Aeronautical Software Completes A 130-Year-Old Architectural Puzzle

The Sagrada Família is the tallest church on earth. Construction began in 1886, but it’s taken our best software to reverse-engineer its late architect’s genius and finish the project.

Aeronautical Software Completes A 130-Year-Old Architectural Puzzle

Rising 566 feet into the air, Barcelona’s Sagrada Família is the tallest church on Earth. To walk through its cathedral is to walk through a forest sculpted in stone. Thin pillars reach into the heavens, supporting the sky with delicate branches. It’s considered more of a sculpture of scripture than a traditional building.


The church, which broke ground in 1886, is the vision of architect Antoni Gaudí. Understanding his was the only genius that could craft it, yet knowing it couldn’t possibly be completed before his death, Gaudí created elaborate plaster models detailing the work. But following his death in the 1930s, war demolished his 3-D blueprints to bits. By the 1970s, progress on the cathedral had come to a stopping point because, nearly 100 years later, no one knew how to finish it.

60 Minutes ran a fantastic portrait of the engineering solutions brought in to solve the problem. Architect Mark Burry and his team have turned to advanced aeronautical engineering software to reverse-engineer the shattered pieces that Gaudí left behind. And what’s particularly fascinating is that Burry refers to the challenge as re-creating complex shapes, and the reason that aeronautical software is so successful at this is that planes, cars, and ships have been using such ornate, even organic, shapes for decades. Consider the gorgeous curves in even the lowest-end domestic car vs. the utilitarian boxes behind most architecture.

Interestingly enough, Gaudí used a few clever modeling tools of his own (though they were far humbler than software). He would hang weighted chains from his ceiling, which, when reflected, formed the perfect catenary arches that tower overhead in the Sagrada Família.

See more here.

[Hat tip: The Verge]

[Image: La Sagrada via Shutterstock]

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.