Lonely Planet Writer

La Sagrada Familia receives building permit 137 years late

Most people attempting to carry out construction without a permit try to keep things low key and under the authority’s radar. Others, such as Robert Fidler famously did in the UK, go to extraordinary lengths to use camouflage techniques to conceal their grand projects (he hid a four-bedroom mock-Tudor castle in Surrey behind bales of hay, and almost got away with it).

The exterior of the church.
La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Image by ©narvikk/Getty Images

But Roman Catholic officials in Barcelona went with the more audacious ‘hiding in plain sight’ technique with their construction of what is arguably the world’s most in-your-face church, La Sagrada Familia. And they managed the illegal construction quite well for 137 years.

Only late last week was the site, which attracts some 4.5 million people a year, awarded a license to make its continued building works legal. This all came to light from a Twitter post by Janet Sanz, an employee charged with urban planning for the city.

Looking up into the ceiling inside the church.
The interior of the church designed by Gaudi. Image by ©Alessandro Colle/Shutterstock

Agence France-Presse reported that Sanz went on to tell reporters that Barcelona’s council had succeeded to ‘resolve a historical anomaly in the city — that an emblematic monument like the Sagrada Familia… didn’t have a building permit, that it was being constructed illegally.’

Perhaps optimistically, work on the church – which began in 1882 – is expected to be completed in 2026, a century after the death of its famed architect, Antoni Gaudí’. When Gaudí was fatefully struck by the number 30 tram on 7 June 1926, only the crypt, the apse walls, one portal and one tower had been finished. By 1930 three more towers were added, which completed the northeast (Nativity) facade.

La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Image by ©TTstudio/Shutterstock

Anarchists, no wiser to the illegality of the works, burned and smashed the interior in 1936 regardless, destroying most of the plans and models in the process – this delayed further building until 1952. Modern opponents to the continuation of the project, also unaware of its unlicensed status, have instead been arguing fruitlessly that the use of computer models (based on what plans of Gaudí’s survived) have little to do with Gaudí’s original plans and style.

The now-licensed building site (as well as the completed sections and museum) may continue to be explored at leisure by visitors on various tours. It’s best to pre-book all tickets online, and is essential for tower tours.