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Don Justo's Self-Built Cathedral

Metaphoric learnings for contemporary alternative initiatives (Part #1)

Model for understanding alternative initiatives
Films about Don Justo

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Much may be learnt about the potential and frustrations of alternative initiatives from the undertaking of Justo Gallego Martínez (now well over 70). In 1961, at the age of 29, he laid the first stone in the construction of a "cathedral" that he has built virtually single handed since then on a plot of land 50 metres by 20 metres that he inherited from his parents. It has been rated by some as perhaps the strangest building in the world. His undertaking in giving form to a dream has been celebrated in several documentary films, by journalists, and treated as an inspiration by architects and religious groups.

This is no "model" cathedral and he is neither a qualified architect, nor engineer, nor bricklayer -- he is a farmer. "The plans have only ever existed in my head" and have evolved over time in response to opportunity and inspiration. Nor does he have formal planning permission from the authorities of Mejorada del Campo -- the town in which it is located (20 km from Madrid under the flight-path to the Barajas airport). Nor does he have the benediction or support of the Catholic Church. After eight years in a Trappist order -- and just prior to taking his vows -- he was obliged to leave, considerably weakened by tuberculosis and the monastic regime. His cathedral is dedicated to Nuestra Señora del Pilar, Madre de Jesús. He explains: "It's an act of faith." The cathedral has been bequeathed by him to the Bishopric of nearby Alcalá de Henares.

The shell of the building is complete -- covering the 20x50 metre plot [photos]. Some 8,000m2 have been built -- or are underway. They include a complex ensemble of cloisters, offices, lodgings and a library. The cathedral already has a dome (modelled on St Peters) rising to some 40 metres, some 12 metres in diametre -- whose steel girders were raised with the aid of his six nephews using pulleys. He was unable to get the loan of a crane. In summer volunteers may lend a hand, but for the heavy work he hires a local assistant at his own expense. It is estimated that it may take another 15 to 20 years to complete -- although Don Justo does not know. He prefers not to speak about the future. How long he will still be physically able to continue working on it is uncertain.

The mayor of Mejorada del Campo declares that to date not one architect or builder has been prepared to take responsibility for this building. Questions are raised concerning its foundations and bracings, and nobody wants to be responsible for its structural integrity. Given its problematic status, the lack of official support, and the value of the land on which it is located, Don Justo is aware that there is every possibility that the cathedral may be razed to the ground immediately after his death.

He has financed his work by rent from some inherited farmland -- some of which he has already sold. Donations from supporters and visitors are welcomed. Most of the construction materials used are recycled (buckets, pieces of wood, plastic tubes, etc) -- occasionally obtained from business and construction companies with excess materials for a job. Progress on the cathedral is therefore visibly marked by the nature and quality of materials that he acquires in this way. The columns are moulded using old petrol drums, the window arches carry the marks of the tires they were moulded in and bicycle wheels have been used as pulleys. Strength is ensured by using extra quantities of cement. There has as yet been little time for finishing surfaces. The rose window is without glass -- but there is a long mosaic staircase leading to the main entrance.

window is without glass -- but there is a long mosaic staircase leading to the main entrance.

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