"Oh, my God," exclaim two British tourists as they step out of the metro station and their gaze falls on the enormous Sagrada Familia.
The shock could also be caused by the sight of the masses of people taking pictures of the unfinished basilica. After all, no fewer than 2.8 million visitors stopped at this Barcelona landmark between June 2007 and May 2008.
The first thing tourists see is the original construction by Modernist architect Antoni Gaudí - that is to say the Nacimiento façade, which he lived to see completed in 1926, shortly before being run over and killed by a tramway car at the age of 74.
Since then, the building's surface has tripled - the central nave is already covered and services are being held there. At the current rate, the entire basilica could be finished in around 20 years.
The biggest challenges lying ahead are the 170-meter-high dome that will crown the temple and the elevated flight of stairs that will soar above Mallorca street, and which will require demolishing several residential buildings.
But the question is: is this really Gaudí's work that tourists are gawking at? They do know that the building is under construction and that its original designer is dead. They are told - and they duly believe - that "the spirit of Gaudí" is being scrupulously respected.
But the truth is that this spirit is very difficult to capture in stone and cement because Gaudí was never the kind of architect who worked from definitive blueprints. Instead, he would stand at the foot of each construction site and make changes as he went along.
It has been years since the ongoing completion of the Sagrada Familia was last targeted for criticism. In 1990 there was a day of protest when sculptures by contemporary artist Josep Maria Subirachs were incorporated into the building.
But a manifesto presented in 2008 claimed it was impossible to know "where Gaudí's work begins and ends”.
"What stands out," reads the document, "is the mediocrity of a group of technicians and developers who are well-meaning but full of an anachronistic paternalism in the best of cases, and who are once more using Gaudí to leave their personal mark on the building to the detriment of the original work."
The manifesto, called Gaudí en alerta roja (Gaudí on Red Alert) was signed by art critics, architects and museum and gallery directors, including Manuel Borja-Villel, head of the Reina Sofía.
The Sagrada Familia is not the only unfinished Gaudí building that is a cause for concern.
The church of Colònia Güell, a textile manufacturing suburb outside Barcelona, was never completed because the money ran out. Between 1999 and 2002, architects made highly controversial alterations to the crypt.
The FAD manifesto also asked this crypt be restored to its original state and the head of the project fired.
La Pedrera-Casa Milá-Antonio Gaudí
Architect Antonio González Moreno-Navarro, who is in charge of the restoring Gaudí works that are public property, admitted what started out as a cleaning job using a 1915 photograph turned into a much bigger project that changed the axis of the entrance and added elements using clearly modern material.
At the end of the ramp González placed a stone with the date when construction began (1908) and the year when restoration ended (2002), followed by the word "Amen." Clearly, González wanted to make the difference clear between his additions and the original work.
Still new cracks and damp spots keep appearing inside the church despite the restoration work.
"This was a disaster, because even though they had all the necessary documents regarding the material and techniques to be used, they were not followed," said Manuel Medarde, an engineer, historian and treasurer of the crypt.
"The problem with restoring Gaudí's work is that by the time there was an awareness of his legacy, he had been dead for 50 years," explains Daniel Giralt-Miracle, who was the commissioner for the Year of Gaudí in 2002.
"I think that González did a good job with the Botines de León house, but the restoration of the crypt [at Colònia Güell] got out of hand."
Antoni Gaudí was born in 1852 in Catalonia, and was a major representative of the Modernist movement also known as Art Nouveau.
His work stood out for its fantastic, nonlinear shapes that seemed to defy gravity and common sense, and he employed techniques that were decades ahead of their time.
Landmark buildings such as Casa Batlló, Casa Milà and the unfinished Sagrada Familia, as well as Parc Güell, have become symbols of Barcelona and made Gaudí one of the best-loved architects of all time.
A devout Catholic, he focused much of his later life on the Sagrada Familia, but the project came to an abrupt halt when the architect was hit by a tram on 7 June 1926.
Because nobody recognised him, he was taken to a hospital for the poor and died there three days later, after refusing to be taken to a better equipped centre.
9 April 2009
El Pais / Catalina Serra / Expatica
Photo credits: jphilipg;radamantis_t;mabel flores