In August 1963, Merloyd Lawrence wrote a dispatch in The Atlantic from Barcelona, mentioning many of the city’s cultural landmarks: the merchants on Las Ramblas, the food, and the buildings designed by Antoni Gaudí, the “architect laureate of Catalonia.” After a disclaimer noting that many a “discriminating traveler has found his work hideous,” Lawrence describes the Iglesia de la Sagrada Família, Gaudí’s most famous building, as an “unfinished, uninhibited cathedral in which stone explodes into botanical fantasies or overflows like molten wax.”

52 years after Lawrence’s piece appeared in The Atlantic and 132 years after construction began in 1883, the magnificent Sagrada Família has reached its final stage of construction. According to the current chief architect, Jordi Fauli, six more towers will be added to the basilica by 2026, bringing the grand total to 18, each of which is dedicated to a different religious figure. The building’s completion is timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the architect’s death, although adding the final decorative elements could take another four to six years after the towers are erected. When it’s finished, the basilica will be the tallest religious building in Europe, standing at 564 feet.

Gaudí famously believed that his client, God, was in no hurry, and over its long gestation period La Sagrada Família has acquired a bounty of fantastic descriptors, with citizens, tourists, and critics debating whether it’s a work of genius or garishness. Salvador Dalí called it a “tactile erogenous zone” and Walter Gropius deemed it “a marvel of technical perfection.” Various news outlets have called it “monstrously, outrageously kitsch”; a “teeming jumble”; “the crown jewel in Barcelona’s architectural landscape”; “sensual, spiritual, whimsical, exuberant”; “a cluster of gigantic stone termites’ nests” and “a gingerbread house baked by the wickedest witch of all.”

The controversy is especially keen because Gaudí died in 1926, and the basilica in its current form may be less than half of his original design. Others say that the building should never be finished, and that its perpetual state of construction is central to its charm. It’s impossible to estimate how much construction of the Sagrada Família has cost over the years, but the annual costs of construction and maintenance run to around €25 million a year, paid for by the site’s three million annual visitors as well as private donors.

In 2011, the writer and self-proclaimed Gaudí skeptic P.J. O’Rourke wrote in The Atlantic about his attempt to use Gaudí to understand the whimsical shapes of 21st-century architecture (Read: Frank Gehry). He pondered whether La Sagrada Família would always be under construction, standing as a constantly morphing monument to the architect’s genius.

It would shake the faith back into anyone to look at Gaudí’s depiction of all creation melting in love on the Nativity facade. I behold, with strained peripheral vision, the nave and aisles that hold 14,000 worshippers. And these are the least interesting parts of the building.

Gaudí considered the Gothic style imperfect, because buttresses are needed to hold up the soaring magnificence. The house of God should stand on its own. Gaudí found solutions in plant and animal forms, in hyperboloids, paraboloids, and helicoids (respectively, saddle-shaped curves, cones, and spirals). And he made use of fractals, structures that split into smaller replications of themselves, the way broccoli does … If a Gothic cathedral is (as some have said, misapplying their Shakespeare) a sermon in stone, then La Sagrada Família is a sermon in broccoli. And none the less powerful for it.

In the end, O’Rourke concluded that “Gaudí’s architecture isn’t whimsical at all,” but that rather, he is God’s own engineer. And in 11 years, his vision—or at least the amalgamation of his inspiration and that of the architects who’ve presided over it in his absence—will finally be complete.


In Photos: One Hundred and Thirty-Two Years of Gaudí