When Antoni Gaudí began work on the Sagrada Familia cathedral in 1883, it was already a neo-Gothic work-in-progress; another architect had begun constructing it a year before. But Gaudí swiftly began imposing elements of his singular organic, nature-inspired sensibility upon the structure, as well as designing furniture and objects for the interior.
Gaudí toiled for the remainder of his life on the project, turning down other commissions to focus solely on the church starting in 1914. He worked and lived on site in his final years before being struck down by a tram in 1926 at age 73.
But while he labored over this grandiose monument to Catholicism—one that has in turn become a shrine to his own genius and a symbol of the city of Barcelona itself—Gaudí only completed around 25 percent of what has always been a privately funded work. What’s more, he wasn’t in a rush to finish. “The work of the Sagrada Família progresses slowly because the master of this work is in no great hurry,” he once said, suggesting that his project's slow progress was not only due to a lack of manpower or means.
In recent decades, construction has been guided by architect Jordi Bonet, whose own father had worked under Gaudí, and by architect Jordi Faulí, who took on the role in May. Throughout, there has been controversy about how to carry out Gaudí’s original ideas. Some people seem bent on executing an absolute interpretation of Gaudí’s vision, guided by the writing, sketches and drawings that survived the Spanish Civil War. In 2008, a group of Catalan architects even suggested halting work altogether in order to preserve Gaudí’s authorship. Others believe that Gaudí left the plans open to collaborators from future generations who would ultimately be responsible for finishing what he had started.
And now, thanks to the magic of computer-rendered animation, what Gaudí could not complete in a lifetime is virtually realized in the space of a one-minute YouTube video released by the Sagrada Familia foundation. The stunning video uses digitally enhanced helicopter footage to magically fill in the future outlines of Gaudí’s dream. It shows the completed church as Gaudí envisioned it, with its 18 towers dedicated to various religious figures. The foundation projects the work will be completed by the 100-year anniversary of Gaudí’s death, in 2026.
The video offers a thrilling voyage into the future. But it’s also a pointed reminder that much of the magic of the UNESCO World Heritage Site for the 2.5 million who visit each year lies in its semi-realized state. The world has long known the poetry of half-bombed churches and other ruins, but how often does modern civilization have a chance to witness in slow motion as a great building is built? Not a skyscraper that might take years, but a historic building that has been in the works for more than a century?
Even unfinished, Sagrada Familia is a masterpiece, the crown jewel in Barcelona’s architectural landscape. This living monument that began as an homage to the life of Christ has ended up becoming a testament to the divine possibilities of the human imagination.
I remember the spell the structure cast when I visited 15 years ago, climbing its staircases and struggling to envision what it would eventually become, marveling at what was already there, noting the sacrilegious presence of a Coke machine for the tourists. Now that we’ve seen the video, has some of the mystery been lost? Now that we can picture what it’s going to look like, does it really need to be finished?