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Opus Dei JUSTO GALLEGO MARTINEZ: MOVING HEAVEN & EARTH When, in Mejorada del Campo, you ask around about the ‘cathedral’ that the 83-year-old former monk Justo Gallego Martinez has been building all by himself for 44 years now, and which draws packs of tourists to this little Spanish town 10 kilometres outside of Madrid, a tragicomic soap opera will be acted out in front of you, featuring the mayor, the parish priest, the village idiot, a defrocked monk, the Coca Cola Company, Romanian refugees, delighted visitors and perplexed locals. In the midst of this local drama, the more than 40-metre high, handmade ‘cathedral’ is an unassailable testimony to the ethic of labour and to superhuman resolve. Text and images by Veerle Devos, additional photos by Walter Bettens The structure that Justo Gallego Martinez is erecting in his birthplace is much more than an enormous church, it is complex that consists of a convent, library, offices and living areas. He has assembled everything by hand, using materials given to him by local companies and recovered objects like car tyres and buckets. He doesn’t use professional building equipment like cranes. No fixed plan guides the construction; no architect or engineer has ever been involved. Gallego Martinez does have his sources of inspiration, though, such as various Spanish monasteries, and, for his dome specifically, Saint Peter’s Church in Rome. The man is not an architect or bricklayer: he is a farmer. Every day he adds a little piece to his 82



magnum opus; on Sunday he rests. Most of the time he works alone; now and then family members or fellow villagers assist him – today Romanian immigrant Ionescu is lending a hand. Why does Justo Gallego Martinez devote the greater part of his life to this? ‘It’s an act of faith,’ he replies.

DAYS OF FRANCO When asked why Mejorada del Campo, a town that apart from the ‘cathedral’ is bereft of any noteworthy feature, doesn’t proudly flaunt this fantastical construction, but, on the contrary, prefers to look the other way, the press officer of mayor Fernando Penaranda answers: ‘Gallego never got his building permits. Therefore, this is an illegal structure on a private domain, and it must be torn down. Undoubtedly, there are safety risks, as no architect or engineer was ever involved.’ But isn’t it astonishing that in the past 40 years the local authorities have done nothing to look into – and if needs be, improve – the safety of the building? With rigidity reminiscent of the days of Franco, the city authority maintains radio silence on the subject. On their way from nearby Barajas airport to Madrid, inquisitive tourists make a detour to take a look at this unlikely construction. Yet it doesn’t seem to occur to the mayor and his minions that it is the ‘cathedral’ that is attracting those hordes. Other places pay marketeers ridiculous amounts of money to try to put their city or town on the world cultural heritage map. Mejorada del Campo gets this exceptional city marketing gift for free but instead of showing it off, they want to get rid of it. So clueless to its potential, this tourist office free-zone faces its rather bleak unemployment figures with a sense of acceptance not imagination. Eusebio Sanchez Dominges is the parish priest of the Iglesia Parroquial Natividad de Nuestra Senora, which unlike its unofficial counterpart, is covered in superlatives on the official website of Mejorada del Campo, while Gallego Martinez’s labours receive only an address check. When conversation turns to the ‘cathedral’ the local priest’s response is delivered with smiles: ‘Justo Gallego Martinez is a devout man, an example to our 20,000 inhabitants, only 500 of whom are practising Catholics. He attends Mass every Sunday. I have all sympathy for the man, but I wouldn’t call his building a cathedral. A cathedral, you see, is the seat of the bishop, and there can only be one of those per bishopric. I know that there are rumours that, after Justo passes on, the “cathedral” will become the property of the Church, seeing as he’s an ex-monk… But we’ll solve that problem when we’ll come to it.’ 84



Why doesn’t this benevolent shepherd urge his faithful to help Gallego Martinez, instead of dissociating himself from him? Why doesn’t the ex-monk get the blessing from Rome for so much devotion? It’s simple: the Church also shares a collective embarrassment about the whole situation.

MODERN FOLKLORE Actually, it seems the good Father needn’t worry too much about what to do with the building, with its future taking on several modern folklore twists. Ramon, who lives above La Plaza, a tapas bar run by a Romanian immigrant, claims to know for a fact that in Gallego Martinez’ testament not the Church, his family, or the city authorities will get possession of the ‘cathedral’. But who will? Ramon’s not saying. The elderly Pedro – known around the village as ‘el caraca’ (the cricket) – says he knows, but he prefers to maintain a mysterious silence, basking in his brother-in-law’s fame. And according to the La Plaza manager: ‘The cathedral is a piece of art. I would like it to be finished. They say that Justo will not die before that day.’ What do the other villagers think of ‘la catedral’? When asked about it, most react in a giggly tone. Some explain they like it, others insist that the authorities haven’t done enough to stop ‘the madman’ and the illegal building of his behemoth. Remarkably many of them have never even set a foot inside. Yet for decades the doors of the ‘cathedral’ have been open daily and Gallego Martinez never tires of explaining, to each single visitor, what he is up to. The general feeling locals have about the project seems to be one of awkwardness – they are annoyed with it disrupting the reassuring routine of everyday life. Interestingly, it’s the Romanian immigrants who seem to speak out unequivocally in their admiration for Gallego Martinez’ efforts. The ‘cathedral’ is much more than just an impressive building. It also fits into a tradition of what is known as Art Brut or Outsider Art. Other architectural examples are the Watts Towers, built by an Italian immigrant in Los Angeles over a 30-year period; Le Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval in France, made with pebbles by the local postman during some 33 years; the ‘ecocathedral’ in Holland; and many other constructions all around the world, built by inspired and persevering individuals. These buildings have a value of their own, as paradigms of craftsmanship and art; and, what’s more, they challenge our notions about art and architecture. Where to draw the line between Gaudi and Justo? 86



THE GLOBAL CURIOUS Averting their attention as a means of official policy became even more difficult for the Mejorada del Campo authorities, the Church and the locals, when the Coca Cola Company entered the saga in 2005 and launched a campaign to promote its sports drink Aquarius with a promotional film starring Justo Gallego Martinez. The corporate giant was one of the pioneers of the use of a documentary spot as publicity, and introduced meta-marketing in advertising. The film won several awards and awoke the art world’s interest in Gallego Martinez, e.g. New York’s MoMA. The film has been a hit on YouTube ever since, and caused Mejorada del Campo to be overrun by the global curious, intrigued as they are by this small man with his grand dream. But, on a practical level, what did the Aquarius campaign really do for Gallego Martinez? Did it get him some help? Support? Cash? Yes, but mainly from empathetic individuals who were moved by the project. The Church and the Town Hall have never done anything that could be faintly construed as supportive. All Gallego Martinez wants to say about this is that if he wants to finish the cathedral in his lifetime, he needs a lot of help - quick. And with that, he points towards the poor box at the entrance. The ‘cathedral’ of Justo Gallego Martinez is a tale which shares many ingredients with that other famous Spanish story in which Don Quixote, against all odds, strives for the realisation of his ideals, only to smash his head against the wall of everyday reality. In a world increasingly cramped in by architecture without feeling and urbanisation without a soul, unorthodox, eccentric buildings like Don Justo’s are a gasp of fresh air. Why don’t we all donate – so that this old man can see the completion of his life’s work? Why don’t we angrily protest against the Church and city authorities, who cowardly distance themselves from the project, and who are quite determined to tear down this magnificent building as soon as its creator dies? And why don’t we all step on a plane to Spain and help out? # Tap in ‘aquarius cathedral’ and watch the docu-spot about Justo Gallego Martinez on The official website of Mejorada del Campo: and the press officer’s email address:




When, in Mejorada del Campo, you ask around about the ‘cathedral’ that the 83-year-old formermonk Justo Gallego Martinez has been building a...