Deep Space @ archithese

Hybrid Space Lab analyzed “Valley of the Fallen” near Madrid – the pompous tomb for the fascist dictator Francisco Franco.

They suggest leaving it unchanged but covering it with a new critical layer.

Using augmented reality, they want to make hidden layers visible and write history from the victim’s perspective.

Publication Informing instead of glorifying, Jørg Himmelreich, @ archithese, Switserland, 28 November 2020

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For several weeks, monuments and statues were destroyed in the United States and other places around the world as part of the Black Lives Matter movement because for the demonstrators they represent symbols of colonization, enslavement, oppression, and racism in general. In Europe, too, some questionable monuments were targeted. But are there only the two options of uncommented acceptance or destruction in the case of monuments that were perceived as problematic in retrospect?

A Berlin think tank advocates a middle ground. Hybrid Space Lab tackled the “Valley of the Fallen” near Madrid – a pompous tomb for the fascist dictator Francisco Franco. They suggest leaving it unchanged but covering it with a new critical layer. Using Augmented Reality, they want to make the hidden layers visible and write history from the victims’ perspective.

Monuments under Criticism

The Black Lives Matter movement, triggered by police violence in the USA, criticizes the persistent repression of African American people. This is evident not only in police violence against blacks – also in Europe – but is also reproduced by monuments. Statues of slave traders, colonial generals but also monuments of authoritarian rulers occupy parts of the public space and provide a historical thrust that continues to have a negative impact today. The historical myth that was spread in colonial Europe is thus kept alive in many countries by unquestioned monuments. The resulting movement draws attention to the grievances and power of largely unquestioned historiography.

Fascist Megalomania

The largest active monument, the Valley of the Fallen, which was erected near Madrid by the fascist dictator Francisco Franco, still exists today without any historical commentary. It is dedicated to the fallen of the Spanish Civil War and was erected by Franco as both his own tomb and monument of his Spain “crusade”. As part of the “Deep Space. Re-signifying Valle de los Caídos”, the Berlin think tank and the Hybrid Space Lab design laboratory intend to transform the memorial using digital means. They do not plead for closing or removing the monument, but for commenting on it and reinterpreting it as a memorial.

Controversial Monument

The Francoist memorial with its 152-meter high cross – visible up to a distance of 30 kilometers – encompasses an entire landscape. The “Valley of the Fallen” was built between 1940 and 1959 – partly by Republican prisoners. As forced laborers, they had to cut an underground basilica of over 260 meters in length from the granite rock. At the most prominent point of the hall – until his exhumation in October last year – Franco’s sarcophagus was placed, right next to the grave of the leader of the fascist Falange party, José Antonio Primo de Rivera. The facility also houses the bones of over 33,000 fallen from both camps during the Spanish Civil War, who were brought from mass graves across the country. The memorial can be reached through routes and paths that are laid out in a kind of pilgrim landscape and fit into a well-composed landscape design. Everything looks taken care of and pompous. But if you look closely, you can also find the darker side of the memorial complex on the site: the traces of the accommodation for prisoners of war.

It is the most controversial active monument in the world. To this day, the Benedictine monks, who administer the site, celebrate a daily mass – and this until Franco’s exhumation, at his grave and in his honor. For Franco, the monument symbolized the testimony of his successful “crusade” against republican Spain. Nevertheless, there is still no information about its complex and difficult history for visitors of the “Valley of the Fallen”, which is a popular tourist destination.

History is not Objective

In recent years, however, there has been an intense public discussion in Spain about the Valley of the Fallen, which led to the exhumation of Franco. His bones now rest in a conventional cemetery in the north of Madrid. This is just a first step towards ending the questionable glorification of the dictator. If the memorial is otherwise left untouched, the problem would not be solved. Even a cenotaph would still be a place of pilgrimage for Franco nostalgics or supporters of the new extreme right. So there is an urgent need to change the narrative of this place. Like all monuments, Franco tried to consolidate a perspective on history that would reproduce structures, establishing the fascist dictator’s heritage. Just as historiography is always the reproduction of a perspective on the past, the Valley of the Fallen continues to write Franco’s myth even without Franco.

This is where the workshop “Deep Space. Re-signifying Valle de los Caídos », which Hybrid Space Lab from Berlin carried out in Madrid in October 2018 intervened. The project called for and sought ideas and processes that could help overcome conflicts and transform the symbolic power of the place. The focus of the workshop was on artistic, architectural, landscape design and media approaches.

From Memorial to Memorial

The workshop focused on the largely anonymous fallen and forced laborers. The information, which is available in print, online, and at the memorial site, does not reveal anything about the fate of the prisoners of war who were forced to work on this structure, let alone their families who lived in nearby barracks on the monument’s site. The mass graves are by no means marked for visitors. Nor is there any mention that the remains of fallen Republicans from mass graves across the country were transferred to the Valley of the Fallen without their families knowing. This is extremely problematic because any process of reconciliation must be preceded by full recognition of the facts. An approach that includes the voices of the republican side, the victims who fought against the Franco dictatorship, corresponds to the current general demand for an inclusive historical narrative and the current paradigm shift in historiography that tries to include both suppressed voices.

The workshop participants suggested converting the site into a Research or Peace Center using temporary art projects. A strategy was developed to start by digitally transforming the monument – without physically touching it – with an Augmented Reality app accessible on-site. Thus, the project tries to be accessible to the public in advance and to support the development of a long-term transformation of the place. The think tank, therefore, proposes using digital means to collect collaborative contributions that are dedicated to the monument’s dark history. That would – meeting demands such as of the Black Lives Matter movement – identify monuments that serve to justify authoritarian, colonial, and other problematic regimes as such. In this way, history can be jointly rewritten by means of transformed, commented, or overturned monuments.

The proposed app, in which the physical and the virtual merge, makes it possible to explore on site the hidden layers of the monument’s controversial history: The mass graves hidden behind the sidewalls of the Basilica and the remains of the barracks in which the slave laborers lived are made “visible”. In this way, the totalitarian narrative of the monument is undermined, and the latter becomes a polyphonic memorial.

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