Antoni Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain, is the Catalonian architect’s most majestic and iconic gift to the world. In the eyes of his contemporaries, Gaudi was viewed as God’s architect here on Earth, and in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI designated it as a basilica for its religious importance.
La Sagrada Familia (‘The Holy Family’) has become the most visited site in Spain, with 7 million people a year coming to gaze at its facade and over 3 million people venturing inside. If all goes as planned, it will be the last of Gaudi’s buildings to be completed.
Gaudi began building La Sagrada Familia in 1882. Today, in 2022, construction has continued on an almost daily basis for 140 years, yet only eight of the 18 spires Gaudi designed have been completed. If fully completed as planned in 2026, the tallest spire will rise to 560 feet, making it the tallest religious building in Europe. Following his respect for the magnitude of nature, Gaudi ensured that La Sagrada Familia would be one metre (three feet) shorter than Montjuïc – Barcelona’s tallest hill.
Antoni Gaudi was born in 1852 in the rural province of Tarragona, Catalonia, and later attributed the critical impact of nature on his work to the years of his childhood spent in the countryside and on the long organised group hikes he took as a young man. These experiences also made him a lifelong champion of Catalonia’s unique language, culture and heritage. Gaudi saw nature as God’s teaching hand. “The straight line belongs to man, the curved to God,” he said.
Moving to Barcelona in 1868, Gaudi studied utopian socialism and became intrigued with the communal architecture and way of life of the “phalanstère” of the French philosopher, Charles Fourier, where 500-2000 people live within a utopian building, working together for mutual benefit. Later, he studied the arts and crafts work of William Morris and the writings of John Ruskin.
Gaudi also worked with Eusebi Gűell on creating a Garden City for Barcelona modelled after Ebenezer Howard, founder of the garden city movement. That land later became Park Gűell and retained the English spelling of ‘Park’ as a tribute to the original plan. He joined numerous organisations which took pride in their Catalonian heritage and, filled with new concepts and ideas to promote Catalonia being known for its own architectural style, Gaudi went on to become the leading exponent of Catalan modernism.
Although Gaudi graduated from the Barcelona Higher School of Architecture in 1878, he had already begun using his skills as an architect. In fact, Gaudi signed drawings for his first building that same year, a projected community for a worker’s organisation called La Obrera Cooperativa Mataronense. Set up in the nearby port city of Mataro in 1860, the organisation became a co-operative in 1864.
From about 1877-1883, the co-operative employed Gaudi to design its complete ideal workers’ live-work community. Salvador Pages, the instigator of the co-operative and later a leader in the co-operative movement in Catalonia, wanted a co-operative community that unified the textile workers together in their 36 on-site homes, communal spaces and industrial workshops. Gaudi knew the purpose of these buildings was intended to magnify the lofty linkages of labour and life.
Of Gaudi’s plans for the co-operative community, only two houses, the caretaker’s office, the restrooms, the chimney and the parabolic arched bleaching warehouse (completed in 1883) were built and occupied. Regrettably, the co-operative closed in the late 1880s with few people at that time understanding the site’s architectural significance as Gaudi’s first buildings.
It was not until 1999 that the city of Mataro took action to preserve what remained of the much-altered warehouse building, the chimney and the toilets, but it decided to demolish the remaining modified co-operative buildings. Because of the complexity of restoring the arches of the warehouse building to its former parabolic glory, it was not re-opened until 2008. In 2010, the building was given an additional valuable purpose by becoming the home of the Museum of Contemporary Art Consortium of Mataro.
In 2013, on the 130th anniversary of the construction of the warehouse, Gaudi scholars, architects and Catalonian leaders gathered in the rebuilt and refurbished warehouse to adopt the Declaration of Mataro. The declaration committed the signers to, among other topics, “ensuring that Antoni Gaudi continues being a heritage that Catalonia shares with the citizens of the world”.
However, La Obrera Cooperativa Mataronense was to play one other critical but sad role in the personal life of Gaudi. While working on the building plans for the co-operative, Gaudi fell in love with Pepeta Moreu, a talented teacher at the co-op. Pepeta was from a cultured family, well educated, up-to-date on current issues and progressive in spirit and action. Pepeta and her sister hand-embroidered the stylish art nouveau banner that Gaudi designed for the co-operative.
Gaudi began to visit the Moreu family at their home close to him in Barcelona every Sunday. At one point, Gaudi asked Salvador Pages to inform Pepeta of his desire for courtship and then marriage. Moreu’s reply to Gaudi was devastating and life-changing; she could not as she had another suitor.
By this time, the co-operative’s warehouse had been completed Gaudi’s work in Mataro was finished. Gaudi left the Moreu home that night, and never again returned to Mataro, never married and remained a celibate, broken-hearted bachelor for the rest of his life.
Between 1882 and 1915, Gaudi completed many other architectural works, created especially for his patrons and friends, including Casa Milà (La Pedrera, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1984), and Casa Battló. Although Gaudi earned an international reputation, most of his major works are found in Barcelona.
From 1915 on, Gaudi gave his heart completely to God. La Sagrada Familia was Gaudi’s gift to the earth – but for him, the plans were commandments from above for Gaudi to turn into the Glory of God. Everything possible is being done to complete La Sagrada Familia by 2026. That date would coincide with the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of his death. No doubt, Gaudi will feel his life on Earth was of use if he sees God is pleased with the completed La Sagrada Familia.
In 1915, Gaudi said, “My good friends are dead; I have no family and no clients, no fortune nor anything. Now I can dedicate myself entirely to the Church.”
As La Sagrada Familia began to take form, Gaudi became consumed by the thought of fulfilling his legacy. Earlier in his life, Gaudi had been a young, fashionably dressed bon vivant. As years went by, his growing pious Catholicism played such an increasingly large role in his daily life that he became an aesthete, wearing clothes until they were threadbare. From 1925 on, Gaudi slept nightly in a cot in the crypt below La Sagrada Familia.
It’s possible that Gaudi’s strong commitment to Catholicism might have been what accidentally led to his death at age 73. On 7 June 1926, he left his studio at La Sagrada Familia to go for his daily walk to a nearby church for mass. While crossing the street, he was knocked over by a tram. Because he was elderly, and resembled a penniless beggar, he was dragged away from the tram tracks and left seriously injured on the pavement without receiving any assistance.
With no identification on him, Gaudi lay unconscious for hours until some persistent Samaritans implored a Guardia Civil to commandeer a taxi to take him to a hospital, where he received limited care. By the time his colleagues found him, his serious condition had deteriorated so badly that additional care was fruitless and he died. Days later, the citizens of Barcelona bid farewell to him in the Chapel of our Lady of Mount Carmel within the crypt of La Sagrada Familia.
And, yes, Gaudi built La Sagrada Familia for God, but he designed La Obrera Cooperativa Mataronense for humble workers and their families. His inspiring, gracious and unforgettable architecture honoured both his clients here on earth and above in heaven.
David J Thompson is one of the most published writers in the USA about the co-operative sector. He has visited a number of Gaudi’s buildings in Barcelona and written about Spanish co-operatives. He has an MA in architecture and urban planning from the University of California at Los Angeles where he was given the Dean’s Award for Community Service. He is president of the Twin Pines Cooperative Foundation and a member of the US Cooperative Hall of Fame. David has written and contributed to a number of books and over 400 articles about co-operatives. See, www.npllc.org and www.community.coop