Most people have heard of Antoni Gaudi’s famous unfinished cathedral in Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia. Immensely popular, this cathedral receives some 3 million visitors a year! In the factory town of Colonia Guell, located in the outskirts of Barcelona lies the unfinished church crypt of Colonia Guell. The Colonia Guell Crypt is where Gaudi tried out his ground-breaking ideas for the La Sagrada Familia before implementing them at the cathedral. Although Gaudi was commissioned to build the church at Colonia Guell, only the crypt was ever finished. Even unfinished, Gaudi’s crypt is a masterpiece and has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site.
Gaudi and the Guells
The remarkable Colonia Guell Crypt came about because of the long-standing friendship between Catalan tycoon, Eusebio Guell and Gaudi.
Eusebio Guell, the best patron ever
Eusebio Guell first met Gaudi at the Paris World Fair in 1878. Guell was one of the richest men in Barcelona having taken over and expanded upon his father’s money and businesses. His father was one of the Catalans who had gone to make his money working in Cuba. Upon his return he married well and become even wealthier in Barcelona’s booming textile industry.
Eusebio became a patron to Gaudi in the style of the great Italian Renaissance families. Leonardo da Vinci had the Medici, the Sforza and Cesare Borgia for patrons. Gaudi only needed one patron because Eusebio pretty much gave him a blank check to do whatever he wanted.
Among the works that Gaudi created for Eusebio Guell were Park Guell, Palacio Guell and the crypt at the Church of Colonia Guell. These are some of Gaudi’s greatest works and all three are UNESCO World Heritage Listed.
“I don’t like your architecture. I respect it.”
– Eusebio Guell to Antoni Gaudi
Thank goodness Guell recognised Gaudi’s expensive genius which has continued to appear relevant in the contemporary context. In the favelas of Sao Paulo Brasil, we met a man who has converted his entire house into an homage to Gaudi. In Rio de Janeiro, we have visited the famous mosaic steps created by the Chilean-Brasilian artist, Jorge Selaron, who also cited Gaudi as an inspiration.
The Church of Colonia Guell
In 1898, Eusebio Guell asked his favourite architect to build a church for the workers at his factory town, Colonia Guell. Gaudi agreed but said it would take a while. He was busy working on La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. He also wanted to use the church of Colonia Guell as a working design laboratory for the cathedral.
The original plans for the Church of Colonia Guell
It took Gaudi 10 years to prepare the plans for the Church of Colonia Guell. The results were what you would expect from someone who dreamed up La Sagrada Familia.
Gaudi didn’t do anything on a small scale. The original plan called for a ramp up to the main church which would be laid over a smaller church. The smaller church at the bottom would be for everyday masses for the workers. The top church would be a grander affair. Its 40 meter tower would be as high as the factory’s tower so that Eusebio Guell would be able to spot his property from a distance.
Did Eusebio Guell blink? Not at all. He was delighted. He gave Gaudi the usual unlimited budget. Every architect’s dream.
Why the build came to a screeching halt
Gaudi worked on the crypt from 1908 until 1914. Old man Guell had 10 children and was getting on in years. In 1914, two of his sons paid Gaudi a visit and told him that the crypt was good enough for a factory town. They were spending no more money on either Gaudi or their father’s expensive vision.
Not only was Catalan Modernism a very expensive architectural style (all those flourishes and artisanal touches take time and money), Gaudi would redo stuff he didn’t like. It was after all a design lab for him. He’d tinker away at features until he was happy. Why not? Money was not an issue.
Considering Eusebio Guell died in 1918, Gaudi would not have finished the church of Colonia Guell even if the sons hadn’t stepped in four years earlier. It took Gaudi 10 years to come up with plans, and 6 years to build the basement. How long do you think it would have taken to build the upstairs church?
Currently, Gaudi’s Crypt is a fully functional little church because it got consecrated as one in 1915. It’s roof has been paved and is the floor for what would have been the full completed church of Colonia Guell.
Gaudi’s crypt is a hodge podge of his ideas. Most of these ideas did not make it to La Sagrada Familia. You can see, however, many of Gaudi’s ideas in action.
- There are no straight walls in the crypt in line with Gaudi’s belief that curves are what nature intended.
- The front of the crypt is full of inclined columns which hold up what would have been the ramp up to the main church.
- Lots of references to nature and there are arches everywhere.
- You can see the use of trencadis – mosaics made by broken tiles.
The Colonia Guell is a factory town made in the model of British factory towns. Catalans had brought the ideas of the British Industrial Revolution to Spain. Similar to the situation in Britain, the new machines were feared and unpopular with workers. Barcelona was rife with unrest. Factory owners decided to move out of the city and stick their workers in the middle of nowhere where they would be more isolated.
There are about 100 factory towns in Catalonia. In 1890, Eusebio Guell moved his textile factory to one of his properties at Santa Coloma about 25 kilometres outside of Barcelona. For all intents and purposes in those days, the area would have been Nowheresville, Spain.
Eusebio Guell had Colonia Guell built on fairly liberal principals. Looking around you can tell that he was not a penny-pincher. The three main buildings in the town were the Church, the factory and the school. The school was closed on the day we went but is an impressive building.
There were about 1000 workers are Colonia Guell. They were housed in little houses with toilets and gardens. They could keep chickens and rabbits to help with food.
Of course, Guell wanted everyone in the town to know who was responsible for their good fortune. The main town square has a statue of him where people would have to pass multiple times a day as they went to work or to school.
Visiting Colonia Guell and Gaudi’s Crypt
You can visit Colonia Guell fairly easily by car, bus and train from Barcelona. There are reduced priced tickets for students. You can get an audioguide tour or guided tours for either the crypt, the colonia or both. We had a guided tour and I thought he was excellent. You can’t visit the actual factory at Colonia Guell because it is used as a business centre.
If you chose to stay in Barcelona, we can recommend the three hotels that we have used. We have stayed by the beach at the 5 star Hotel Arts, on Las Ramblas at the 4 star Hotel Royal Ramblas and the 5 star Grand Hotel Central in the Gothic Quarter.
On this trip, I stayed at Hotel Masd Mediterraneo in Casteldefells, an upmarket suburb of Barcelona. It took us 20 minutes by car to reach Colonia Guell. Casteldefells is a charming town with a great beach. In fact, it’s known as the beach where locals from Barcelona hang out. The hotel was modern, spacious and luxurious – definitely better value than staying in central Barcelona.
I was hosted on this visit by Costa Barcelona which has had no effect on my opinions or endorsement. This site generates income via partnerships with carefully-curated travel and lifestyle brands and/or purchases made through links to them. More information may be found on our Disclosure Policy.