• Image about Sagrada Familia

Barcelona's Sagrada familia has been a work in progress ... for 124 years.


Before Salvador Dalí, there was Antoni Gaudí.

Spaniards both, they each were dedicated to the expression of imagination through art, the surreal marriage of reality and fantasy. And yet it is Gaudí, a before-his-time genius architect and engineer, whose work goes on to this very day - literally - in Barcelona.

Gaudí's unfinished masterpiece is the Sagrada Familia, a church that has been worked on in three consecutive centuries. Today it is only half complete, and it may take another 30 to 50 years to finish Gaudí's vision of a massive monument to God that would hold 10,000 to 14,000 worshippers and include a nave designed with treelike columns and 18 highly original towers topped with intricate sculptures of Christian symbols.

More than a million and a half people visit the Sagrada Familia every year. What they see is nothing less than magnificent.

I CHECK INTO my Barcelona hotel, open the window, and there is the Sagrada Familia, with its unique towers, ghostlike ­draping-over spires, and construction cranes hundreds of feet high. No question: It dominates Barcelona's cityscape and psyche.

My entry ticket says in six languages, "The fee is a contribution for the construction," reminding me that I (like Dalí) am a patron of this ongoing project, which was begun at a time when there were no radios, televisions, paved roads, or computers. Gaudí wanted­ the Sagrada Familia, which means "the Sacred Holy Family," to be for the family of all humanity. It was originally started in 1882 as an expiatory church to make up for previous anticlerical movements in Spain, but after Gaudí was brought in a year later, the project evolved into something much bigger in vision and in size.

My guide, Teresa Farriols, starts the exploration with a postcard­-panoramic view of the Nativity facade, seen across the park through blossoms and trees. Even at that distance, it looks more like a mutating fantasy than a Gothic cathedral. I make out four untraditional­ towers, their spires topped with bright-colored filial art that uses the sky as a canvas, and a large green cypress tree with white doves of peace and faithfulness. The closer we get, the more fantastic and fascinating it all appears.

The Nativity facade is the only side that was completely overseen by Gaudí before he died in 1926. It's his wildly imaginative and carefully crafted tribute to God through religion and nature. Two pillars stand tall between the doorways of Hope, Faith, and Charity, their stories told through scriptural sculptures. The seaward pillar rises from the stone back of a giant marine turtle, and the leeward pillar rests on an equal-size land tortoise.

This side of the building (the east side), which has been called the Bible in Stone, depicts the birth, childhood, and adolescence of Jesus in three-dimensional tableaus. Sometimes the fourth dimension of time shows through - the darker colors of age and smog, and the lighter, younger colors that show repairs from damage inflicted during the Spanish Civil War. Gaudí based the statues on people he selected from the neighborhood and his staff. He cast his forms in plaster, photographed them in front of multiple angled mirrors to get all perspectives, and wired skeletal bones in positions so the final carved stones would tell truths.

Among the biblical sculptures, I see morphing shapes that look like lava flows of leaves, flowers, trees, stalactites, and stalagmites. I am told there are 36 different kinds of birds in this facade, all found in the pages of the Bible, all modeled from real specimens. There are also the Milky Way, signs of the zodiac, and theologians.