Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Cathedral Has Operated Without Permission for 137 Years, Paying Millions in Fines. Now, It Finally Has a Permit

A nightmarish story of bureaucratic red tape, the Catalan architect first applied for a license in 1885. The city never responded.

La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona at sunset. Photo courtesy Prisma by Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

In 1885, two years after he took over the building that would become the Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi applied for a construction permit with the local council in Barcelona. He never heard back.

More than a century later, the city has finally responded.

Last week, the Barcelona city council granted a seven-year license to the current builders of Gaudi’s still-unfinished architectural opus.

The permit, negotiated with the building’s foundation, comes with a $5.2 million fee. That makes it the most expensive building permit in the city’s history, Janet Sanz, Barcelona’s deputy mayor for Ecology, Urbanism and Mobility, told NPR. This number comes on top of the $41 million fine imposed upon the building trustees last fall for continuing to operate without a permit.

We are a brave government that does not allow privileges,” Sanz said in a tweet, accompanied by a picture of her signing the paperwork.

Portrait of Antoni Gaudí. Private Collection. Courtesy of Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images.

Portrait of Antoni Gaudí. Private Collection. Courtesy of Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images.

The Sagrada Familia receives roughly 4.5 million visitors each year, each of whom pays between $19-$43 per visit. Barcelona officials estimate that an additional 20 million take in the building from its grounds outside. Per its agreement with the city, the church’s trustees have vowed not to increase attendance and will be responsible for providing direct access to the building from the local metro stop, reducing excess traffic around the building.  

Gaudi, who died on this day (June 10) in 1926 after being hit by a trolley, intended for his masterpiece to have twelve towers—one for each of Jesus’s disciples. While all 12 will likely never be put in place, the builders anticipate that by the time the new permit expires in 2026—the hundred year anniversary of the architect’s death, coincidentally—the erection of the central towers will be complete. When this happens, the Sagrada Familía will become the tallest religious structure on the continent, measuring 566 feet tall.

Since Gaudi’s death, construction of the Sagrada Familia has been based on the models, archival photos, and collections of preliminary drawings—the latter of which were republished after Gaudi’s workshop was trashed during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

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