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3D engineering goes ecclesiastical

How do you build a gobsmackingly unique mega-church without plans? Sagrada Familia meets 3D modelling and engineering

Magnum opus, seemingly ad infinitum

La Basílica de la Sagrada Familia (“The Basilica of the Holy Family”) in Barcelona, Spain, is a visual riot of an ecclesiastical wonder, the magnum opus of break-the-mould Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. The first stone was laid way back in 1882, making Sagrada Familia the longest-running active building project on this planet – and it’s still not finished. When finally completed, the Sagrada Familia will be the tallest religious structure (it’s not a cathedral!) in Europe, soaring a spectacular 566 feet/170 metres upwards.

Gaudí was a devout Catholic who believed the best way to commune with God was to abide in nature, his creation. He drew up plans for a towering structure with eighteen spires representing the twelve Apostles, four evangelists, the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. The ornately sculpted towers have been described as “the Bible written in stone.” Gaudí is said to have “re-invented the language of architecture”.

Kiboshed and incomplete

Gaudí worked on the Sagrada Familia for 40 years. Work was always slow because the structure was so technically complex, as well as the fact that it relied mainly on intermittent funds from private donations. It almost seems a travesty that such an ambitious, deeply religious structure should still remain incomplete, draped with all the blemishes of scaffolding, cranes and construction work. There are a couple of main reasons – one being that there was no actual building permit until 2019, the other that the 73-year-old Gaudí died from his injuries after being hit by a tram in 1926, with only the Nativity façade and the crypt completed.

The rest of the exuberant, splendiferous structure existed only in Gaudí’s complex architectural drawings and scale plaster models. Tragically, when the Spanish Civil War erupted in 1936, groups of anarchists targeted churches as symbols of institutional oppression. This resulted in Gaudí’s models being largely destroyed, along with most of the drawings detailing his architectural intentions. This left an unbelievably complex design, featuring techniques and shapes never really seen before, with very little of a road map to work from.

The story (featuring some urban myth elements?) is that progress on building Sagrada Familia then slowed to virtually nothing. Work was further delayed by the decades-long fascist rule of the Spanish dictator Franco, and the historical and technical anomaly that the structure represented regardless of regime, falling outside all the “boxes” considered normal for construction projects – whether worldly or ecclesiastical.

From behind to forefront

Strangely, Gaudí was actually a pioneer of the use of three-dimensional representations when designing Sagrada Familia – via the models he used in the design process. When these were smashed, the project quickly fell behind. But as it is now moving to planned completion in 2026, it’s paradoxically appropriate that modern three-dimensional engineering software turns out to be the “saviour”.

Construction work could only really get into gear and move towards completion if building teams had – or could develop – usable plans to work from. In the modern world that usually means in digital format, especially for a structure of this exceptional scale, complexity and uniqueness.

In 2013, the redoubtable 60 Minutes TV programme ran a fantastic account of the engineering solutions brought in to solve the problem. Architect Mark Burry and his team turned to advanced aeronautical engineering software to reverse-engineer the shattered pieces that Gaudí left behind, and thus to establish a 21st-century style of blueprints that will enable construction processes in which the physical manifestation matches up to the original mental maps.

Cross-generational fertilisation

Sagrada Familia is visually stunning and well as gobsmackingly complicated in its wealth of never-seen-before ideas and design details. It’s also so tall that it can’t really be seen and appreciated by mere mortals from ground level. Drone views like this are perhaps the only way to grasp and appreciate its complexity and artistry in full.

The Sagrada Familia basilica is now part of a UNESCO World Heritage site dedicated to the work of Antoni Gaudí, with one of the criteria for its inclusion being that “It anticipated and influenced many of the forms and techniques that were relevant to the development of modern construction in the 20th century.” There is a film of a very good structural engineering lecture here that does a lot to explain the design background and behind-the-scenes thinking, tools and techniques applied to push, pull and shove this remarkable building towards completion.

The YouTube film above from the Basílica de la Sagrada Família channel provides an enticing (though perhaps overly-music’ed) teaser about moving this remarkable structure to completion, with ultra-modern techniques reaching backwards in time to bring historical ideas to final fruition.