The Sagrada Familia may be Antoni Gaudí’s most famous building, but only a fraction of it was completed during his lifetime. The Nativity facade and towers form the core of his work on the church and are an indispensable part of any itinerary. Gaudí’s needle-thin towers assume a whole different aspect from up close, especially the contrast between solid and void. From a distance, the perforations form a static, net-like pattern – but up close, they seem to yawn open and closed in an undulating rhythm. Like many of Gaudí’s roofscapes, standing amongst the towers can feel like being cradled by a living entity.
The towers also provide views of the construction in the rest of the building as well as of Barcelona. No other structure in the world combines cutting-edge technology with traditions going back roughly 900 years. Visitors can watch the tallest cranes in Europe moving materials in service of a design created when electricity was new.
The Nativity facade (left) with sculptures by Gaudí, and the Passion facade (right) with sculptures by Josep Maria Subirachs
A basic ticket to the Sagrada Familia takes visitors through the Nativity façade into the church interior and the museum. Visiting the towers requires an add-on reservation, with a choice of either the Nativity towers or the Passion towers. Because the latter were built after Gaudí’s death using different construction techniques, we recommend choosing the Nativity towers.
Origins of the Sagrada Familia
The story of the Sagrada Familia begins with a group of Catholics who wanted to bring moral guidance to the masses. They envisioned an enormous “expiatory temple” where people could pray for redemption. In 1882, work began on an unexceptional Neo-Gothic design by the local diocese’s official architect. But the group’s firebrand promoter apparently dreamt of a young knight saving the project – a knight who happened to resemble Antoni Gaudí. Before the crypt was finished, the younger architect had already begun redesigning the church.
Because of its size and scope, Gaudí knew he could build only a fraction of the Sagrada Familia in his lifetime. Instead of working from the ground up on the entire structure, he chose to focus on a single side, reasoning that he could use it to set an example for future construction. By the time he died in 1926, most of the Nativity façade and towers were near completion.
The lower façade, with its seething mass of cast-from-life sculptures, represents a major departure from the rest of Gaudí’s career.
It’s impossible to make sense of the Nativity Façade without considering Gaudí’s personal trajectory – specifically, the near-tragic quality of his later years. The second decade of the twentieth century brought challenges to nearly every aspect of his life. His remaining family members and closest companions died. His most brilliant acolytes left to pursue their own projects. Gaudí’s own work was falling out of fashion, and his Casa Mila was lampooned. In Catalonia, the Catholic Church was frequently under attack, including the 1909 ‘Tragic Week’ in which nearly 80 churches, convents, and other religious buildings were assaulted. For the pious Gaudí, the Sagrada Familia represented a chance to correct the alarming course life in Barcelona appeared to be taking. He became increasingly ascetic, selling his possessions and even requesting donations door-to-door to fund construction of the church.
In the Nativity façade, Gaudí set out to promote biblical teachings. In the belief that familiar forms would resonate more strongly with the masses, he moved away from the abstractions of his earlier work and towards an almost obsessive realism. Virtually every sculpture on the façade is based on a plaster cast , including over thirty types of plants found in both the Holy Land and Catalonia. Gaudí famously cast animals and even stillborn babies, as well as crew members and local residents – including a dying alcoholic who served as the model for Judas. He insisted on sending scouts out to comb the city for a properly-emaciated donkey, which had to be hoisted into position twenty meters up and visually approved before being cast.
A visit to the Nativity towers begins with an elevator ride up from the main body of the church. A small bridge 65 meters above the ground spans the two middle towers, with views of the city on one side and a forest of spires on the other. After crossing to the other tower, visitors descend via a staircase to the top of the nave.
Gaudí’s ambitious design for the Sagrada Familia included an astonishing 18 towers, grouped into sets of four over each of the three primary façades plus an additional six towers in the center. Each tower symbolizes a major Christian figure including Jesus, Mary, and the 12 Apostles; the varying heights reflect the figure’s relative importance. Medieval churches have often incorporated spires, but never so many and never with the profile we see in the Sagrada Familia. The only precedent seems to be an unrealized design Gaudí drew up for a Franciscan Mission in Tangier at the end of his tour of northern Africa. As usual, Gaudí’s fluency with advanced mathematical forms and studies of plant anatomy helped him come up with an unprecedented shape: in this case, a parabolic conoid. Gaudí also designed tubular bells to go in the towers, and shaped the perforations to direct the sound downward.
The fruit sculptures above are by Etsuro Sotoo, who joined the Sagrada Familia team in 1978. Originally from Japan, he eventually converted to Christianity in order to better understand Gaudí’s work.
Going down the ultra-tight spiral staircase is another highlight of the towers. Gaudí was not the first architect to exploit the helix, but he compressed it beyond all norms into a perfect blend of nature with human-made.
The view down becomes a fractal, in which the same shape repeats at smaller and smaller scales. Having first encountered the form as a boy when he studied snails and seashells, Gaudí was well aware that spirals appear throughout nature, on every scale from the microscopic to the galactic.
A Treetop View of Gaudí’s Legacy
Towards the end of the staircase, visitors can pause high up over the nave, amongst the ‘branches’ of the columns. Gaudí’s radical design upended thousands of years of architecture by placing angled supporting beams at the top, so as to avoid cumbersome buttresses below.
The view of the church interior is also an ideal spot to reflect on how the construction of the last few decades differs from what was built under Gaudí’s supervision – and on the remarkable work of his successors.
As work on the Nativity towers and façade crept along, Gaudí produced models and drawings of his plans for the rest of the church. By the time he died, the project was already languishing from lack of funds and a general sense that the entire idea of a giant expiatory temple was outdated. When the Civil War erupted, rioters broke onto the Sagrada Familia site and destroyed its workshops – including all of Gaudí’s designs as well as his photographic archives and correspondence. A plan to bomb the main structure was called off on the basis of pleas from his loyal crew. That crew of several dozen men painstakingly re-assembled the models and drawings based on photographs and their familiarity with the project. Even as work ground to a halt during the 1940’s and 1950’s, they maintained faith in the project and passed the legacy on to younger generations.
It took several more decades and a revolution in technology for the world’s interest in Gaudí and the Sagrada Familia to revive. Long misunderstood and sometimes ridiculed, Gaudí’s work finally began gaining widespread recognition by the close of the millennium. Meanwhile, Barcelona tourism exploded, attracting new sources of funding and more motivation to complete the church. Computer modeling made working with complicated geometric forms more accessible, enabling a team to literally piece together Gaudí’s ideas. Laser cutting, synthetic stone, and other developments sped up the building process up exponentially. Of course, the new technology and materials result in a different type of architecture, and the overall effect may strike some visitors as more futuristic than organic.
Access to the towers is limited, and we recommend reserving at least several weeks ahead of time. Tickets can be purchased up to three months in advance on the Sagrada Familia website.
The tight spaces of the towers and spiral staircase are not suitable for those with mobility issues, vertigo, or claustrophobic tendencies.
Architect Oscar Busquets Blanca’s article gives a sense of the controversies surrounding the newer work on the Sagrada Familia. The author, who helped to draft a famous 1960’s petition against continuing construction, explains why the interior eventually made him change his mind.
Robert Hughes’ book Barcelona helps to understand the general context of Catalan Modernisme and the social upheavals of Gaudí’s era. The final chapter includes a thought-provoking critique of the Sagrada Familia.
Most histories of the Sagrada Familia give only a cursory account of construction after Gaudí’s death, but Gijs van Hensbergen’s book also describes the challenges faced by the teams reconstructing the design.
For more on Gaudí’s architecture, see our posts on Barcelona’s Ruta del Modernisme and Gaudí and Modernisme in Palma de Mallorca. We also recommend visiting the Hospital de Sant Pau, which connects to the Sagrada Familia via the Av. Gaudí promenade.