This is the latest installment of Public Streets, a biweekly urban observations series curated by Ellis Avery.
The 21st-century traveler is chronically late: the cathedrals are all built, or, if by some historical accident left unfinished, buried under construction cranes licensed to invisible corporations. No one has met the architects who conceived of the cathedrals or the laborers who laid the bricks decade after decade; today, imagining how these monuments were made is as difficult as imagining how Shakespeare found inspiration for his plays. That’s what makes it remarkable to visit the still-evolving cathedral of Mejorada del Campo, Madrid, where you can meet its commissioner, engineer, and laborers, all one and the same: Don Justo Gallego Martínez, age 91, a modern cathedral architect who seems someone out of Europe’s medieval past.
Like the earliest builders, Don Justo has no special training in architecture; he’s learned what he knows through trial and error, driven by religious zeal. He grew up in the region of Madrid, where his formal education was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War. Though he takes inspiration from exotic sources like the Vatican and the White House, he’s rarely left his hometown. Don Justo was already unusual before he embarked upon building a cathedral by himself. As a young man, he chose to become a monk, yet he proved too hard-core even for those most hard-core of Christians. As one of his contemporaries explained in the documentary The Madman and the Cathedral, “He didn’t fit in because he fasted too much, he did a lot of physical labor, and we were worried about his health—above all, his mental health.” When Don Justo returned to Madrid to seek treatment for tuberculosis, the other monks voted not to readmit him. Stuck at home, Don Justo began to collect broken bricks from a nearby factory. Fifty-five years later, his cathedral is large enough to contain two sacristies, a baptistery, a crypt, a second-story choir loft, and a cloister.
Perhaps it’s his unusual background that allows Don Justo to be so original: though inspired by Romanesque architecture, he has essentially invented his own style, which he describes as “románico descargado,” the Romanesque made weightless. “The Romanesque is the most beautiful there is,” he says. “But you have to unburden it … a lot of columns and light. You go to a cathedral, there’s a lot of stone, a lot of walls, but here there’s nothing. Everything is diaphanous, with one glance you can see everything.” He thinks you don’t have to be an expert on medieval art to appreciate the cathedral: “It gets [even] to uneducated people,” he says. “At least 9 women and 4 men [have] cried. Because it fills you up.”
“It fills you up” is a curious choice of words when what’s most striking about the cathedral is its uncanny emptiness: all of the rooms have been started, none of them finished. Don Justo’s work habits might baffle most 21st-century architects, accustomed to large crews of workers and rigorous schedules. “Some days it rains, some days it’s cold,” Don Justo says. “To take advantage of the time, I don’t finish anything ever.” The towers are merely skeletal outlines of towers, topped with intricate fortress-sized storks’ nests that Don Justo not only allows but encourages by supplying the birds with sticks, neglecting his own cathedral to help the storks build theirs.
Below, the jagged cinderblocks are clearly visible in the walls, as are the metal coils, like giant slinkies, that scaffold the cathedral’s second story and glint half-buried inside the clay stairs. Some of the windows don’t fill the holes that were made for them, others were installed half-painted, and still others are missing altogether, letting you see into the apartment building next door, where the Disney pajamas of Don Justo’s less anachronistic neighbors hang on laundry lines. The 25 domes that ornament the roof are mid-thatch, some all but completely covered with feather-like wafers of zinc and others, like the principal dome, all but completely open to the air. It has been necessary to cover the altar that stands below the principal dome, protecting it from rain and stork poop, although as of yet there is nothing on the altar to protect: the elegant marble pedestal stands empty. Elsewhere, the ornamentation is finished, making a strange contrast with the half-started rooms: the patio outside the cathedral’s front door is floored with mosaic, a red crucifix on a white background. But the ground is so uneven that rainwater has collected at the base of the cross and discolored it, turning red tesserae green.
Building materials have never come cheap, and in the Middle Ages people knew how to recycle, taking apart previous houses of worship to make new ones. To Don Justo’s other medieval building practices, one can add that he relies upon donated and recycled materials. The dome is unfinished because Don Justo is waiting to hear back from some potential donors who offered to get him the zinc he needs to cover it. Swatches of paint cover the floor (as do the footprints of visitors who have carelessly stepped in it while wet) with no discernable pattern; the paint was donated, and Don Justo used whatever he had to hand. The ornaments that decorate the cathedral feel just as haphazard: stone angels with broken skirts swing down crookedly from exposed wires, movie theater seats with torn upholstery stand in the middle of the cloister, and a shelf in the sacristy contains, among dusty cables and other building materials, an old-fashioned glass lantern and an empty red-and-yellow birdcage, topped by two kitschy paintings of Jesus Christ. At least, there were two. On my second visit, one had disappeared. So had a stained printout of the Oraciones of Saint Faustina—a nun who, like Don Justo, had difficulties adapting to monastic life and suffered from tuberculosis. The printout had been labeled “34” by hand, then abandoned under a canvas of the Last Supper that was sitting on the floor.
Visiting Mejorada del Campo also brings home that travelling used to be a lot more thrilling, before the days of souvenir shops, official permits, and safety inspections. One corridor is guarded not by security cameras but by what a sign describes as a “DANGEROUS DOG.” The barking will follow you all the way to the sacristy, though, fortunately, the animal itself is behind a fence. “THE CATHEDRAL VISIT IS FREE, WE ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY ACCIDENTS,” warns another sign. The cathedral’s second story is made up of convex steps, each littered with broken glass and too narrow to comfortably support a human foot. On a rainy day, when a strong wind whips through the skeletal dome overhead, you feel precarious. After all, there’s no safety railing, and many of the waist-high pillars that separate you from a fall are broken, missing, or incomplete.
The light that filters through the roof’s bare bones, the open “weightless” space, the haphazard decoration, and the walks high above it all on rickety staircases are all remarkable. But in the end, the most remarkable thing about Mejorada del Campo is perhaps Don Justo himself, a man caught in the wrong century. You’ll find him at work wearing house slippers tied to his ankles with gauze, oversize blue scrubs and a black jacket, a red skullcap, and a red scarf tied around his neck or belted around his waist like a monk’s sash. He might be gathering sticks for the storks, or discussing the chemistry of the stained glass with Angel López, his good friend, loyal helper, and informal publicity manager for the last two decades. He might be teasing a local volunteer (“Aren’t you going to be married here someday?”) or being teased by one (“Isn’t there already a waiting list?”). You might even be able to ask him a question about how he manages to keep going, day after day, through blistering heat and freezing rain. “The Prophet Elias said, The zeal for your house will consume me,” he might say. “And I, because I love Christ, keep on going and going.”
Face to face with a man who’s lived nine-tenths of a century, you might lack the courage to ask the inevitable question: does he think he’ll see the cathedral finished in his lifetime? It seems unlikely. The earliest cathedrals were under construction for centuries, during which the architects died before seeing their work completed, as did the artisans who toiled day after day, breaking bread, resting, and beginning again until they died and were replaced by other artisans, contributing incrementally to a project that would outlive them. It would be easy to lament Don Justo’s fate if he were to die before finishing the cathedral. Yet perhaps it would be a mercy. What would a man of such faith do—the last Romanesque cathedral perfected and the storks all driven off to other, higher places?