If you have ever walked in a forest of giant sequoias and redwood trees, you remember how you were immediately mesmerized by their height, natural beauty, and distinctive appearance. Now expand your mind. Look up at those trees and imagine an architectural concept for a grand cathedral. The realization of that concept is the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s top tourist attraction, with over 3 million visitors annually.
In mid July, my husband and I were fortunate to be among those millions. Our visit to the Sagrada Familia moved us profoundly, perhaps more than any famous European church that we have ever seen.
As avid outdoor enthusiasts and people with sincere faith, we appreciate God in nature. We marvel at what He has created and seek His presence when we hike or kayak. When we first stepped into the Sagrada Familia, we felt as though we had entered a heavenly forest created by man to the glory of God. A perfect, holy union with nature! Then we were not surprised when our tour guide explained that the architect, Antoni Gaudi, was a deeply pious man, and fascinated by trees. He had expertise in geometry, quite obvious from the Sagrada’s unique shapes and design elements.
Only after reading The Basilica of the Sagrada Familia, a book that I purchased at the gift shop, did I gain more insight into Gaudi’s mindset while he was creating his masterpiece. Gaudi was a “geometrist,” according to the authors — — Carles Buxadé i Ribot, Josep Gómez Serrano, and Ramon Ferrando Rios, who have been working on the project for more than 25 years — and “at the same time, [the Sagrada] is also the result of painstaking observation of nature, which, as the architect himself said, was always his teacher.”
With nature ‘always his teacher,’ Gaudi observed how light changes and is reflected differently throughout the day. He then mimicked nature.
That explains why, when you look up in awe at the great columns of the Sagrada Familia, you see that they are slightly tilted, not straight. By design, they vary in diameter, like trees in a forest. With nature “always his teacher,” Gaudi observed how light changes and is reflected differently throughout the day. He then mimicked nature. And so, depending on the hour and season of your visit, the colors, patterns, and hues shining on the “trees” are always changing.
Here are some basic facts about the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia, to help one better understand why visiting it is a jaw-dropping architectural experience — for those with, or without, faith.
First, it is important to note that the Sagrada Familia building itself is still a work in progress. Less than 25 percent of it was complete in 1926, when a streetcar fatally hit Gaudi at age 74. He had worked on the project non-stop for 48 years. It has been under construction since 1882 and is scheduled for completion by 2026. Only ten more years until Gaudi’s triumphal surreal vision of faith and nature translated into stone, plaster, and glass is finally achieved — exactly 100 years after his death. On completion, the church will have 18 towers. Construction of the last six is underway.
According to Jordi Fauli, the current chief architect, “the tallest of the new towers will be 564 feet (172 meters) high, making the basilica the tallest religious structure in Europe.”
The exterior is reminiscent of traditional Gothic architecture and Byzantine cathedrals, but only as a point of reference. In designing the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi created his own personal style of architecture, using modernistic geometric structure. His objective was to create vast open spaces maximizing light and color, with as few barriers that structural principles would tolerate.
What millions of visitors see today is a display of Gaudi’s architectural genius. A man light years ahead of his time, and imbued with a deep faith, conceived and presided over a towering structure that symbolically tells the story of Jesus Christ through iconic sculpture in a one-of-a-kind church that is likely never to be replicated.
The astonishing, uplifting interior drenched with bouquets of color streaming from the stained-glass windows become prisms when the light bounces off the architectural forms and columns. On the floor, naves and aisles form a Latin cross. When the basilica is complete, it will accommodate as many as 9,000 worshipers.
Most important is how Sagrada impacts the millions of visitors who wait in long lines to buy the least expensive entrance ticket (18 euros with no audio tour.) Trip Advisor is selling “skip the line” tours starting at $38.
Those prices, for visiting a church under construction, might seem high — until you learn that well before its groundbreaking in 1882, and to this day, the Sagrada Familia has been 100 percent privately funded. In its 134-year history, no government or official Church resources have ever been tapped. Now the annual budget is reported to be $27 million, collected from entrance fees and donations that fund construction costs and upkeep. Daily visitors number in the thousands.
To gauge tourists’ reactions to the Sagrada, check out the Trip Advisor reviews. Repeatedly, you will see words such as “wow,” “breathtaking,” “amazing,” “incredible,” “inspiring.”
Trust me when I tell you that this church is powerful, inside and out.
Because it is a popular international tourist attraction, the odds are that many who visit the basilica are not Catholic or even Christian. The good news is that visitors are exposed to the glory of God and perhaps even touched by the Holy Spirit as they learn the story of Jesus Christ and the Holy Family as portrayed on the facades. Trust me when I tell you that this church is powerful, inside and out. Recently, a non-Christian friend mentioned that when she visited, she felt the real presence of God.
Meanwhile, from a purely physical perspective it is hard to imagine how a Catholic church first designed by Gaudi in 1878 can feel so light, open, breezy, hip, happening, and futuristic. I tell friends that the Sagrada Familia looks like a Gothic cathedral on an acid trip. My husband jokes that I am being sacrilegious but admits that my metaphor has merit.
In 1936, during the height of the Spanish Civil war, Gaudi’s original workshop was destroyed. His famous geometric three-dimensional models intentionally left as “blueprints” for future architects to carry on his work after he passed were smashed to pieces. Today in the museum under the main church you can observe as architects, using computer-aided design, are still reconstructing Gaudi’s priceless models, a few feet from Gaudi’s tomb, as if Gaudi is supervising their work.
“When asked why the project was taking so long, the pious Gaudi was fond of saying, ‘My client is not in a hurry,’” Jeremy Berlin wrote in National Geographic last November. “He was talking about God.” I am confident that in 2026, after 144 years of construction, God and his servant Gaudi will look down on the Sagrada Familia and know it was worth the wait.