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Sagrada Familia (Church of the Holy Family)

Barcelona, Spain

The 328-foot-tall (100-meter) spires of the Church of the Sagrada Familia dominate the skyline of Barcelona, the chief city of Catalonia, in northeastern Spain. This unique church, which, in the tradition of the medieval cathedrals of Europe, remains unfinished more than a century after it was started, is one of the great pieces of world architecture. Its fantastic forms defy our vocabulary and confound any attempt at stylistic classification. It marks the fin de siècle rejection of historical revivalism—perhaps it is the last true Gothic church—but unlike the willful forms of the contemporary Art Nouveau (a category to which some historians have consigned it), it is respectful of the past in its local context and the broader sphere. To repeat, it is unique.

Around 1874, José María Bocabella y Verdaguer (1815–1892), the proprietor of a religious bookshop and cofounder of the reformist Society of Devotees of Saint Joseph, initiated a proposal to build a votive church, the replica of the basilica at Loreto, Italy. Members of the society were solicited for funds, but the money raised was not even enough to buy land in Barcelona. At the end of 1881, 5 acres (2 hectares) of land were bought in the city’s outlying “new town” on the Muntanya Pelada, near the Gran Via Diagonal. Changing his mind, Bocabella commissioned the diocesan architect Francisco del Villar y Lozano, who produced a church of neo-Gothic design. The foundation stone was laid about a year later, but the building had not progressed far when del Villar fell out with the administration and resigned. Bocabella’s son-in-law offered the lapsed commission to Juan Martorell, technical supervisor of the project. He declined, recommending his 31-year-old erstwhile assistant, Antoni Gaudí y Cornet (1852–1926), a fiercely nationalistic Catalan, who took over in November 1883.

The son of a coppersmith, Gaudí studied at Barcelona’s Escola Superior d’Arquitectura, graduating in 1878. Not a particularly good student, he nevertheless established a busy practice. His early work, particularly the Casa Vicens (1878–1880) in Barcelona, attracted the attention of the wealthy industrialist Count Eusebio Güell, who became his patron. For Güell he designed, amongst other works, the Palacio Güell (1885–1889) and Park Güell (1900–1914). Both are fine examples of the sensuous, free-curving, and richly decorated architecture for which Gaudí became admired by his European contemporaries. Of course, he brought the same celebration of form to the Sagrada Familia.

Francisco del Villar had quit the project when the walls of the crypt, the chapels, and part of the pillars of his prosaic church were built. The crypt is therefore neo-Gothic, structurally and esthetically, but