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Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia: the Barcelona cathedral without a building permit

Under construction for 136 years so far, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is not overseen by any authority to ensure that construction complies with building norms

A video of the what the Jesus Christ Tower will look like when completed.

Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí’s famous Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona has been under construction for 136 years without any oversight from either the local council or the Catalan regional government.

What’s more, work on the UNESCO World Heritage Site has sped up thanks to the €50 million brought in each year by the 4.5 million annual visitors – an average of 12,000 people a day. The number of tourists to the Roman Catholic church has skyrocketed since it was consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.

The Catalan regional government has said it will not intervene in the  project

At this rate, the Sagrada Familia construction board plans to complete the church – which was left unfinished when Gaudí died in 1926 – by 2026 to mark the centenary of the architect’s death.

But despite the enormous impact of the project on the local neighborhood and Barcelona, the iconic building does not have a municipal construction permit. The only permission it has comes from 1882 when the Sant Martí de Provençals Town Hall told Gaudí to get the plan “processed.” But the architect did not do this. The cathedral is not even listed in the property registry. Since 1995, it has only appeared as an empty plot belonging to the diocese of Barcelona.

After more than a century of zero oversight, the construction board and Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau began negotiating in 2015 to regulate the building and license payments in a special urban plan, scheduled to be announced at the end of the year. Until then, work at the basilica continues unchecked.

The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona
The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

The lack of oversight has allowed the tourist site to fail building norms. In 2007 for instance, it was discovered that eight columns were invading the sidewalk by between 20 and 50 centimeters in respect to the street. Despite this, City Hall took no action. The same problem is occurring now with the Assumpta chapel, which is invading Provença Street by 30 centimeters.

On Thursday, at a special visit to mark the Mercè fiestas (where 300,000 Barcelona residents are invited to visit the site for free), Esteve Camps, president of the construction board, said he was committed to completing Gaudí’s original design. This includes, according to the architect’s sketches, an enormous entranceway, one that would require the demolition of almost two blocks, the expropriation of businesses and around 150 homes, as well as a walkway above a street.

A new addition to the Sagrada Familia basilica.
A new addition to the Sagrada Familia basilica.

“As the heirs of Gaudí we will defend the conclusion of his project in the negotiation,” said Camps. “Some actions will have to be taken, but that’s not for us to do,” he added.

Colau, from the left-wing Barcelona en Comú party, has not taken a clear position on the plans, claiming only that she had been working “for two years to reach an agreement that will allow a construction permit for the basilica to be processed according to Antoni Gaudí’s project.”

Meanwhile, the Catalan regional government has said it will not intervene – even though the Sagrada Familia basilica was granted cultural heritage protection (BIC), meaning any changes made to the building must be overseen by the regional authority. The Catalan government, however, argues it does not have “the obligation to supervise the work because it does not affect the part created by Gaudí.”

Around 70% of the cathedral has been completed thanks to the surge in tourist visits. The Tower of Jesus Christ, the tallest of the planned 18 towers, is set to reach 172.5 meters in 2022, making it the tallest building in Barcelona. At the moment, the tower reaches 85.4 meters.

The site receives 4.5 million visitors a year – an average of 12,000 a day

According to the construction board, “the 18 towers will be part of an extraordinary artistic body that will change depending on the point of view and invoke sensations of elevation and support around the central tower of Jesus Christ.”

There are, however, concerns that plans for the Sagrada Familia do not adhere to Gaudí’s original designs. The cathedral, for instance, will have seven doorways dedicated to the Christian sacraments that were never sketched by the renowned architect.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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