiosyncratic verging on grotesque; it’s really hard not to consider it overdone. It is however, like every other part of the church, entirely confident.

A facade of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

Inside, the space is vast beyond imagining, a peer of Europe’s other great Gothic poems in stone (although this a church not a cathedral). It’s hard to capture space on this scale in a picture, but the spiral staircase here helps a bit, I think.

Sagrada Familia, interior with spiral staircase

It’s still under active construction. You can see the stonecutters at work, and while we were there a pair of engineers were sighting with some scope-equipped measuring tool from near the altar to way up at the top back, taking notes and talking them over.

The whole inside, much of it very freshly built, is white and pristine to a degree disconcerting to those like me who in touring many of the world’s best-known pieces of ecclesiastical architecture have come to expect centuries’ worth of accumulated surface grunge.

Sagrada Familia, interior with columns and pillars

Let’s come right out and say it: this architecture is kind of weird. It doesn’t look like anything. Quite a bit of twentieth-century architecture looks like it; in particular quite a bit of extremely bad sixties and seventies work. I’m actually not 100% sure I like it. But it doesn’t care what I think. It is utterly confident in its design and execution, not trying to be anything but what it is, quoting effortlessly from the Gothic vocabulary in the shape of the enclosed space, which space however is wrapped by insanely-huge Ionic columns and decorative flourishes that might as well be from Mars.

Here’s a view straight up from more or less at the center of the nave.

Sagrada Familia, dead center looking up

My feelings about this are obviously complex and I think they would be even if I believed generally in the Deity this exists to serve or even particularly in the deep Catholic weirdness the symbology on every wall and window is pushing in your face.

Here we stand in front of the altar, looking up.

Sagrada Familia, looking up over the altar

I’m so glad Gaudí convinced whoever picks major church designs to pick his. I’m so glad I was there and saw it. I’m totally going back once it’s finished if I have the good fortune to be alive then.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Simon Willison (Feb 26 2011, at 08:49)

It's fabulous, isn't it? I hope you got a chance to explore the museum under the church, which has some fascinating insights in to how it was designed.

Did you visit Gaudí's Casa Batlló while you were in the city? As a house rather than a church it's a much more intimate experience to explore, and since it's less overwhelming it's easier to appreciate the ingenious details. Park Güell is a lot of fun too.


From: stand (Feb 26 2011, at 10:22)

It's nice to see that you can get into the nave now. I was there a few years back when it was filled with scaffolding and inaccessible to the public.

The thing that amazed me the most was that the exterior will eventually include 10 more spires all of which are higher than the current 8.

I agree with everything in your last paragraph. I think the goal of the architect of a church should be to inspire contemplation. Gaudí succeeds absolutely in this.


From: Douglas Kretzmann (Feb 26 2011, at 10:45)

astonishing. Thank you.. I didn't realize it was still under construction.

I remember visiting the ruins of a Gothic cathedral on the Rhine, built over a century or two starting in the 1200s: dark stone and empty windows, bats (really) circling in the gloaming. It's rather wonderful that we are still building churches over generations like that.


From: Eduardo Pelegri-Llopart (Feb 26 2011, at 11:35)

A challenge with the exterior of La Sagrada Familia is that it needs a good distance to be seen properly. There are parks for the lateral (East/West-Nativity/Passion) entrances, but the front (South/Glory) entrance is butted against appartment buildings. The original plan had a large park in front; I don't know if that has been resolved yet.

The whole enterprise is funded by individuals. It was started grass-roots, and it has remained so. In particular, no goverment, nor (catholic) church funds are involved. Catalonia has a good tradition of this type of organizations - maybe that's why I do the work I do :-)

Useful links:





From: Ben Meadowcroft (Feb 26 2011, at 14:43)

It's been 9-10 years since I was last in Barcelona, it is impressive to see how much it has progressed internally since then.


From: Ron (Feb 27 2011, at 14:32)

It is just something. I like your shots here Tim.

Thanks for sharing.


From: Derek K. Miller (Feb 27 2011, at 16:11)

You make a point I hadn't thought of: that this structure, so long in construction, has influenced the design of buildings that already seem quite out of date (those flowy concrete bizarrities of the '60s and '70s you mention), and yet it is not yet finished itself. We tend to think of architecture as of a particular decade, but projects like this one remind us that it can span much longer.


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