The other day I encountered, via YouTube, a 92-year-old eccentric from Spain named Justo Gallego Martínez. When he was a young man, Don Justo, as he’s now commonly known, decided to join a monastery, in part because he couldn’t find a mate “as beautiful as the Virgin Mary,” he says.
He did both with aplomb.
In the early nineteen-sixties he started building an honest-to-God cathedral, with a 130-foot dome, on a large patch of land his family owned in Mejorada del Campo, 13 miles east of Madrid. Like California’s enormous Winchester Mystery House, the work commenced sans blueprints or a fully-formed plan — and without the involvement of civil engineers or architects. Gallego Martínez initially had help from several nephews, but there was a falling-out and now his relatives “want to kill me,” he claims.
He’s been working on the cathedral with the aid of just one faithful volunteer (aptly named Angel) ever since, at peace with the reality that he will never come close to finishing it.
After I die, he says,
“I’m leaving it to the divine hand.”
The improbable building project was financed first with money Gallego Martínez inherited; then by parceling off and selling some of the land his family owned; and finally by gifts from tourists, private well-wishers, and businesses. Sympathetic construction crews donate leftover materials, and paint-factory workers and marble cutters have been known to do the same.
The cathedral is awe-inspiring and frightening at the same time. That’s because Gallego Martínez makes it up as he goes along — without permits, without city inspections, without much forethought to sturdiness and safety, and without regard for the requirements of things as mundane as building codes and structural integrity.
Atlas Obscura wrote that
Practically all building materials are scavenged or donated by local construction teams. Looking around, one can see columns made of concrete-filled plastic buckets or air ducts and stairs whose lips are formed from coils of wire, among other things.
According to a story about him in Medium, Gallego Martínez has long built his magnum opus with
… mainly garbage and waste. He gathered bricks at a brick yard’s dump site, where they stored faulty products. He used empty gasoline cans as the foundation of the pillars. He put to work wires, pieces of iron reinforcements and even old cardboard boxes.
When you squint, the place can seem solid and majestic, and it’s hard not to root for the inspired builder. But if you look closer, you see the disquieting, thrown-together state of individual building elements that are connected to others in tenuous ways, sure to cause frayed nerves and nail-biting in men of lesser faith than Don Justo.
Then again, I’m not aware of any deaths, injuries, or collapses that have occurred at the building site during the 55 years that the mad monk has devoted to the remarkable edifice. He probably believes that to keep everyone safe, his trust in divine providence will do the trick. So far, so good, I suppose.
“… everything has been started; nothing has been finished.”
Rogan points out that Don Justo
“… seems to have absorbed the Romantic ideal of the fragment: unfinished works that are historical ruins before they are even finished.
Justo, in this world, is a dinosaur building a colossal monument to a god long since given up for dead. … I am fascinated by the paradox of his character — whether he is madman or martyr. On the one hand, it has been an enterprise of total self-indulgence; on the other, total self-negation.
To work with, especially for his helpers, he can be difficult, angry and harsh. His serene contentment in his work can switch to searing fury if anybody gets in the way of his project.”
On a side note, that would include female tourists dressed in common summer attire of shorts and sleeveless blouses. Sometimes Gallego Martínez takes time out of his busy day to berate them and shoo them off the holy premises, accusing them of wickedness and obscenity, like so:
Rogan opines that
“[Don Justo’s] determination is necessary precisely because he is a man who has succeeded in living outside of society pursuing an eccentric dream. His unswerving faith has enabled him to carry out a super-human task, revealing the raw power of religion in the hands of an exceptional individual.”
It’s unknown what the town will do with the building after Gallego Martínez dies. The cathedral put the sleepy community on the map and brings in a steady trickle of tourists. Given the scale and the art brut magnificence, it’d be a shame if authorities condemn it. Still, says architect Francesco Olivia, who took a tour of the place,
“This building is unsafe. There are structural elements, and others added on a whim. A lot of it is guesswork. They added elements randomly as they went, they overlap and … I have no idea how it stays up.”
Bringing it up to code, making it legal,
“… would be difficult [with] something that was built in such a peculiar way, [to] bring it into compliance with even the most basic safety standards.”
If Gallego Martínez’s soaring building intrigues you, and you’d like to see it with your own eyes, you should visit before it’s too late.
Be sure to first pay your life-insurance premium though — and maybe bring a hard hat.