Genius, interrupted

A tram rounds a corner on a city street and strikes a man – unkempt, shabby and seemingly homeless. Unrecognised, the vagabond receives sub-standard medical treatment and dies.

Except he wasn't homeless. He was, in fact, living inside his own masterpiece – one of the most awe-inspiring buildings on Earth. He was Antoni Gaudi, and the building was the yet-to-be-completed Sagrada Familia cathedral that towers over central Barcelona in Spain. Two weeks shy of his 74th birthday, Gaudi died in 1926 – his obsession less than a quarter finished.

What happens when a genius is interrupted before the crescendo of his magnum opus? Can his vision ever be replicated faithfully, or is some business best left unfinished? Starting in Barcelona, here are three key examples.

The Sagrada Familia (yet to be completed)

As with The NeverEnding Story's Ivory Tower, only twice as magical, Gaudi always knew his wildly ambitious project wouldn't be completed in his lifetime. Brought on board in 1883, a year after it began, Gaudi radically changed the original design. Even today, it remains unfinished.

The imposing silhouette is so consistently surrounded by cranes that they are almost as much a part of the design as the building itself. It already dominates Barcelona's skyline, yet the tallest tower – representing Jesus Christ - isn't built (Here’s what it'll look like when complete).

So far, just eight of the planned 18 towers are completed. Twelve will represent the apostles, four the evangelists, and then Mary and Jesus, in height-ascending order. When completed, it will be the world's tallest church.

Painstaking work since Gaudi's death has been so unrushed that the older Nativity Facade looks beautifully craggy, aged and intricate, whereas the Passion Façade (designed to juxtapose and appear austere) looks visibly newer. Although Gaudi knew he must leave instructions for others, not everyone feels it appropriate to continue his vision. Narcís Serra, Mayor of Barcelona until 1982 and Spanish Vice President until 1995, has said: “To try to finish this temple nowadays is no longer about following [Gaudi's] exact plans. From the point of view of respecting his work, it would have been much better to stop at the point when we were no longer sure that this was exactly what he wanted.”

Work, nonetheless, continues. Completion dates for the remaining 10 towers vary. The earliest projection is 2026, the centennial of the fateful day that tram consigned to history an unrecognised but unhurried genius.


The Sydney Opera House (completed by others)

When he died aged 90, Jørn Utzon's architectural wonder – the Sydney Opera House, which turns 40 in October – was not the full design he planned. He was left with no option but to resign, was forced off the site, left the country and became a recluse. Three other architects finished the interior.

In 1966 the Sydney Morning Herald reported that “his concept was so daring that he himself could solve its problems only step by step ... his insistence on perfection led him to alter his design as he went along". Utzon substantially changed the profile of the famous shells from a slightly flattened look to the current 14 upright spheres (see the original design here). Like Gaudi, Utzon worked at his own pace, and the perception of slow progress led to problems when a Liberal government took power in NSW and questioned Utzon's schedules, costs and designs. Utzon labelled this intrusion “Malice in Blunderland”. The final straw came when his plans for the interior were scrapped and payment withdrawn. Architect Peter Hall took over the interior design.

Although Utzon vacillated, it's an undeniable carbuncle on the history of such a gleaming bold icon that the great Dane wasn't invited to the opening of his masterpiece, wasn't mentioned in any of the speeches and never returned to Australia to see his completed work. Partial reconciliation happened in 2004 when the Reception Hall became one of the few parts of the interior designed in Utzon's vision – with pale timbered flooring and folded beam ceilings. With his blessing, it was renamed the Utzon Room.

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (never completed?)

The story – which depicts a story-telling contest between pilgrims – was, arguably, left unfinished and no winner ever announced. Ambiguity remains on how far along the 83 surviving manuscripts are towards completion. Copying errors are possible, or Chaucer could have added as he went along. We do know that the original plan (as announced by narrator Harry Bailey), was for each of the pilgrims to tell four tales: two on the way to Canterbury and two on the return. As there are 30 characters, this makes 120 tales. The text ends after 24 tales – when the pilgrimage is still en route to Canterbury. This would make the work less than a quarter complete. With all its fragments – prologues, tales, epilogues – it was truly going to be bigger than Ben Hur. Chaucer either downsized to cap his work at 24 tales, or it was left incomplete when he died (or perhaps was murdered) in 1400. Mysteriously, we'll never know.

There are many more examples – which ones can you think of?