From Handcrafted Stone to 3D Printing: The Technological and Material Evolution of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia

A masterpiece is usually defined as the greatest work of an artist’s career. It is the work that highlights their highest ideals and techniques. The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo’s Pieta and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. There are many examples that aren’t always agreed upon. What if the masterpiece that many believe to be the greatest was actually started by another person? If the creator wasn’t there to witness its completion, almost all documentation was destroyed. These complications include Antoni Gaudi, a Catalan architect and his Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia. Numerous technologies were used in the construction of the project, including 3D printing and high-strength concrete.

Francisco de Paula del Villar, an architect, began the project for the Church in 1882. He followed the time-tested guidelines and used standard neoGothic elements such as five longitudinal naves and ogival windows. Buttresses and a pointed bell Tower. In 1883, Antoni Gaudi (a 31-year old architect) was appointed to the task. This is according to the work’s chronology. Villar quit the project due to disagreements with the Catholic Church. The original cruciform plan was retained, but Gaudi made many significant changes to the building, including angular columns, hyperboloid vaults and the elimination of the need for supports. The architect removed these structural elements that could withstand horizontal thrusts from the heavy roof and instead proposed the iconic angled and branched columns.

© Expiatory Temple of the Sagrada Família

The project has been in continuous construction since then. It is expected to be complete in 2026, which marks the 100th anniversary of Antoni Gaudi’s death. It is possible to imagine that the work has been in progress for more than 130 years and, despite some stops, has seen many changes in construction methods. The first period of construction, which had Gaudi as architect, lasted from 1883 to 1936. Traditional materials were used at that time, particularly stone masonry with lime mortar for a binder.” [1] Gaudi spent his entire life on the church’s construction site. He was completely focused on the work and built numerous plaster models of the naves, pillars and other elements to help him communicate his ideas to workers.

© ksl / Shutterstock
© ksl / Shutterstock
© Expiatory Temple of the Sagrada Família
© Expiatory Temple of the Sagrada Família

Eusebi Guell was Gaudi’s friend and supporter. In 1901, Catalonia’s first cement plant was established. Researchers [3] have found that reinforced concrete took so long to reach Catalonia because of Catalan’s traditional Catalan techniques. These included masonry arches (Catalan vaults), supported by metal beams. This allowed for a better cost-benefit ratio and reduced the need for alternative solutions.

© Anny Liedloff / Shutterstock

The material was then used by Gaudi in the constructions of Parc Guell and Casa Mila, as well as the Colonia Guell Church. Reinforced concrete was first used in the construction of Sagrada Familia. It was used on the spiers for the facade of Natividade. This façade was built between 1915-1934.

© FunKey Factory / Shutterstock
© FunKey Factory / Shutterstock
© Expiatory Temple of the Sagrada Família
© Expiatory Temple of the Sagrada Família

Ten years after Gaudi’s passing, Gaudi was hit by a tram at the construction site. A fire destroyed the majority of the plans and drawings. Some models were saved which allowed the architect to redo much of the project documentation.

There were periods of work halting because of World War II and Spanish Civil War. The building’s finishing decisions, structural solutions and details, as well as connections and detailing between materials, had to be determined by the subsequent generations of engineers and architects who worked on it. They tried to keep as close to Gaudi’s original ideas as possible.

Concrete was used in the construction of buildings from 1944 to 1945. They used cyclopean concrete for the filling of the walls, and reinforced concrete in structural elements [2].” Reinforced concrete was first used in construction in the 60’s. But, a new stage opened in the 90’s at the most iconic construction site in the world. This is when the public’s interest in Sagrada Familia increases. It also causes revenue and visits to increase. The construction work was able to incorporate new technologies, such as cranes and computer modeling of complex geometries. Two events represent the changes that have occurred since then: an increase in revenue which has allowed us to speed up construction and the introduction new technologies in materials, design and construction processes. In recent years, the main goal has been to build the naves. The result was the lifting of the perimeter walls, interior vaults and columns, as well as the curves of main body. They are currently operating on transept and apse [2].

© Andy Tam / Shutterstock

Concrete is used for almost all of the elements in the Sagrada Familia Church’s building constructions. Natural stone is often used as a covering. Concrete comes in many forms, including precast elements, reinforced concrete and solid concrete. There are also parts made with special concrete that has very high strength. For example, the transept columns and apse have concrete that contains microsilica. This concrete mix reached a resistance of 80 MPa. Concrete features in other parts of the structure had to be created with high strength and fluidity because of Gaudi’s complex geometry and fittings.

The Sagrada Familia also embraces modern digital design and construction technology in recent years. Rhinoceros and Cadds5 Catia are used by architects and artisans to visualize complex geometries. Stereolithographic 3D printers are used to build the prototypes layer-by-layer. This allows for builders to modify the prototypes as needed.

It took so long to build the Sagrada Familia that materials and building technology have evolved significantly. Researchers wonder if the Sagrada Familia could have been constructed with the materials it had at the time, while still adhering to every form that Catalan modernism has created. If Gaudi had not died, would the project have been modified by him? Or, is it his genius? Some researchers claim that he has created a project that allows the incorporation and evolution of new technologies over time.