Just 40 minutes by bus from Madrid stands a structure so wildly improbable that people from all over the world have been coming to gape at it: an under-construction cathedral with only two people working on it full time—former monk, Don Justo Gallego, and his assistant, Ángel López.
Don Justo has been working on the structure since 1961, and López joined him more than 20 years ago. Between them, they have raised a building that at a distance is clearly a cathedral, noticeably looming over the residential two-story buildings around it. However, as you stroll closer, you begin to see that the brick edifice looks like it has a porcupine on top, as steel trusses and poles stick out at odd angles forming the incomplete roof adornments. Spheres and half-domes are featured all over the structure; most are open, but those that are covered have often been done in brilliant steel shingles that catch the sunlight and glow powerfully.
A strange site
On approach, an abstract column topped by a statuette of a saint occupies the front of the structure, and circular stained glass windows in bright crayon colours face a side road. When you enter, a sign clearly states that the constructors are not responsible for accidents that happen while you are exploring the cathedral, so watch your step, especially on some of the upper levels.
Everything is in-progress; a cement-smoothing tool is left on a ledge outside the cathedral, as if the worker has just left for a moment in order to come back and get it later. In a blue-gated mini-courtyard, what initially looks like just a white background wall actually proves to be stacks of rubbish—an entire enclosure full of scrap wood, piles of paper, and half-used bags of cement. All over the cathedral buckets of dried paint lurk as well as more baffling collections like a big box of beer cans. Surprising features, such as the widespread use of iron springs and small concrete castings of faces stuck on pikes, can be found in many nooks and crannies. The details are overwhelming, but never predictable.
A placard, in English and Spanish, explains a little of Don Justo Gallego’s story: “At the age of 27 years I joined the monastery of Santa Maria de la Huerta, from which I was expelled when I contracted tuberculosis for fear of infecting the rest of the community,” it explains. “I decided to build on family-owned farmland a work dedicated to God. Step by step and with my own family resources I have been raising this building.”
It goes on to say that he is not an architect or a mason, and that all the development is in his head; there are no blueprints or written plans for the building. Don Justo gets up at 3.30 in the morning to start work and uses mostly recycled materials because he has no steady income stream to purchase anything.
An advertisement for the sports drink “Aquarius” featured him in 2005, which created a surge in interest in the building for a while; these days, López, his devoted assistant, says the media attention isn’t from within Spain. “The ones from Spain do not come [now]. The French, the Germans, all are from outside.”
Despite his comments, cathedral visitors still include occasional Spaniards, one of whom I meet and chat with on the second floor of the main building, which has no railing and offers a dizzying view of the whole structure. “I’ve been to Madrid a few times, but this time I had to see it,” he says. “I think the question we’re all asking is ‘why?’” We agree that seeing the construction is worth the extra trek from the capital city. “Those windows are like that game we played as children—‘Twister’,” he adds, pointing to the large areas of coloured glass. “The spheres remind me of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and yet the metal dome with no roofing makes me think of the skeleton of the cathedral dome that survived in Hiroshima.”
In a downstairs room containing a few construction elements but dominated by an old television and some chairs, I continue my chat with López, who says that Don Justo is currently at Sunday mass. “He works every day but Sunday,” he explains, and then tells me how a group of women comes from Madrid to work with the two of them on Saturdays, but how most days they are alone, working side by side.
Don Justo arrives suddenly, back from mass at an official church in Mejorada, and he and López confer briefly on how cold it has become, and how Don Justo should take a nap because he can’t afford to catch a cold. He doesn’t look anywhere near 87 years old; undertaking construction work into his 80s has evidently kept him in remarkably good shape. He retreats into the small house on the property where the two of them stay.
Having experienced the cathedral and the chaos, I speak with a Mejorada native, Juan Antonio Jimenez Pereira, who is happy to provide his own thoughts about the structure. He grew up in the suburb, just as the cathedral has grown up itself. “My opinion is that if you want to go and see it, it’s amazing; and if you know the full background, it makes it even more valuable and shows the effort it took,” he says. “Even without being finished, it is beautiful.”