Before we visited Barcelona, we had read and heard from others that we should not miss the works of Antoni Gaudi, especially the Sagrada Familia. I had seen pictures of his work, but couldn’t see that it was more special than churches from other places in Europe. The pictures do not do it justice – it is not possible to understand the work of Gaudi without visiting in person. Now I agree with all the others – if you visit Barcelona, check out the Sagrada Familia and other works by Antoni Gaudi.
Who is Antoni Gaudi?
Antoni Gaudi i Cornet was born in Reus, Spain in 1852. He studied at the Barcelona School of Architecture. His early projects were sculptures, iron works, and carpentry. He received commissions to design lamp posts and later, a display case for a glove manufacturer. With the success of these projects he gained popularity and was offered commissions to design homes and other buildings. His style became know as Catalan Modernism.
The industrialist, Eusebi Güell, commissioned several works; the Güell wine cellars, the Güell pavilions, the Palau Güell, and the Park Güell. After the turn of the century, Gaudi constructed several residences including the Casa Batlló and the Casa Milà (la Pedrera). In 1883, he was asked to take over the design and supervision of building the Sagrada Familia (Sacred Family), a church in Barcelona known as the Cathedral of the Poor. From 1915 until his death in 1926, Gaudi focused all his attention on this cathedral, even though he knew it would not be completed during his lifetime.
Throughout his career, Gaudi focused on the three interests that were the most important to him – architecture, nature and religion. He chose not to marry, so he could instead focus on his work. In all of his architectural designs, nature and Gaudi’s relationship with God are evident. He continually studied nature and the Bible, incorporating what he learned into his projects.
From 1900 to 1914, Gaudi worked on Park Güell, a housing complex named after the industrialist who commissioned Gaudi to design it. Only two houses were actually completed in the complex – neither one designed by Gaudi. In 1904, Gaudi purchased one of the homes and lived there until his death. This building, which contained many works by the architect, is now occupied by the Gaudi Museum.
Gaudi designed the roadways and footpaths that run through the park. He included sculptures and plazas with benches so residents and visitors could relax and escape from the business of the city. Even though the housing complex was not successful, the park remains popular.
Casa Milà, or La Padrera
Although there are numerous examples of Gaudi’s work around the city, we were only able to actually visit a couple of them. The first one we visited was the Casa Milà, known as La Pedrera (translation: open quarry), because of its rough appearance.
Owners Roser Segimon and her second husband, Pere Milà, hired Gaudi to design their new home. Between 1906 and 1912, the home for the Milàs and additional rental apartments were completed in the building.
There are several notable design elements in the building. An elevator leads to every other floor – Gaudi wanted residents to meet people on other floors. The city’s first underground parking garage is located in this building. There are two interior courtyards that are open all the way to the roof, allowing light into the building, in turn, requiring less energy use. The attic space was used for laundry (heat rises, causing natural clothes dryers) and extra storage.
All of the exterior walls are curved – mimicking nature. In fact, there are many areas where the design mimics nature. The iron front doors are designed to look like a tangle of tree branches. All the chimneys and ventilation tubes that come out of the roof are organic forms.
Our admission tickets allowed us access to the attic, the roof, the courtyards, and one of the rental apartments. Throughout the tour, there were visual displays and video presentations that explained Gaudi’s beliefs and his work. It was amazing to see his innovative designs. His forward-thinking geometrical studies advanced architecture throughout the world.
If you will be in Barcelona, I recommend visiting the Casa Milà before you visit the Sagrada Familia. We learned so much about Gaudi and were able to transfer what we learned to what we saw at the church. If you cannot visit Barcelona in person, the La Pedrera website has a great virtual tour which shows several views of the building.
Although nicknamed Cathedral of the Poor, the Sagrada Familia is not a true cathedral – it would have to be the seat of a bishop to receive this designation. Gaudi took over the design of the church in 1883, changing it to suit his style. Although he worked on it for several years and devoted the last ten years of his life to it exclusively, it was only about 25 percent complete when he died in 1926. Over the years, work has been slowed or stalled several times, but recently a renewed interest has spurred more progress to be made. No money is received from the government or the catholic church, so all of it must come from donations or other sources. The fees for tourist visits over the past several years has funded most of the recent construction.
Gaudi knew the project would not be completed during his lifetime. Although the original plans were lost or destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, Gaudi had not completely finished them anyway. His intention was to design as he went along, giving latitude to other designers and architects for sections of the church. It is said, he would be glad to let the architects of today add their input to the final project. The goal now is to finish by 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death.
Design of the Church
Gaudi’s design includes eighteen spires, representing the Twelve Apostles, the Virgin Mary, the four Evangelists, and Jesus Christ. The Christ spire is the tallest and most prominent. Eight of the 18 towers are completed – four on each of the Nativity and Passion facades.
The church will have three grand facades. The Nativity facade, which is on the east side, was built while Gaudi was still living. The statues and sculptures on this facade represent the birth of Christ, showing the Holy Family, the shepherds, and the wise men that worshiped the baby king. The style on this facade is clearly representative of Gaudi’s work.
The Passion facade is on the west side of the building. On this side, The main sculpture is of Christ on the cross. The style on this facade is more modern in appearance, but it still seems to coordinate with the overall look of the church. The Glory facade, on the south, is still under construction and thus is covered with scaffolding. This side will show the resurrection of Christ and his glory.
Although the exterior is impressive, I found the interior the most beautiful. The columns that support the roof are built in true Gaudi style. Based on nature, they resemble trees that branch out as they reach the ceiling. The style not only looks natural, but follows strong geometric principles, enabling a central ceiling height of 250 feet.
The installed organ has over 1400 pipes, but other organs will be added as construction progresses. Eventually the organs will have a total of over 8000 pipes between them. They will be able to be played together or the initial organ could control all the pipes on its own.
The most impressive part of the church is a combination of interior and exterior elements. There are large stained glass windows, especially in the upper part of the the walls of the nave. When the sun streams through these windows, the colors reflect on the white walls, producing a beautiful rainbow effect. I stood in awe as I took in the beautiful sight.
Visiting the Church
Tickets for the Sagrada Familia can be purchased online – and I would strongly recommend that you do so a week or more before you arrive in Barcelona. There are a couple of options for tickets – basic tickets are €15, but you can add an audio guide (€22), an ascent of the tower (€29), or a combination ticket with Park Güell (€26 – no tower ascent). Once you purchase your ticket, you cannot add-on other options. We reserved our tickets a couple of days ahead of time, but the only ticket available at that time was the basic option. We were satisfied with the ticket, although we spent more than the recommended one hour inside.
A “Must See” in Barcelona
The next time you visit Barcelona, follow the recommendations of other visitors and see the Sagrada Familia. I would also suggest visiting Casa Milà and other Gaudi sites if you have time. Visit Casa Milà first, so you can learn about Gaudi, then visit the church. If you only have time for one site, visit the church, but pay extra for the audio guide or take a guided tour.
Have you been to Barcelona? What do you think about Gaudi?