BARCELONA, Spain — Among the iconoclastic figures chiseled into the Sagrada Familia, a gigantic stone snail makes its way down the exterior — perhaps an apt metaphor for a church that has been under construction for 128 years. But this weekend marks a milestone for one of the world’s great unfinished buildings.
In a ceremony Sunday celebrating the completion of the Sagrada Familia’s interior, Pope Benedict XVI will consecrate the church as a Basilica. But despite the pomp and circumstance, this project begun in 1882 and properly called The Expiatory Church of the Holy Family will remain unfinished for at least another 15 years.
The deeply religious Modernist architect Antonio Gaudi, who assumed the project from its first architect one year in, was known to quip that his client was in no hurry to finish. That outlook persists today.
“We take each day as it comes,” said Jordi Falui, a director of construction at the church. Falui is one of the 30 architects transforming Gaudi’s ambitious vision into reality, in part by converting the late architect’s drawings of the church into three-dimensional plaster and computer models.
What remains of Gaudi’s original plans is limited. An anti-clerical attack by anarchists during the Spanish Civil War left much of the Gaudi’s studio, and his architectural plans within, in ashes.
When asked if he thinks the construction is taking a long time, Falui replies: “I don’t know.” But his commitment to the Sagrada Familia is evident. By the end of our lunch together, his placemat is covered in drawings of the church’s finer architectural innovations, parabolic skylights and helicoidal columns among them.
By most standards, construction is taking a long time and perhaps for good reason. The group that broke ground on the project more than 125 years ago, a spiritual association devoted to Saint Joseph, envisioned the Sagrada Familia to have an expiatory role — individuals’ sins would be forgiven by the church in exchange for a monetary sacrifice benefiting the church’s construction.
Today, construction remains privately funded by patrons and tourists who pay a fee to examine the work in progress.
“We joke that the builders of the church will purposely never finish it,” said the president of the Sagrada Familia Neighborhood Association, Jaume Torrens Cardona. He estimated that the church has received between 18 million and 22 million euros annually for the past 15 years in tourist revenue alone.
Cardona said his neighborhood is proud to host the famous landmark but that lack of regulation has caused noise and air pollution.
“It is the only landmark of its kind in Europe you can park right next to," he said. "The tour buses put a lot of smog in the air."
The future of the Sagrada Familia depends on the fate of nearly a city block of real estate — plans for the church's grand entrance require razing area businesses and homes. While the church has never received public funds, Cardona believes the government must help buy out property owners.
“There was a time when we petitioned for the church not to be expanded, but realistically I think the Pope’s visit marks the point of no return,” Cardona said.
A common misconception holds that the government does not fund the construction of the Sagrada Familia on secular grounds.
“The Saint Joseph’s association [that founded the church] didn’t ask the government for money and the government didn’t give any,” said Falui. “It frees the church from certain obligations like political demands and a strict deadline.” Free from a strict deadline, indeed.
The maestro of Modernist Spanish architecture, Gaudi lived to see only one facade of his masterpiece completed. To see it now is to understand the nature that inspired him. Snails, iguanas, turkeys and giant tortoises are chiseled alongside traditional imagery of angels and saints.
The same natural elements that mark the oldest facade continue inside. The church’s massive stone pillars extend up and out like a redwood forest; its ceiling resembles a sun-dappled canopy of leaves. Gaudi nicknamed his vision "The Church of Harmonious Light."
When the pope consecrates the Sagrada Familia, its beauty will remain unchanged, but its rules will not. While tourism will continue, the church will become a silent place of worship and no shorts or skirts will be allowed. However, its expiatory tradition seems to continue.
Sonia, my tour guide who will give the Basilica’s inaugural tour on Monday, makes light about the tradition of giving alms, which was a serious business: “When you buy your entrance ticket to tour the Sagrada Familia, some of your sins are forgiven, even if you don’t want them to be.”
“By now,” she said, “there are no sinners left in Barcelona, so we need tourists to come and be forgiven.”