The Melbourne architect who dedicated his career to helping finish Spain's La Sagrada Familia
As he was about to drift off to sleep on a Barcelona beach on a warm night in 1977, Mark Burry had absolutely no inkling he would be devoting nearly 40 years of his life to working as a senior architect on one of the most mesmerising churches in the world, the towering Sagrada Familia, less than five kilometres across town.
Nor did the 20-year-old Burry ever expect Antoni Gaudi’s famously unfinished church, which began construction in 1882, to be completed in his lifetime. “As young architecture students, we’d been warned off Gaudi,” laughs the now 62-year-old. “His projects were like sculptures and very complicated – and, in several cases, never finished.”
The New Zealand native’s thinking changed after he was offered a consulting role on the project in 1979 and began decades of monthly commutes between Barcelona and Melbourne, where he’s based. “I’m the only person who has worked on the project before and after the rise of the computer,” says Burry, who pioneered the use of new technologies such as computer-aided design, computerised numerical control and robotic stone-cutting on the site in the early 1990s.
So much did these and other technological advances hasten progress, the basilica (it was consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI in November 2010) is expected to be completed in 2026, in time for the centenary of Gaudi’s death. By then it will be the tallest church in the world, surpassing Ulm Minster in Germany.
“Over the years, my team had responsibility for key parts of the project, such as completing the Passion facade,” says Burry, who finished up on the project in 2017 but maintains a close relationship with the on-site team. “It went from being a medieval anachronism to a beacon showing where design and construction could be going.”
Now a foundation director of Swinburne University of Technology’s Smart Cities Research Institute, Burry will always have a soft spot for the Sagrada Familia, in part because his second son, Duncan, and wife Jane, the dean of Swinburne’s School of Design, also worked on the project. “You cannot go inside the building without being overwhelmed by the space and the light,” he reflects. “At different times of the day, it’s a sublime experience.”