Lifestyle & Belief

Spain: Reinventing the one-room schoolhouse

Photo caption: A 1913 image of the schoolhouse on the grounds of the Sagrada Familia. (© Fundacio Institut Amatller d’Art Hispanic)

BARCELONA, Spain — Beside the world-famous Sagrada Familia Basilica sits a small brick schoolhouse, its roof undulating gently like the adjacent Mediterranean Sea. The grandiosity of the Basilica immediately behind it — one of the most visited sites in the world — makes the schoolhouse easy to overlook. 

Since the beginning of the 20th century, however, the school has figured prominently in social, architectural and educational revolutions, continually adapting to the most pressing needs of the day.

Originally referred to as the Parochial Schools of the Sagrada Familia, the 30 x 60-foot building once hosted about 150 students in its three small classrooms. Today the school has a distinctly secular curriculum. As the eurozone crisis looms over Spain, the school offers adult education courses intended to keep workers relevant in the country’s rapidly changing economy.


Much of Spanish history can be seen as the interplay between the Catholic Church and those who have opposed it. The evolution of the Schools of the Sagrada Familia is no exception.

Construction of the Schools began in 1909 in response to a spurt of violence in Barcelona known as the Tragic Week, a time during which anarchists and workers protested what they saw as a bourgeois and unjust social order by burning the city’s convents. The Schools of the Sagrada Familia were intended to convey the Catholic Church’s social awareness.

Modernist Catalan architect and Sagrada Familia designer Antonio Gaudi was deeply religious. Known to beg for alms in the street to finance his projects, Gaudi committed to pay for the school’s construction out of his own pocket. Originally serving the children of workers constructing the basilica, the school quickly became the neighborhood’s main institution for youth education.

In the summer of 1936, anti-clerical violence again made its mark on the school. In one of the earliest attacks of the Spanish Civil War, anarchists bombed the grounds of the Sagrada Familia, destroying the school’s interior, Gaudi’s workshop and the church’s crypt. Many of the church’s architectural plans were lost forever, and when the school was restored, its renovation was not faithful to Gaudi’s original design. The architect had died in 1926.


According to Gaudi historian and architect Joan Bassegoda, the Schools of the Sagrada Familia marked the beginning of the end for functionalism, an architectural style of the time that forbid embellishment beyond what was strictly necessary.

In making plans for the hastily built school, Gaudi took inspiration from his own workshop, which he had designed 10 years earlier. The workshop’s visually distinctive style followed simple geometrical rules and was therefore well suited to reconcile the Church’s teachings with a Spanish society given to reactionary violence.

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While Gaudi embellished the Schools with novel visual qualities like an undulating roof and curved walls, the design was not indulgent, wrote Bassegoda: “The final cost of the building indicates the savings of [Gaudi’s] system,” and an architecture “much more humane than the intentions of rigid functionalism.”

In 1928, two years after Gaudi’s death, the Swiss architect Le Corbusier — himself a visionary of Modernist design — paid a visit to the Sagrada Familia. While Le Corbusier was primarily interested in the church, sketches of the schoolhouse can be found in his notebooks that record his sojourn in Barcelona.


While the Schools were constructed in part to appease anti-clerical groups, Catholicism continued to inform the prevailing cultural mores of Spain before its civil war. The Schools had been open for five years when the regional Catalan government extended an invitation to Maria Montessori, who was herself a Catholic, to teach at the school.

In 1915, the Italian physician-cum-educator arrived in Barcelona to pioneer her new method of teaching. This never-before-seen curriculum was based on Montessori’s observations of children during her time as a professional physician. She emphasized the importance of allowing children to learn through their own discoveries.

According to Montessori, a teacher’s role is to provide an environment free of distraction that unlocks children’s natural curiosity and innate drive to understand the world. Revolutionary at the time, today Montessori’s method remains a vibrant and available alternative to traditional education throughout the world.


Since Montessori’s time, a great deal has changed in the Schools’ 100-year history. In fact, today there are two separate school buildings. The original remains on the grounds of the Sagrada Familia while another has been constructed — strictly following Gaudi’s original plans — in the nearby town of Badalona.

The new Schools in Badalona form part of the Gaudi Institute of Construction, a government-supported organization initially built to capitalize on the real estate boom. Since the industry’s recent implosion, the government has attempted to turn crisis into opportunity.

In 2009, a conference was held at the Gaudi Institute in order to find a solution to the massive unemployment created by the bursting of the construction bubble. As a result, the institute has been transformed into a center for re-education of construction workers in a wide range of areas from software applications to topography.

And so the Schools of the Sagrada Familia begin a new, thoroughly modern, chapter.