Under Construction for 137 Years, This Famous Spanish Basilica Just Got Its Building Permit

Sagrada Familia is pictured here on Catalan National Day 2017. (Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images)

A visionary architect and artist in the truest sense, Antoni Gaudí — godfather of Catalan Modernism — marched to the beat of his own drum. And while Gaudí was busy marching, it would appear that someone neglected to obtain a valid building permit for his still-unfinished masterwork, the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

Now, 137 years after construction on the UNESCO World Heritage Site-listed basilica — an eye-popping mishmash of Gothic and Art Nouveau styles along with other influences that defies easy description — first commenced, church trustees have finally secured the permit needed for work to continue. The city granted the construction license that was originally submitted in 1885.

In an earlier agreement, the trustees agreed to fork over 36 million euros ($41 million) in decades-overdue municipal permitting and construction fees. The sum will be paid out over a 10-year span as part of a formal installment agreement with funds helping to improve transport and infrastructure around Barcelona.

Hey, better late than never.

A model depicting finished Sagrada Familia
A model depicts what Gaudí's soaring magnum opus will look like 100 years after the Catalan architect died — and 144 years after construction first kicked off. (Photo: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images)

So is Gaudí to fault for refusing to bother with paperwork that would have long ago rendered Sagrada Familia a legitimate building site in the eyes of Barcelona city brass? After all, bureaucracy and building permits don't seem copacetic with Gaudí's heady architectural flair. Even in its uncompleted state, Sagrada Familia is a towering testament to the worldview of a man who was an artistic genius, a world-class eccentric and, later in life, a fervently devout Catholic.

If not Gaudí, who else would be at fault for this transgression? The client?

Gaudí, who was not the original architect but came on board a year after the church's groundbreaking in 1883 and promptly radicalized the design, famously referred to his client not as the Roman Catholic Church but as God.

"My client is not in a hurry," was Gaudí's response when asked about the glacial pace of the project. Sagrada Familia was only around a quarter completed when Gaudí died on June 10, 1926, three days after being struck and gravely injured by a passing tram along Barcelona's bustling Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes. He was 73, and had spent his final, monk-like years utterly devoted to the project.

Historic photo of Sagrada Familia
Sagrada Familia in 1905, 22 years after work on the Neo Gothic-goes-Modernist church commenced under Antoni Gaudí, the second architect to be attached to the project. (Photo: Public domain/Wikimedia Commons)

With Gaudí dead, work on the basilica slowed even further. Work, however, has never completely halted for an extended amount of time, even during the Spanish Civil War when vandals set fire to the workshop, destroying Gaudí's original building plans.

Thanks in part to technological advances, construction has picked up speed as of late with major structural work expected to wrap up in 2026 to mark the centenary of Gaudí's passing. At completion, it's expected to be the tallest church in Europe with the lankiest of its six cloud-brushing towers topping off at 566 feet. (Although often referred to as one, Sagrada Familia is not technically a cathedral as it isn't the seat of a bishop. It's classified as a minor basilica while the much older Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia is Barcelona's official cathedral.)

Ultimately, it can be assumed that the church's holy higher-ups — an ecclesiastical foundation established in 1895 known as the Fundació Junta Constructora del Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família — should be held accountable for allowing a tourist-snaring construction project of monumental proportions to continue for well over a century sans any sort of permit. And as The New York Times notes, there's been plenty of finger pointing over the years:

The Sagrada Familia's board had denied any wrongdoing, saying that it had a building permit — one issued in 1885 by Sant Martí de Provençals, which was an independent town at the time. Barcelona officials contend that after Sant Martí was absorbed into the city several years later, the construction required a Barcelona permit; the board says that for more than a century, no one asked for any such thing.

Whatever the case, the enigmatic structure is now roughly 70 percent complete and, for the first time in its existence, rubber-stamped official.

Tourist bus in front Sagrada Familia
Sagrada Familia's status as a world-famous landmark has lured visitors to Barcelona in the millions from all corners of the globe ... but at a cost to local transportation and quality of life. (Photo: Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images)

A 'historic' agreement between a city and its most visited landmark

As mentioned, the $41 million that will be paid to Barcelona over the next decade will be used to fund civic improvements, particularly in the vicinity of Sagrada Familia.

Receiving northwards of 4 million annual visitors, Sagrada Familia is the top tourist attraction in a preternaturally beautiful city overstuffed with tourist attractions.

In fact, the iconic basilica has been ranked the most popular tourist destination not just in Barcelona or Spain but in the entire world when ranked by TripAdvisor reviews. In 2017, it became the first attraction listed on the travel site to surpass 100,000 reviews — no small feat when considering the competition. (The church is now nearing 144,000 reviews with a four-and-a-half star average rating.)

Tourist photo in Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
Cranes, scaffolding and dense crowds aren't enough to keep visitors away from the spectacular, still in-progress Sagrada Familia. Locals have long held mixed feelings about the church. (Photo: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images)

Intriguingly, a study conducted by the city found that around 80 percent of tourists don't even enter the interior of the bonkers basilica and opt to remain outside and take photos of the exterior. What's more, a smaller-than-suspected number (24.1 percent) of visitors are from abroad while a majority are native Barcelonans or hail from other Catalonian towns.

This being said, the extreme popularity of Sagrada Familia — which along with six other Gaudí-designed properties in and around Barcelona comprise a single UNESCO World Heritage Site — has taken its toll. Barcelona has struggled to keep up with the near-constant crush of tourism to the site, which is located in an otherwise low-key neighborhood in the city's Eixample district. And no doubt visitor numbers will only multiply as construction enters the home stretch.

To that end, Deezen reports that $25 million of the "historic agreement" will be used to improve and upgrade overburdened public transit infrastructure serving the church, nearly $8 million will go toward improving citywide access to the Barcelona Metro, $4.5 million will be earmarked for improvement and redevelopment initiatives on four major roads near the basilica and over $3 million in dedicated funds will help to bolster street maintenance and security in the area.

Workers at Sagrada Familia
Construction on Sagrada Familia has entered the final stage and is expected to wrap up in 2026 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Gaudí's death. (Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images)

The nonstop construction at Sagrada Familia is funded exclusively by ticket sales and private donations. Considering the site's immense popularity, it's not expected that ongoing work — work that some critics believe has strayed too far from Gaudí's original vision — will be impacted by annual payments to the city.

"The Sagrada Familia is an icon and the most visited monument in our city," says Mayor Ada ColauColau. "After two years of dialog we have made an agreement that will guarantee the payment of the license, secure access to the monument and facilitate local life with improvements to public transport and redevelopment of the nearby streets."

The agreement and the sizable payout attached to it are expected to end a period of acrimony between the church and city leaders, who have long believed that the basilica-in-progress — not to mention the Roman Catholic Church as a whole — needs to pull its weight and play by the rules.

Writes The New York Times:

Colau and her administration accused the basilica's board of working without a building permit, failing to submit required plans to tear down existing residential structures to finish the Sagrada Familia's esplanade, and failing to pay construction taxes.
The city's complaints struck a nerve in a country where, over several decades, the church had quietly registered thousands of properties, including the famed cathedral-mosque Córdoba, as tax-exempt, leading to claims of tax evasion and a debate over how the church spends tourism revenue.

So what would Gaudí, an uncompromising architect whose city-defining output is both dreamlike and deeply personal, think of this latest development?

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
Love it or hate it, Sagrada Familia is an enduring icon of Barcelona. And with long overdue new construction permits, this singular house of worship is here to stay. (Photo: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images)

It's easy to assume that ultra-pious Gaudí would have sided with the church and sidestepped red tape-laden governmental bureaucracy in order to keep plugging along at a providence-approved snail's pace, permits be damned. But keep in mind that the true raison d'être of the architect, one who has been subject to a canonization campaign that would add sainthood to his posthumous CV, was to modernize and beautify the city that he lived in and loved.

One would think that neighborhood-bettering infrastructure overhauls — all funded in part by the enduring popularity of his unfinished masterwork — that help make Barcelona a better place to live in and visit would pass muster in this regard.

At the very least, his client would most certainly approve.