Sagrada Familia, the 138-year-old construction site in Barcelona – expat guide to Spain

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Jordi Fauli is the seventh chief architect of Barcelona’s iconic Sagrada Familia since Antoni Gaudi began work on the basilica in 1883, and he was supposed to oversee its long-awaited completion.

But the pandemic has delayed efforts to complete this towering architectural masterpiece, which has been under construction for nearly 140 years, and it is no longer clear whether Fauli will still be in charge when completed.

“I would love to be here for many more years, of course, but it’s in God’s hands,” said Fauli, 62, with a wry smile on her lips.

He was only 31 when he joined the team of architects as a local in 1990 – the same age as Gaudi when the innovative Catalan architect began to build his largest work at the end of the 19th century , a project that would take four decades of his life.

“When I arrived, only three of these columns were built and they were only 10 meters (33 feet) high,” he explains from a mezzanine in the main nave.

“I had the chance to design and see the construction of the whole interior, then the sacristy and now the main towers.”

When completed, the ornate cathedral designed by Gaudi will have 18 towers, the tallest of which will reach 172 meters in the sky.

The second tallest tower, 138 meters high and dedicated to the Virgin Mary, was officially inaugurated on Wednesday with the illumination of the gigantic 5.5-ton star crowning its highest point.

Several thousand people attended the opening, which coincided with the Day of the Immaculate Conception, a key Marian feast for the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis sent a video message to mark the occasion, saluting the “great architect” Gaudi.

It is the tallest of the nine towers completed and the first to be inaugurated since 1976.

– Construction interrupted by civil war –

In 2019, the Sagrada Familia welcomed 4.7 million visitors, making it the most visited monument in Barcelona.

But it was forced to close in March 2020 as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, its doors remaining closed for nearly a year.

This year, there were just 764,000 visitors, according to municipal figures.

And since entrance tickets are the main source of funding for ongoing construction work, the goal of completing the basilica by 2026 to mark the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death – he was run over by a tram – was abandoned.

“We cannot give any estimate as to when it will be finished as we do not know how the number of visitors will recover in the years to come,” Fauli said.

It is far from the first time that Gaudi’s masterpiece has faced such challenges.

During the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, construction work stopped and many Gaudi blueprints and design models were destroyed.

For critics, this major loss means that they do not regard what was later built as the work of Gaudi, despite the research carried out by his successors.

UNESCO, the cultural agency of the United Nations, has only granted World Heritage status to the crypt of the Sagrada Familia and one of its facades, both built during Gaudi’s lifetime.

But Fauli insists that the project stays true to what Gaudi intended as it is based on the meticulous study of photographs, drawings and testimonies of the late Modernist architect.

– Some local opposition –

Appointed chief architect of the project in 2012, Fauli took over at the head of a team of 27 architects and more than 100 builders.

Today, five architects and some 16 builders are working on finishing the Sagrada Familia.

“It’s a lot of responsibility because it’s an emblematic project, on which a lot of people have an opinion,” explains Fauli.

Building such a vast monument that draws large numbers of visitors is not welcomed by everyone, with some claiming that the hordes of visiting tourists are destroying the area.

Many also oppose the plan to build a huge staircase leading to the main entrance, the construction of which will result in the demolition of several buildings, forcing hundreds of people to move.

“My life is here and they want to kick me out,” says a sign on a balcony near the Sagrada Familia.

Fauli said he understood their concerns and wanted to find “fair solutions” through dialogue.

What if he could ask Gaudi a question? Fauli stops to think for a few moments.

“I would ask him questions about his underlying intentions and the feelings he wanted to communicate through his architecture,” he says.


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