Wednesday, 1 February 2012

God's work in progress

By Richard Morley

In Barcelona, the somewhat eccentric shape of Antonio Gaudi’s church of the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família looms over the city. Construction began in 1882 and is still not finished – and no one really knows when it will be. It’s a magnificent building and has taken the work of tens of thousands of man hours to arrive at its present condition.. In November 2010 the pope consecrated the building as a minor basilica. I am intrigued by the word, “minor”. If the impressive bulk of the Sagrada Familia is only classed as minor, then I would love to see a major one.

The design of the building makes one stare in impressed amazement. That one man, Gaudi, could contemplate such a structure and communicate his vision to those who came after his sudden death under the wheels of a tram in 1926 and that his successors should also follow his dream, is almost a miracle. The architects that came after him would surely have wanted to put their personal stamp on the building. But no! His strange design continues to climb heavenward.

I am sure that not everyone who sees the church thinks it is beautiful. All builders of monumental works have their detractors. There were probably those who while gazing at a growing medieval gothic cathedrals complained that they were too big, too ugly and that they should never have been allowed to be built.

Here, just outside Madrid, this is happening now. In a small town called Mejorada del Campo a man is building a church. And he too has his critics.

Justo Gallego Martínez was born in Soria in 1925 and became a monk. He contracted tuberculosis and it was felt the monastic life was detrimental to his health. He swore that if he could regain his health he would build a shrine to the Lady of Pilar, another name for Mary, the mother of Christ.

Don Justo began building work in 1961 on an old olive grove belonging to his family. He had no money – he still doesn’t – and so made use of anything lying to hand. One man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure, it is said, and this is definitely the case here and the church is an exemplar of recycling.

When you think of a “shrine”, you think of a small construction built into the side of an existing building or standing by a roadside. What Don Justo is building here has gone way beyond that. After fifty years of work this monument to the Lady of Pilar is nothing less than a small cathedral.

The Barcelona edifice has had the guiding hand of architects since its inception. It is regarded as the principal work of Gaudi, but he was not the first to work on the design, taking over from Francisco de Paula del Villa in 1883. Since Gaudi’s death, when Doménec Sugrañes i Gras continued the work, there has been a string of Architects and designers running the show. The methods of construction have been updated to the latest technology, which includes the off-site cutting of stone by computer controlled  machines so the whole thing fits together like a giant three dimensional jigsaw. Tall cranes loom over the building like storks watching over a newly hatched brood. Safety regulations apply.

It’s a little different in Mejorada del Campo. There is a large sign that tells the visitor that inspection of the work is permitted, but absolutely no responsibility will be taken for any injury suffered in the course of the visit. You can see why. The materials of construction litter the floor. Unfinished hand rails wobble to the touch. Unguarded levels hang precariously over ten to fifteen metre drops. Reinforced steel sticks out ready to snag the unwary. It is wise to tentatively test the rigidity of anything before using it for support.

There are no towering cranes. There is an old bicycle wheel with a rope thrown over it used to hoist heavy items into place. There are bouncy planks for wheeling wheel-barrows up slopes. There seems to be no scaffolding at all. The builder relies absolutely on the previous construction below to allow him access to the next level, which demonstrates a certain faith in the strength of construction.

The one mechanical aid - an old bicycle wheel with a rope slung over it.

The plans. 

Pinned to a wall near the entrance is a single sheet of paper with a neatly drawn outline of the form the builder hopes the church will eventually take. But this is not a plan as such, more of an inspiration. The Barcelona building may appear to take an organic form with hardly a straight line in sight, but Don Justo’s church really is the product of one man’s gut feeling of how something should be – on the day. Consequently there seems to be an evolution of ideas as the visitor climbs from the crypt, through the nave and up to the clerestory and then to take the narrow spiral stairs of the towers towards, on the day I was there, the bright blue Madrid sky and Don Justo’s heaven.

I write “The Builder” and “One man”. For unlike the thousands who have toiled on the Barcelona Basilica, this smaller, but no less grand edifice has only ever had one permanent worker – Don Justo himself. Friends and relative have been drafted in to help with the heavy lifting at times, but the hand if its creator is seen everywhere.

Don Justo is not a rich man. Far from it. He is quoted as saying, "I have no gold or silver; what I have I give to the Lord." What he does have is unbridled enthusiasm for his work. Everything else, every scrap of rebar, every brick and stone, each bag of cement, and the myriad of other items he has called into service for this project  has been reclaimed from other people’s junk, donated by sympathetic patrons or bought from donations.

The nave and crypt

And tennis balls!

Yes, you read that correctly! The external decoration of the eves is terminated by tennis balls dipped in cement. The man is a genius when it comes to the creative use of material. Reclaimed brick, cracked tiles, glass once used in other people’s houses and thrown out when double glazing was installed, broken bottles and what looks like the steel wire reinforcement found in car and bicycle tyres are all pressed into service.

 Concrete covered tennis balls along the bottom.

There seems to be more cement than brick! Kiln rejects used in construction of one of the towers.

The church occupies the complete site, so it is its own storage warehouse of materials. But don’t get the impression the floors are strewn with rubbish. As best as can be the place is kept tidy and clean. It’s the odd corners and crannies where the most danger of tripping over cement bags or tangled steel is found.

The visitor enters into the east side of the nave. To the left is the altar. Above, just below the clerestory are painted frescos depicting religious scenes. Tilting the head right back the roof of the nave soars twenty metres overhead, cut through with the circular aperture of the dome. The roof offers protection from the elements. Not yet the dome, which while having its steel prefabricated skeleton in place, does not yet boast any covering.

 Above and in the two pictures below: Don Justo working on the dome.

However, along the western cloister, which features three much smaller domes, I spied and photographed Don Justo himself, standing precariously on a couple of narrow planks, attaching what seemed to me to be diamond shaped metal plates to the domes’ framing. The main dome, I presume, must wait until more material arrives.

Indeed, the church will not be completed until more material arrives. Substantial as it is, and the church’s final form is more or less evident, much still needs to be done. Exploring the levels above the floor of the nave, stepping gingerly through heaps of as yet unused rebar and stone, I touched the balustrade and found it wobbled. Two very narrow, minaret like, towers that delineate the north transept are crammed with supplies. The climb to the top, on very steep, rather insubstantial steps, is not for the unsure of foot. And when you reach the top there is – nothing. Just a precarious overhang, which while giving wonderful views over the surrounding countryside and a bird’s eye view of the church, also infuse a severe feeling of vertigo. Don Justo must have the daring and balance of a mountain goat.

 Garden and cloister.

It is sad to think that all this work might be for nothing. The diocese in which it stands, Alcala de Henares, has never given Don Justo their blessing for the project and have been quoted as saying they want nothing to do with the project. Mejorada del Campo has several churches already. It doesn’t need another, and not on this scale. The temporal authorities, the local council, while entertaining Don Justo’s whimsy have remarked that the building has no official planning permission (difficult when there are no plans!) and have commented on the strength and safety of the construction and have even suggested that they could demolish it after his death. However, anyone who visits can tell that this is a very solid structure. I doubt that Don Justo, taking his lead from the Bible, would have built his house on sand. My observations are confirmed by an architect, Carlos Luis Martin Fernandez, a doctor in structural engineering, who has said, “It is possible to say it is safe. It has the proper structural stability”, although going on to suggest that some additional strengthening be applied in a few places and there should be “appropriate” monitoring of the work.

 Bits stick out everywhere.

The way I see it, the church is just about the only reason to visit the town. Bar and Café owners should be pleased with the extra income. Opinion about the church in the community seems to be divided, but like the Sagrada Família it will become a landmark. One, if it is still standing in a hundred years time will be the pride of the town. The Catholic Church might not want it, but it took more than a hundred years for the Barcelona edifice to be accepted and consecrated.

The church is built from recycled materials. Isn’t resurrection what the Christian church is meant to be about? What better example could it have?  At 86 years of age, Don Justo’s time is running out. I hope his legacy continues after him. After all, no one thinks of Barcelona without thinking of Gaudi and his work. It might well be prophetic that after visiting the church in Mejorada del Campo, with one last look at the high ceiling of the nave, the light streaming in through coloured windows, and then to descend the steps leading down into the street in which it stands the visitor can take note of the sign bearing the name of that street, the “Calle del Arquitecto Antonio Gaudi”, and ponder if divine providence does indeed work in mysterious ways.


  1. Guau, es increíble! Cuanto trabajo para una sóla persona, bonitas fotos Richard, as usual!

  2. An informative and interesting blog as always ! I heard some report last year that the Sagrada Famaila was expected to be complete in 26 years (although I am not going to hold my breath on this guesstimation)

  3. Thank you so much for this post! I listened to Ben's podcast about his visit to this church before I moved to Madrid a year and a half ago. I was reminded of it lately and wanted to see it for myself, but had forgotten where it is located! It is now on my itinerary!

  4. Another city gifted with beautiful architectural structures, roads, and churches. As you've noticed, their churches look different in terms of materials and design, such as the Sagrada Familia. Now, another church is being built next in line to the famous church. I'm already excited to see how this would look after it's finished.

  5. A very interesting blog. have a solid content. Thank you for such a blog