The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, as it looks today.

When the great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi died in 1926, his masterwork, the Sagrada Familia—the subject of a new show at the City University of New York’s Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture—consisted of a section of an apse and one heroic portal. But that so-called Nativity Facade, with details that seemed utterly original and yet already ancient, made the unfinished building world-famous.

It seemed unlikely that the cathedral would be completed after Gaudi’s death. For one thing, nearly all of his drawings and models were destroyed at the onset of the Spanish Civil War. For another, the size of the job, including a 560-foot tower, dwarfed the resources available for much of the 20th century. The first time I visited, around 1977, a few stone carvers worked at a seemingly glacial pace; completion by these Sisyphus-es would have taken centuries.

That all changed after Jordi Bonet, whose father had worked with Gaudi, became the cathedral’s chief architect in the 1980s. Money began pouring in (today, three million visitors a year pay upwards of 20 Euros each), just as new construction methods were becoming practical: Under Bonet, Catalan stone carvers were replaced with Japanese-made robots. As a result, the pace has picked up dramatically, with huge sections of the interior now complete, and the rest expected to be done by 2026. 

But the new work looks entirely unlike the old. As David Cohn, an international correspondent for this magazine, has written, the current team may be following the master’s basic geometries, but “the fervid textures of his overworked surfaces and his vital fusion of structural logic, formal serendipity, and an original sense for materials and craft” have been “completely lost.” Cohn has described the new sections of the cathedral as “pure kitsch” and a “strange new intruder on the Barcelona urban scene.” (Having visited the Cathedral in 2013, I agree that the new details bear none of the plasticity, and eccentricity, of the originals.)

Is it a shame that the new sections of the building are so unlike the master’s? “I don’t think it matters,” says George Ranalli, dean of the Spitzer School. Ranalli worked tirelessly to bring a show on the Sagrada to the Rafael Viñoly-designed exhibition space in his school’s Upper Manhattan building (where it will remain on view through May 8). Here, Gaudi isn’t the focus. Virtually all of the materials in the Ranalli-curated exhibition, including the crisp color photographs that line the walls, and 26 plaster models never-before-seen outside Europe, document the more recent construction. The goal, Ranalli says, wasn’t to further canonize Gaudi, but “to shine a bright light on the collaborative potential of architecture.”

Ranalli points to a quote from Gaudi, which is on the gallery wall and in the handsome volume published in conjunction with the exhibition: “Great temples were not the works of just one architect. I know that the personal taste of the architects succeeding me will have an influence on the work, but I don’t mind: A work like this should be the offspring of a long era, the longer the better.” In Ranalli’s view, the new sections of the Sagrada may not be Gaudi’s, but that’s just what Gaudi wished for.

Ranalli has a specific pedagogical goal. “Today,” he says, “architects have a narcissistic preoccupation with being the primary author. They want to be thought of as artists.” Instead, his exhibit “tells the story of a building begun by an architect who left the unfinished work to a second generation of collaborators. This idea has temporal implications for architecture, and provokes thought about the making of cities.”

Ranalli says that Gaudi’s successors have analyzed every remaining shred of evidence of what Gaudi intended for the cathedral, allowing them to move forward in his spirit. Then why does their work look so different—as if the Japanese-made robots had substituted their own aesthetic for that of the Catalan master? It is noble to want to teach students to be better collaborators, or, as Ranalli puts it, less narcissistic. His other goal is to broaden the definition of modernism within the academy. “The show aims to illustrate that modernism has great potential to integrate expressive the components of ornament and design,” he says.

But if Bonet’s work seems inferior to Gaudi’s (admittedly, a judgment that could erode over time), juxtaposing the two doesn’t help Bonet, now 89, and scheduled to speak at the architecture school on October 2. “Certainly, the success of Sagrada Familia challenges the notion of ‘sole authorship’ as an architectural ideal,” Ranalli says. Not everyone agrees that the project is a success, but with this exhibition, Ranalli’s argument, that the architecture world needs Jordi Bonets as much as it needs Antoni Gaudis, is certain to be heard.