Reaching New Heights: The Sagrada Familia – The World’s Tallest (And Most Extravagant) Church

Sagrada Familia

By Elise Linscott

The legendary edifice has survived everything from damage during the Spanish Civil War to periods with barely any funding. Still, the building stood tall. Set for completion in 2026, The Sagrada Familia will survive to stand the 100-year anniversary of original Architect Antoni Gaudí’s death.

Editors Note: This article originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of Wire Rope Exchange. Photos and text are current to that time.

A Long Time Coming

130 years ago, in the Catalan capital of Barcelona, Spain, architect Antoni Gaudí had a vision: To create a church for the people, inspired by nature and worthy of God. His design was ambitious, to say the least. Its spires were to stretch high above the city’s skyline, practically reaching into heaven. The design itself was unconventional, full of rounded flourishes and intricacies, a combination of Gothic convention and Art Nouveau’s elegance.

The interior is largely complete. Photo courtesy of Elise Linscott

As an expiatory church La Sagrada could only be funded through private donations and visitor ticket sales – progress was slow. In fact, the church was only a quarter complete when Gaudí passed away in 1926, and construction halted completely until 1950, when the country’s civil war had ended. In the interim, the façade was damaged, setting the project back indeterminably.

Now, at long last, a tentative completion date of 2026 has been set, just in time for the centenary of Gaudí’s passing (and nearly 150 years after construction began). Upon completion, the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família will be the tallest church in the world, towering 560 feet above Barcelona.

With nearly 3 million visitors each year, the Catholic church has come together slowly but surely since it passed its midpoint in construction in 2010 – the cranes that have stood alongside its spires for much of existence blend in almost seamlessly now, patiently piecing together the basilica.

Patience As A Virtue

Though it’s easy to gawk at the slow turn-around of the project, it’s not completely unheard of for a church of such prowess to move along that slowly. “My client is in no hurry,” Gaudi famously said.

The basilica stands in good company; the Cologne Cathedral in Germany took nearly 600 years to complete, with a centuries-long construction gap in the middle. The Florence Cathedral in Italy took nearly 140 years to complete, from the late 13th to the early 15th century. St. John the Divine, located in New York City, is the largest Cathedral in the world and has been under construction for more than 120 years – still far from completion.

The Façade

Foremost in Gaudí’s mind were the inspiration and symbolism of the church, more so than the speed or tradition. Scrapping the conformity of Gothic design, Gaudí chose to emulate nature, integrating the light and rich colors – creating a building that would modernize Gothic custom with the aesthetic and organic nature of the then fledgling Art Nouveau movement.

Stained glass windows projects color throughout the interior. Photo courtesy of Elise Linscott.

One of the most striking completed features of the church is the Nativity façade, which portrays perfectly sculpted biblical figures, animals and ornamental designs that come to life, rising from what appears to be wet sand texturing the top of the façade. Dedicated to the birth of Christ, the façade is one of three in the church, along with the Passion and Glory facades – the Nativity scene being the only one constructed during Gaudí’s lifetime.

Inside the church, stained glass windows illuminate the church, casting rich colors throughout the church’s interior. Gaudí believed that color was the expression of life, incorporating it thoroughly in his designs.

Tree-like columns in the nave that reach up toward the heavens resemble a forest, with branches and treetops splayed out along the ceiling, evoking a natural peace which Gaudí hoped would encourage prayer.

One of the most unique aspects of the church is its revolutionary use of hyperbolic vaults, angled columns and unusual shapes that allowed Gaudí to build the church to incredible heights without using flying buttresses for support, as many Gothic churches do.

Something to Aspire To / The Benefits of Modern Technology

When completed, the church will have 18 spires – 12 for each of the apostles, four for the Evangelists, one for the Virgin Mary, and one for Christ. The next big construction challenge? Building the remaining 10 spires, a church representative said in an email.

Four tower cranes are seen in this view. Photo by Wire Rope Exchange.

There are currently five POTAIN cranes working on the basilica, of the following models: MD-560-B, MD-175-B, MD-125-B, MD-238, and MC-50-A. The church didn’t rent the cranes; it owns them all, according to a member of the Sagrada Familia press office.

Last year, a Konecranes CXT 6.3t Crane was installed at the site. A video of the installation was posted on the company’s website, though it’s unclear whether the crane is still there or if it has been disassembled.

Throughout the basilica’s history cranes have been regularly installed and dismantled, shortened and moved as various parts of the basilica are started and finished. This has also caused some traffic delays as streets are temporarily closed and vehicles rerouted.

Another modern advancement that has helped move construction along has been the use of milling machines to carve the stone rather than carving by hand, which was done for decades and could have slowed construction by centuries. Computers have also been used to aide design since the 1980’s.

Modern Set-backs to a Century-Old Design

With modern technology comes modern problems. Aside from interruptions in vehicular traffic, other forms of modern transportation have threatened the basilica, namely a controversial tunnel built from 2010 to 2013. The tunnel – which is used by high-speed trains – passes mere feet from the church’s foundation. Some worried this disturbance would cause the church to collapse, though no damage has been reported since the tunnel’s opening in 2013.

Currently, the basilica is 65% completed. Entrance fees pay for most of the yearly construction costs of 25 million Euros, or nearly $27.5 million, according to the UK’s Daily Mail.

Critics / Gaudi’s Vision

La Sagrada Familia is one of Spain’s top tourist attractions, but some have argued that the money put into the church could be better spent on more pressing matters, such as helping the poor, a top priority for Catholic leader Pope Francis.

Many have also criticized the final design for the basilica, saying it’s out of touch with Gaudí’s vision, and question whether he would even like the finished church. In 2008, a number of Catalan architects and historians signed a document demanding construction on the basilica stop immediately, citing a desire to respect Gaudí’s original design.

Sign showing what has not yet been built in gold. Photo by Wire Rope Exchange.

Some of the original plans were destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, when those in opposition to the Catholic Church set fire to Gaudí’s workshop. Still, builders say they’re keeping in line with the intended designs, which have been partially restored. Gaudí’s crypt at the church was unharmed during the fire.

But Gaudí understood that he would never be able to see the basilica completed in his lifetime, and entrusted his successors to continue the work. “It is not a disappointment that I will not be able to finish the temple,” he stated. “I will grow old, but others will come after me. What must always be preserved is the spirit of the work; its life will depend on the generations that transmit this spirit and bring it to life.”

In the beginning of Gaudí’s time as chief architect he worked on Sagrada Familia alongside other projects. But for the last years of his life, he dedicated his time solely to Sagrada Familia. He died in 1926 after being hit by a tram at age 73.

Since Gaudí, there have been a handful more architects who have taken on the project since. Today, it’s the job of Jordi Faulí, who has held the position since 2012. “We are all collaborating with Gaudí,” Faulí said of his work on the church, according to a Sagrada Familia information packet.

La Sagrada Familia is a UNESCO World Heritage site. In Nov. 2010, Pope Benedict XVI consecrated it as a minor basilica and place of worship.

Elise Linscott is a freelance journalist and communications specialist. Her work has been published in regional and national publications including Condé Nast Traveler, the Seattle Times, Reader’s Digest, HGTV, and more. She currently resides in Western Massachusetts. More of her work can be found at

The bases of two of the still-to-be-built spires are seen in this view. Photo by Wire Rope Exchange.

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