How robots could save one of the world’s most unusual cathedrals

01 Sagrada Familia

Editor’s Note: Mark Foster Gage is an American architect and founder of Mark Foster Gage Architects in New York. He is also a professor of architecture at Yale University School of Architecture.

CNN  — 

Barcelona’s most famous landmark has all the makings of a fantastic blockbuster movie: politically savvy priests, robots, vigilante revolutionaries, the husband of the Virgin Mary, a seemingly mad but brilliant architect, vandals, desecrators, and 138 years of a still-unfolding plot.

The Basilica de la Sagrada Família is, by a rather large margin, among the world’s most complicated and time-consuming architectural projects ever undertaken – still under construction over the heads of four million annual visitors. While technically a basilica (as it does not have a sitting bishop), somehow even the word cathedral seems too miniscule to fully describe the overwhelming scale and complexity of both this massive building and the geological timescales of its construction.

A family affair

The idea for the building began in 1882 when a small group of Catholic devotees of the Saint Joseph (the husband of the Virgin Mary) known as the Josephites, dedicated to encouraging family cohesion in the face of the emerging industrial revolution, sought to build a small parish church on the outskirts of then suburban Barcelona. In order to promote this familial focus, the church was to be dedicated to the holy family itself, and thus was eventually named the Basilica de la Sagrada Família, the Church of the Holy Family.

What the Josephites could not have known was that their modest project, in the hands of an ambitious young Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudí, whose only built projects at that time consisted of a gazebo, some furniture, a kiosk and set of lamp posts, would balloon into one of the most ambitious, visionary, unusual, and long-lived architectural projects in the history of humanity – currently clocking in at 138 years of construction, which, for comparison, is over six times as long as it took to build the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. And it’s still not finished.

Aerial view of Sagrada Familia

A century of struggle

If 2020 attests to the fact that much can go wrong in a single year, the Sagrada Família attests to what can go wrong over the course of a century. Its architect, Gaudí, while brilliant beyond his time, was not exactly speedy, nor efficient – taking nearly seven years to develop the first set of sketches that visually described parts of the building to the client. It wasn’t until 1906 – over two decades into the project – that its first set of design sketches, done by his assistant Juan Rubió, depicting the majority of the design was complete, and the first physical architectural model of the whole basilica, which had to be 3D printed by a computer because it was so detailed, wasn’t finished until 2012 – nearly 129 years after the project began. (As a practicing architect I am positively salivating at the billable hours…)

A model of the Sagrada Familia Basilica designed by architect Antoni Gaudi is displayed at the Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona, Spain.

Gaudí’s vision was of church was so complex and detailed from the start that at no point could it be physically drawn by hand using the typical scale drawings so common to almost all architectural projects. Instead, it was almost entirely constructed through the making of large plaster models to communicate Gaudí’s desires to the army of stonemasons slowly liberating its form from blocks of local Montjuïc sandstone.

The interior structure, comprised of what appear to be stone trees and branches that soar vertically and explode into massive intersecting vaults, was so complicated that it could only be visualized, and structurally calculated, by suspending a 13-foot-tall drooping web of interconnected chains and weights from the ceiling of Gaudí’s workshop. Gaudi developed this technique while working on a study for the Colònia Güell Chapel (a smaller, unfinished landmark on the outskirts of Barcelona) and scaled the research up for use on the Sagrada Familia.

This produced an upside-down network of catenary arches (arch shapes formed by hanging chains) that would support the buildings gravitational thrust without the need for thick stone piers or the flying buttresses so normally associated with more traditional Gothic cathedrals. Not only was this process excruciatingly slow, but also expensive, and most importantly – undocumented – residing significantly in the mind and imagination of Gaudí himself. This would prove problematic.

Image of hanging catenary structure in Gaudí's workshop.

For the later part of the 43 years he spent working on the project Gaudí, continually dedicated to a life of celibacy despite having no formal religious position, humbly lived in a small, disheveled room on the construction site itself. In 1926, at age 74, the famous master-architect was killed in a freak tram accident. Dressed so poorly, and with only raisins and almonds found in his pocket, Gaudí was mistaken for a pauper. Having not been given proper treatment he died several days thereafter.