WHEN GAUDÍ DIED unexpectedly in 1926, after being hit by a streetcar on his daily walk to Catholic Mass, he left no mentored successor, and work stopped for a while. He left many plans and models, but he had been known to improvise as he worked. During his life, Gaudí had been reviled and revered, and with his death, many thought the Sagrada Familia should stay as it was: unfinished. Despite many obstacles, work did resume. Then, in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, much of Gaudí's workshop was destroyed, and people spent years trying to piece together the remnants of models. There's a local story that says rats chewed a hole in a wall, uncovering a hidden cache of Gaudí models, which are used today as guides.
Work was halted again by World War II, and architects did not begin on the western facade until 1954. They aimed to keep the "peeled, as if made of bones" look that Gaudí wanted when designing this facade in 1911, while he was enduring the pains of Malta fever. The Nativity facade faces east, to reflect the rising sun, and the Passion facade - the stone stories of Christ's Last Supper, betrayal, crucifixion, and burial - faces west, to reflect the setting sun. The sculptures here yield curves with flat and edged surfaces, which create faces with a linear sorrow that evoke sadness, as if the contours were ramps for the tears that come with the history-changing story of betrayal, agony, and sacrifice. The more angular, concave sculptures were created by Josep M. Subirachs, who has lived in the church since 1987, devoting his own style to Gaudí's Sagrada Familia. Subirachs, with his distinct sculptural style, asks visitors to follow an S path as their eyes look up the three levels of stone tableaus that portray pivotal moments from the last two days of Christ's life.
Beneath it all are central double doors with more than 8,000 letters melted in bronze and scriptures from the Last Supper, not in traditional Latin or national Spanish, but in Catalan, the local language that Gaudí spoke and put in his works.
I look up and see Christ and his crown of thorns hanging from a horizontal cross that is above him, not behind him, so it can be better seen from the ground. Teresa, my guide, says this is the only naked crucifixion sculpture in the world, and that for many weeks she couldn't take tours through because of the throngs of protesters.
The gestalt and the details of this whole facade take time - as well as binoculars - to absorb. There's even a cryptogram number puzzle that Subirachs added to get attention: There are 310 ways it can add up to 33, the age of Jesus when he died. One of the figures above is homage to Gaudí himself at age 60. The Roman guards depicted have Darth Vader-like masks that are nods to the creative chimneys that Gaudí created on the rooftops of residences he designed when he wasn't working on the Sagrada Familia.
It is a feast for the eyes, and I still haven't been inside yet.
INSIDE IS A construction zone, where workers speak in Catalan, as Gaudí did. The noise can be thunderous, and there are strange smells and dust. There still is no ceiling in most places, so the weather changes the lighting and the temperature continually. It's exciting to be in the huge workshop of people trying to finish the vision of a man who died 80 years ago, a man who tried to change the spaces and impact of architecture.
I am transfixed by a Gaudí-designed stained-glass window that creates a prism-like effect of traveling shards of colored light. In a different corner, I ask one of the model makers, Albert Portoles, what it is like to work on a world masterpiece. In Catalan, he says, "You wonder if it will last like the pyramids," then he shrugs poignantly, his expression enigmatic. "But you don't know - man creates and he destroys," as the history of the building itself shows. He has worked on the Sagrada Familia for over 20 years and takes pride in showing his children his work. His partner, modeler Ignaci Badia, works in an open area where tourists can watch him craft pieces from Gaudí's scale models.
I watch workers sand a large curved piece that will fit in the top of a pillar far above our heads and be part of a branch of what I call the sycamore pillars. Gaudí wanted the pillars holding up the church's roof to feel like an organic forest. It was both an artistic breakthrough and an engineering feat. At a time when there were no computers to calculate stress loads, Gaudí found a way to create vaulted ceilings without the flying buttresses associated with Gothic cathedrals. "The tree near my workshop is my master," Gaudí said.