It is well known that Gaudí predicted the international interest the Sagrada Família would attract, saying “People will come from all over to see what we’ve done.” Over a century later, the figures confirm it: recently, the Temple has welcomed more than four million visitors each year -twenty million come by just to look at it from the outside- and, as the architect said, they come from all over the world. These figures made the Sagrada Família the most-visited monument in Spain in 2019, according to the ranking compiled by travel platform Tripadvisor, and sixth in the world, after the Colosseum in Rome, the Louvre in Paris and the Vatican Museums.
The reasons for visiting the Basilica and discovering all about its construction and the progress of the works, now on the home straight, vary as widely as its visitors. Nevertheless, there are some common reasons that have remained unchanged over the years and make the Temple a must-see. Taking advantage of the Sagrada Família reopening its doors to the public after the forced closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic, although with some safety restrictions, we’ve decided to look at the five main reasons the Basilica is a not-to-be-missed stop.
- It is an architectural icon. The Sagrada Família is the most forceful architectural display representing a very specific, tumultuous time in history: the turn of the 20th century when the western world, and Barcelona, were suddenly transformed. Industrialisation took over, as did modern inventions, the working class was born and conflicts arose, which transformed society. In this context, Gaudí created his expressive architecture, born of that time with its sights set firmly on the future. Modernisme was born, but he went far beyond this movement and the formal and ornamental paradigms associated with it. So, recognition for this icon, limited in the beginning, grew from the 1950s, spreading all over the world. Today, the Basilica has consolidated its place as an exemplary specimen of great architecture, and a prime example of how the technical expertise, artistic expression and calculations that make it possible serve the uses and purpose of the building, which in this case is to spread the message of Christian faith.
- It is the only great cathedral in the world that is still under construction. Cathedrals have always taken a long time to build, in some cases a very long time: the Cologne Cathedral (Germany) took 632 to finish; the Milan Cathedral, 577 years; and Westminster Abbey, in London, was built in just 500 years. There are other, non-religious buildings that also took a long time to build, like the Alhambra in Granada, which is calculated to have taken 600 years, and the megalithic monument at Stonehenge (England), which is believed to have taken 1,600 years. In any case, the era of cathedrals began in the 12th century, in a sort of building frenzy that fuelled the growth of medieval cities for three centuries. The phenomenon, however, lasted even longer and many cities joined in after the initial wave. There was a succession of styles, from Romanesque to neo-Gothic, and we can say that, at its latest, the era of cathedrals lasted until the 19th century. There are some isolated cases, however, of cities where it didn’t end until the 20th century, like Barcelona. And that is why the Sagrada Família, which broke ground in the late 19th century, at the tail end of this period, and continued throughout the 20th century, is undoubtedly an exceptional case. Each cathedral has its own history and reasons for taking so long to build, generally a lack of funds or donations. In the case of our Temple, however, construction has been ongoing, although the pace of the work has changed. Works only stopped completely from 1936-1939, during the Spanish Civil War, and now, for the second time in over a century, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
- It is the masterpiece of a genius. Even though the whole city came out to say goodbye to Gaudí when he died, at that time his work wasn’t much appreciated from an artistic or architectural standpoint. It took years for him to get the recognition he truly deserves. His work, in its entirety, has been declared UNESCO World Heritage: his first works were listed in 1994 and the Nativity façade and crypt of the Sagrada Família were added in 2005. And Gaudí integrated all the arts that are part of architecture, from structural mechanics down to the tiniest functional or symbolic detail, into this work. Plus, as the Sagrada Família is the work he spent the most time on, practically his whole career as an architect, it showcases many of his strokes of brilliance from other projects.
- It is the perfect combination of tradition and innovation. This duality has been present since Gaudí’s time and explains, for example, how the Temple’s central towers, a huge constructive challenge, can be finished in under five years, while the stone used to make them has the age-old artisan touch of the stonemasons. The technological side of the Sagrada Família includes using materials like duplex steel, a type of stainless steel that is more resistant to corrosion and has better mechanical strength, and techniques like mechanical stone-cutting. However, it also goes beyond the work itself, used for safety and to juggle construction and tourism. All of this co-exists with artisan work that is hard to find anywhere else. In some cases, in fact, they are the last artisans left using techniques we hope will continue after the work is finished: from the work we mentioned before to give the stone texture to bringing the trencadís mosaics to life with colours, from the wrought iron work to the stained-glass windows, like in Gothic cathedrals.
- The inside is full of spirituality. Before 2010, the Sagrada Família’s exuberant exterior is what attracted visitors. The architecture-cum-sculpture spoke to all who saw it and word of mouth spread the message that it was made of living stones, full of content. In 2010, however, the Temple was consecrated as a Basilica and, from that time on, the Temple opened up its interior space to worshippers, pilgrims and visitors, who found a space that few leave without feeling moved. The forest of inclined trunks and branches holding up the vaults with openings that let the light stream in, as if through the branches of the trees in a forest, its great height, proportions and magnificent play of light and colours from the stained-glass windows make it more than just a unique building: they make it a space full of spirituality that truly enthrals and captivates anyone who visits.