Deep Space @ Deutschlandfunk Kultur

The Valle de los Caídos is highly controversial as a memorial of the fallen of the Spanish Civil War: for a long time, it mainly served the glorification of the dictator Franco.

Deep Space wants to show visitors also the site’s dark side.

Interview, Eckhard Roelcke, journalist @ Deutschlandfunk Kultur, Germany, 8 August 2020

Hybrid Space Lab from Berlin has some proposals.

The Valle de los Caídos is highly controversial as a memorial of the fallen of the Spanish Civil War: for a long time, it mainly served the glorification of the dictator Franco. The “Deep Space” project wants to show visitors also the site’s dark side.

The Valle de los Caídos (“Valley of the Fallen”) near Madrid is a large memorial site that was built on the initiative of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. It is dedicated to the fallen of the Spanish Civil War and is one of the most controversial memorials in the world. Situated in the middle of a charming and precisely composed landscape, it stands for the glorification of Spain’s politically dark past.

The area also housed the barracks of thousands of republican prisoners of war. But tourists normally don’t have access to such information and explanations, says architect Elizabeth Sikiaridi. As part of the interdisciplinary project “Deep Space“, the British architect together with other researchers at the Berlin-based Think Tank and Design Lab “Hybrid Space Lab” want to transform the Franco monument with digital means – beginning without transforming it externally, but through Augmented Reality. “Deep Space” is a long-term research project that addresses memory spaces, memory politics and controversial memorial sites in the digital age.

Gaining other insights

Among other things, this could be done in such a way that visitors could look at the site on a tablet and thus get an impression of what the place looked like directly after the Spanish Civil War, explains Sikiaridi. The aim is to gain other insights as one moves through the site.

And: “We thought: Suddenly you understand the place much better if you throw the spotlight also on the Republican prisoners of war and the Republican fallen whose mortal remains were brought from mass graves from all over the country to the Valle de los Caidos without the relatives knowing about it or giving their consent”, says Sikiaridi.


Eckhard Roelcke:
Franco was a dictator who pursued a murderous policy by totalitarian means; tens of thousands were tortured, imprisoned and murdered. Mothers had their new-borns stolen, it’s unimaginable. All this not infrequently under the eyes of the almighty Catholic Church. Spain has not really come to terms with its fascist past. Many human rights violations are still unresolved. Franco ruled until his death in November 1975.

Again and again voices are raised to praise Franco for allegedly saving Spain from communism. Fascism nostalgics even pay reverence to his monumental grave in the “Valley of the Fallen”, a place of pilgrimage.

Last October, the reburial of Franco’s remains made headlines at home and abroad. We have also reported on this in detail here in the cultural radio program “Fazit”. Now we want to talk about Franco’s empty grave. Of course, the arising question is how this site should give testimony of Spanish history in the future, what is the visitor’s experience.

The interdisciplinary Hybrid Space Lab Berlin researched this topic and organized a workshop in Madrid. I would now like to discuss with Elizabeth Sikiaridi, Professor of Design in Landscape Architecture at the University of Duisburg-Essen and the Technische Hochschule Ostwestfallen-Lippe and a member of Hybrid Space Lab Berlin, what possibilities the site of the “Valley of the Fallen” now offers. Good evening!

Elizabeth Sikiaridi:
Good evening!

Eckhard Roelcke:
Before we discuss the future design, let’s first take a brief look at the status quo. Please describe how this memorial looks like, how the visitors experience the site.

Elizabeth Sikiaridi:
This is a tourist destination. That means tourists get there by bus, it’s not that far from Madrid. On the way, one sees this Cross, it is a giant Cross that is more than 150 meters high and can be seen more than 30 kilometers away. And one arrives to the site by driving through a precisely composed and designed landscape, everything is very precisely arranged – but for the automobile, this is very interesting – over bridges, then the view closes and then opens up again and suddenly one reaches the esplanade and the view opens up in a panoramic way. And behind the esplanade under the Cross there is a giant Church that is more than 260 meters long with a huge dome in the center.

If a tourist looked closely, she would see that the mosaics also depict a tank. I think this is the only church with a tank in mosaic. But the tourist doesn’t get to know anything. On the official website there is hardly any information about this site except its monumentality, its size. Tourist guides say little, and on site very little is actually explained.

Behind the Esplanade there is this mountain out of which the huge basilica was cut out. And on the other side of the mountain, there’s a monastery, a Benedictine monastery. The Benedictine monks still manage the complex. In the monastery there is also a boys’ choir with boarding school. And there is mass every day at eleven o’clock – until Franco reburial at his grave and in his honor.

Eckhard Roelcke:
You have already mentioned two key words which I believe are very important, Mrs. Sikiaridi. One should look closely and learn more about this place. The question naturally arises, how does a project like this come to Berlin? Why are you dealing with this Franco memorial in Berlin?

Elizabeth Sikiaridi:
We were invited to develop an artistic project in Madrid and we set this task for ourselves. We have experience in reinterpretation, transformation, appropriation of controversial cultural sites. In Berlin we have worked on the Humboldt Forum with the projects “Humboldt Jungle” and “Humboldt Volcano” – although I should be very careful to mention them in context with Valle, because Valle has completely different dimensions, not only in size, but also in its conflict situation, one should be very careful.

So, we traveled to Madrid and we talked to the Spanish experts responsible. They told us: Come on, we need you, we are not getting anywhere ourselves, we are stuck. Actually, it is quite helpful to have an outsider view, as this has been proven in a number of situations, for example, in recent European history, where outsiders have helped to come to terms with difficult historical legacies, for example, antisemitism in Poland, the Vichy regime or the colonial past of the Netherlands. There are several such examples.

Eckhard Roelcke:
In principle, there are three possibilities: One could demolish such an ensemble, one could somehow build over it or somehow supplement it. Were there any basic guidelines or considerations?

Elizabeth Sikiaridi:
In our case, demolition was absolutely out of the question. We think that it is important to keep such testimonies from totalitarian regimes, because in the end it is a stone-chiseled testimony of National Catholicism. This is important, also for future generations.

What was important for us was how to transform this place, how to accompany this process. And creative means, artistic means but also digital means are suitable for this. And above all, this “digital strategy” was very well received in Spain.

Eckhard Roelcke:
Can you briefly explain this “digital strategy”, how this is somehow sensually experienced.

Elizabeth Sikiaridi:
What we are currently preparing, namely to develop an Augmented Reality application, can be experienced sensually. Augmented Reality is basically a kind of media information foil overlaying reality. This can be experienced with the help of a tablet or a smartphone. One looks at Valle de los Caídos and suddenly one sees the graves, which are actually not visible for the visitors because they are hidden behind the basilica and there are no insignia at all. Currently the visitor does not get to experience anything of that.

Or, if you move around the grounds, you see the archaeological remains of the barracks of the prisoners of war who lived there with their families, while for almost two decades they carved this place out of the granite stone.

Eckhard Roelcke:
20,000 forced laborers had to work on this monumental site. So you’re looking for traces, is this correct?

Elizabeth Sikiaridi:
Absolutely right, traces of the others – not of Franco and of the Falangist Primo de Rivera. Because the whole discussion when we developed the project in 2018, was actually about Franco’s reburial.

We thought that this place could be understood in a different way when we turned the spotlight on the fallen, on the Republican fallen whose remains were brought to Valle de los Caídos from mass graves all over the country without their relatives knowing or conceding, and on the prisoners of war. Suddenly, one sees this site in a completely different way, if one embeds it in its history, in its context.

Eckhard Roelcke:
I assume that it is not only about walking through the terrain with the tablet and somehow gaining experiences, but you probably want to intervene somehow, I suppose.

Elizabeth Sikiaridi:
Interventions in such a place require very long and lengthy processes. We thought, how can we actually support the transformation of this place and the suggestions that came out of the workshop were, besides the “digital strategy”, to allow other views on it when moving through the terrain. Or to support its transformation – because there was also a big discussion and proposals to transform it into a Research Center or Global Peace Center – with the help of artistic actions. So, in principle, to support and accompany this process, transforming it by, let’s say, performing on the monument – as these are processes.

Eckhard Roelcke
This was Hybrid Space Lab in Berlin, working on the transformation of the Franco Memorial in the Valley of the Fallen near Madrid, and Elizabeth Sikiaridi, the co-founder of Hybrid Space Lab. Ms. Sikiaridi, thank you!

Elizabeth Sikiaridi:
Thank you very much, have a nice evening!

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