The Sagrada Família is one of the world’s most iconic buildings. This UNESCO-listed basilica is regarded as the magnum opus of famous Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, and was recently chosen as the global winner of the Remarkable Venue Awards, taking home the prize of ‘Most Remarkable Venue’ as voted by over 6,000 culture lovers around the world.
To learn more about this amazing work of architecture and to give you an exclusive look inside the Sagrada Família, we spoke to Xavier Martínez, the Managing Director of the Sagrada Família.
Thank you for speaking to us! Please tell us a bit more about your role at the Sagrada Família – what do you enjoy the most about your work?
It’s difficult to choose. The Sagrada Família is a living, dynamic and constantly changing organization. In my job, no two days are the same and this is what I like most about my position. Of course, when I wake up I have an agenda ahead of me, but no two days in a row are ever the same.
This makes the job very entertaining, and allows me to deal with many different topics. I wouldn’t be able to single out one particular aspect as my favorite, but I’ll stick with this dynamic reality as what I like most about my job.
Why the Sagrada Família is so special
Congratulations on winning the global RVA for Most Remarkable Venue! In your opinion, what is it that makes the Sagrada Família such a remarkable place?
The Sagrada Família is the essence of Antoni Gaudí. Our origin comes directly from Gaudí, and that is what makes the Sagrada Família so special. Antoni Gaudí was a great architect; his work remains as innovative today as it was during his lifetime.
Everyone has a place at the Sagrada Família. Each person finds in the Sagrada Família what they are looking for, both from a spiritual point of view and from the point of view of aesthetic beauty, art, architecture… That is why we are seen as a global monument and able to connect with people from all over the world.
Antoni Gaudí once said that people from all over the world would come to visit the Sagrada Família, and he was right: every year, more than 4.5 million people from 120 different countries come to visit us.
We are very happy and proud to have received this global recognition from Tiqets users.
The exterior of the Sagrada Família is, for many, the most emblematic image of Barcelona. Can you tell us about the unique features of the building’s exterior, like the different facades, or why it looks the way that it does?
Once again, what makes the exterior special is the innovative spirit of Antoni Gaudí. Gaudí did something very disruptive, and that is that he brought to the outside what churches normally have inside. All the altarpieces, images, and more that would normally be inside a basilica; Gaudí moved them to the façades and created a Bible sculpted in stone.
The three main façades symbolize three main aspects of the life of Jesus Christ: his coming into the world on the Nativity façade, his death and resurrection on the Passion façade, and his way to eternal life on the Glory façade, which is not yet built. So everyone who passes by the exterior of Sagrada Família can visualize these aspects of the life of Jesus Christ without having to enter, and this was something really disruptive.
Gaudí also conceived the temple for non-believers, so that everyone could learn about the life of Jesus Christ. And this is a very innovative way of communicating the life of Jesus Christ through different stages of his life, until his death. This innovation is one of the keys to the Sagrada Família’s success.
A look inside the Sagrada Família
Many Tiqeteers in our Amsterdam office have been to the basilica and have said going inside the Sagrada Família is an incredible experience. What is it about the interior of the building that makes the experience so significant for people?
Entering the Sagrada Família for the first time is something very special. The Sagrada Família is unlike anything you have ever seen before. No matter how much people explain it to you and tell you about it, until you come, see it and feel it for yourself, you are not able to understand what it means. We have seen many visitors who, as soon as they enter inside, are moved and even cry.
As I said before, the Sagrada Família is so special in that everyone finds in it what they want to find. Obviously there are many people with spiritual motivations and in this case they find an ideal setting to live out this spiritual relationship. But many people come with other motivations that can be cultural, artistic, architectural, related to beauty, to light… and all of them find what they are looking for.
Everyone finds an interesting and revealing aspect at the moment of entering the Sagrada Família. And then, of course, there is the grandeur: the height of the naves, the light… all that makes the moment of entering the Sagrada Família something special and unforgettable. And that is what makes the interior of the temple so incomparable.
There’s a lot of symbolism present in the interior. Could you share some of the symbolic features people might find inside the Sagrada Família?
As I mentioned earlier, a large amount of the religious symbolism is found on the façades. However, in the interior there are also some very interesting aspects.
There are three that I would like to highlight in particular:
The Eternal Father
This triangle symbol can be found in the large hyperboloid above the presbytery. It is visible from the Gloria entrance. The architectural director, Jordi Bonet, was the one who designed it and he had great success. It is a golden triangle that looks very nice framed in this great hyperboloid, symbolizing the Eternal Father.
The Stained Glass Windows
The light that enters from the outside has a very clear symbolism. The windows that are oriented towards the sunrise feature cold colors, blues and greens, coinciding with the first hours of the day, which are also colder. Then, as the sun advances, the windows through which the light enters are red and orange tones, becoming warmer as the day progresses. This provides a very symbolic time lapse that changes as the day progresses and is really a very beautiful experience.
The Door of Glory
This was designed by sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs and has the Lord’s Prayer written on the door in more than 50 languages. It also has a beautiful piece of symbolism. It turns out that, where you put your hand to open the door, the letters “A” and “G”, as in Antoni Gaudí, coincide. This is very nice, and it’s also a wonderful coincidence. When the design of the door was made, the Lord’s Prayer was randomly arranged in different languages and it happened that, in the place where the door opens, an “A” and a “G” fell.
These are the three aspects that I would highlight when it comes to the symbolism inside the Sagrada Família.
Our apologies for this very unfair question: If you had to pick your favourite part of the Sagrada Família, what would it be? Is there a specific window, façade, tower, view, or feature that comes to mind?
It’s impossible to choose a favorite element in the Sagrada Família, it’s very unfair indeed! This is like being asked which of your children you love the most.
More than a physical or material aspect, I’m left with the emotions, what I have felt and what the Sagrada Família has transmitted to me in the 19 years that I have been part of this project. Perhaps the moment that’s stayed with me the most is the month of November 2010, when Pope Benedict XVI came to dedicate the Sagrada Família.
That religious ceremony opened the Sagrada Família to the world. More than 4,000 people could be seen in the naves, in a very beautiful ceremony. I think I’m more interested in that moment than in choosing a material aspect. It is a great memory, and even today I close my eyes and can see it in my mind’s eye. Not only because of what the ceremony meant, which is to convert a civil building into a church, but because it was something much bigger. The fact that the Pope himself wanted to come to Barcelona, invited by Cardinal Martinez Sistach, gave the event much more importance. It was a ceremony that was broadcast live and followed by more than 300,000,000 people around the world.
It was a unique day that opened the basilica to the world and a beautiful moment that has stayed with me ever since.
What would be your advice to someone who’s inside the Sagrada Família for the very first time? Is there something they should pay attention to or focus on? Is there anything that they could accidentally miss if they don’t know about it?
There are two important moments of the first visit. There are many people who don’t really know what they are coming to see. Maybe they have seen some pictures, but they don’t have a full idea of what they are going to find inside the Sagrada Família.
The first moment occurs when they get out of the subway, look up, and see it rising in the center of the city and say, “My God, what is this… I didn’t see it like this.” It looks huge in the middle of the city.
And then comes the second moment, when you think that nothing is going to impress you anymore because you have already experienced the first emotion. This moment happens as you enter the building. When people step inside the Sagrada Família, everyone looks up and is struck by the altitude of the nave, the grandeur, the columns, the hyperboloids… That great beauty that is inside is something really incredible.
These are the two great moments that I would recommend for people to enjoy and remember.
The Sagrada Família’s construction process
Do you have any interesting stories relating to the construction of the Sagrada Família? Is there anything that happened during the process that stands out to you?
There are many anecdotes to choose from, but I’ll stick with something that relates to the above story about dedicating the basilica in 2010. Imagine how we workers felt at that moment. We had achieved our great goal: to cover the naves so that the Pope would come to dedicate the basilica. It was a moment of great excitement, of great emotion. It was then that we put on the table the famous question: “When will the Sagrada Família be finished?”
Until then, since 1882, we had lived with an urban legend, which is that the Sagrada Família would never be completed. But for the first time, we dared to answer the question. We said: 2026 would be a great moment, coinciding with the centenary of Gaudí’s death, and giving us enough time to finish the work.
The challenge was enormous, in two senses. On the one hand, the practicalities of construction. We had to guarantee safety. In the Sagrada Família, 16,000 people can enter in a day. This is something very distinctive, it is unique in the world that a building can be visited by thousands of people while still being built.
On the other hand, financing: how we could undertake the financing of the building in such a short period of time. To give you an idea, at the time of marking 2026 as the completion date (2019), we had built two thirds of the basilica. It had taken 139 years, and we had 7 years left to build the last third. Imagine the constructive and financial effort that this meant!
Faced with this challenge, we had to do things differently. If we continued in the same way, we would not finish in 2026, but in 2067. We had to reinvent ourselves to effectively finish within that period of 7 years. This is where values such as innovation that we inherited from Antoni Gaudí came into play; we designed a new construction method based on three elements: innovation, stone and steel.
At this point, we were clear about the construction method, but we did not know how to carry it out. We had to go abroad to learn about the best international practices to adapt them to the Sagrada Família. For example, we were inspired by large skyscrapers that were built in short periods of time. How did they do it? If we could do the same, with stone and steel, we would achieve our goal. And in collaboration with construction and architecture firms around the world, we were able to define a model that would allow us to do it.
The steel we use is very particular. It is called duplex steel, and has very important characteristics of hardness and durability. Working with it is very difficult and it is not widely used – there are very few people who know how to use it. In fact, we did not find anyone in Spain who knew how to use it. We had to go to Germany, the Nordic countries, England, and learn abroad. We became experts in our own right and, if it had not been for the pandemic, we would have achieved our goal in 2026. It won’t be possible now. But I’m getting ahead of myself, we’ll talk about that later!
Upcoming projects and ongoing work
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected the Sagrada Família? Are there any new projects being worked on currently?
The pandemic has hit us hard. We have not been unaffected by this misfortune. We had to close our doors on March 13, 2020. We reopened temporarily during July and August of the same year. But we had to close again due to the effects of the third wave of the pandemic.
Our main source of income is tourism, i.e. visitors who contribute to the construction of the temple with their entrance fees. And the second source is donations, which also contribute to the construction. But the difference is significant. Tourism contributes more than 90% of the income and, when we lost the visitors, we were forced to stop the construction. The Sagrada Família is like a great ocean liner. When it puts on the brakes, it needs many sea miles to stop. And the same happens when starting to move forward again and trying to reach the speed it had before the pandemic.
We are now in a valley moment, in which we have had to stop the work, and it will be very difficult for us to return to the construction rhythm of 2019. It will not be possible to finish the Sagrada Família in 2026. This is the main consequence of Covid-19 for the church. At the moment, we are not able to define a new date. We will only be able to do so when we reach the pre-pandemic rate of construction and can make a clear estimate.
But far from falling into discouragement and despondency, the Board of Trustees decided that in 2021 we should make a great effort to build one of the most emblematic towers of the Sagrada Família, which is the tower of the Virgin Mary.
This has been decided for two reasons. Firstly, during more than 100 years of construction the Sagrada Família has experienced many difficulties: wars, famine, hardships… But the different Patronages have always supported the construction and have always done something, no matter how small. The current Board of Trustees believes that, just as efforts were made in difficult times (even more difficult than the current one), it is also appropriate to do so once again now.
And secondly, we think it would be good, now that we are emerging from the pandemic and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, to finish the tower, which is destined to be crowned by a great, luminous star. In December 2021 we will light the star and send a message of hope and brightness to the world to face the year 2022. We want to combine these two moments: the end of the pandemic with the completion of Mary’s tower.
It is a great message of hope that we want to send to the world: we have overcome the pandemic and now it is time to come out of the darkness and move forward with this new light.
Tips for anyone thinking of visiting Barcelona
If someone is visiting Barcelona for the first time, the Sagrada Família should obviously be at the top of their list – but do you have any additional recommendations for visitors to the city? Are there other unmissable things nearby?
Barcelona is a comfortable, attractive, cosmopolitan city. It has many good things: it has good weather, it has the sea, culture, shows, good food, joy… it has many things. I wouldn’t know whether to tell you that the best thing is the architecture, or specifically the modernism. Some people prefer to visit the museums, others prefer the Barça stadium! Barcelona offers a whole range of experiences that make it very attractive and comparable to other great European capitals. That’s why it is positioned as one of the places you can’t miss in Europe and all over the world, and that’s why people come to Barcelona.
I don’t recommend anything specific, but I do recommend to all people to come and experience the city in their own way.
In fact, we can say that in this sense, Barcelona is like the Sagrada Família. It doesn’t matter what you are looking for or where you are from: one way or another, Barcelona, like the Sagrada Família, will manage to connect with you and offer you what you came looking for.
Inspired to visit Barcelona’s beautiful basilica? Every Sagrada Família ticket sold helps fund the ongoing construction of this incredible building. Make sure to check out the official webshop in case you can’t make it to Barcelona, or consider a donation to help make Gaudí‘s vision a reality.