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Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia is at the center of a fiery political battle

The foundation behind the Barcelona church will pay $41 million for not having a permit for the last 136 years.

Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia is at the center of a fiery political battle
[Photo: Flickr user Richard Sykes]

Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí spent the last years of his life dedicated to the construction of La Sagrada Familia, the iconic Catholic temple and the best-known symbol of Barcelona. Today, it’s at the center of a political battle that pits the church against Mayor Ada Colau.

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Gaudí–who took over the project a year after architect Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano started it in 1882–only completed less than a quarter of the project when he died in 1926 at age 73. The church construction continued after the Spanish Civil War and picked up some steam in the last two decades; it’s currently due to be completed in 2026.

[Photo: Flickr user Masaru Suzuki]
Now, city authorities are seeking to recoup money from the church, which was paid for with private donations, arguing that neither Gaudí nor the construction board of the nonprofit La Sagrada Familia Foundation filed the right permits to build the structure. The foundation claims that it did obtain a permit from the town of Sant Martí de Provençals, in 1882. Sant Martí was the original municipality that had jurisdiction over the land where the basilica stands. The town was absorbed by Barcelona in the 20th century, and the city’s current officials claim that, regardless of that permit, it should have filed new paperwork.

As a result of pressure from Colau’s administration, the foundation has agreed to pay $41 million in a settlement to regularize the building’s legal status. The money will help pay for transportation and urbanization improvements that will facilitate public access to the building, which is the most popular monument in the world, according to TripAdvisor.

The monument itself generates millions in taxes for the city every year. The average tourist spends more than $1,000 in Barcelona on average, with La Sagrada Familia being the most visited Barcelona monument with 4.5 million tourists, followed by Gaudí’s Park Güell with 2.9 million, and the FC Barcelona museum with 1.5 million. Arguably, Gaudí’s church is as important to Barcelona as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. Hundreds if not thousands of millions are generated by the monument.

The far-left party governing Barcelona has acknowledged that they see this as a victory in limiting the church’s privileges, which is one of the points Colau campaigned on. The mayor has acted on that promise, trying to find ways for the Catholic church to pay real estate taxes, though Spanish law exempts religions, unions, political parties, NGOs, and any other nonprofit organization.

[Photo: Flickr user Andrew Smith]
It’s not the first time that architecture and public works have been used for political purposes. Ever since the time of the Romans, architecture has been a powerful way to score political points, gain popularity, and show favor to some groups over others. Some experts argue that all architecture is political. After all, humans are the zoom politicking, social animals that share a public and private space organized by architecture. It’s only natural that architecture is used as another political tool and to shape politics.

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Maybe in 2026, when La Sagrada Familia is expected to be complete, the clash between Spanish political forces will be long gone and hopefully forgotten, with only the building standing as a symbol of concord. But knowing that Spaniards have fought internally since before Spain was fully formed in 1492, we shouldn’t count on it.

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About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.

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