Deep Space @ Tagesspiegel

Berlin’s contribution to the debate on monuments: What to do with Franco’s mausoleum?

Do not destroy it, says the Berlin office Hybrid Space Lab as it lays out ideas for a new way of dealing with the controversial Franco memorial in the “Valley of the Fallen” near Madrid.

Publication, Bernhard Schultz, journalist @ Der Tagesspiegel, Berlin, 16 July 2020


Last autumn, Franco’s dictatorship in Spain became present once again. Following a decision by Parliament, the remains of the dictator, who died in 1975, were removed from his gigantic tomb and buried in his family’s grave on the outskirts of Madrid.

Once again, the controversies surrounding the handling of the Franco past were revived, part of these concerning the burial monument. At the very time of the heated debates on the reburial, a workshop was held to discuss the future design of this monument was held in Madrid by the Berlin-based Hybrid Space Lab, which was attended by numerous scientists and experts, especially from Spanish institutions. Currently – and with a temporary interruption due to the Corona pandemic – the Lab is working on the implementation of its “digital strategy”.

It is about the “Valle de los Caídos”, the “Valley of the Fallen”. Like the ancient Egyptian pharaohs, Spain’s dictator Francisco Franco had a huge tomb built during his lifetime. In the mountains of the Sierra de Guadarrama, a good 40 kilometres north-west of Madrid, a gigantic, 262-metre-long, barrel-vaulted nave which widens to a 42-metre-high dome was constructed over period of 19 years.

Tangible symbol of the connection between fascism and the Catholic Church

Here were buried the remains of the dictator, as well as those of the co-founder of the fascist “Falange”, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, who was executed in 1936 at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War and was venerated by the fascists as a “martyr”.

The conservative opposition criticized the reburial and called it “irresponsible to reopen already healed wounds”. Yet the actual “wound” is precisely this memorial, with its full name “National Monument of the Holy Cross in the Valley of the Fallen”.

Around 20,000 Republican prisoners had to chisel the memorial, the tangible symbol of the connection between fascism and the Catholic (State) Church, as forced labourers mainly by hand into and out of the rock; in addition, a 152-metre high and 46-metre wide concrete cross was erected on the top of the mountain above.

The arduous work in the hard granite also explains the long construction period until the inauguration in 1959, the 20th anniversary of the victory of the Franco troops in the civil war. Since then, the monument has been looked after by the Benedictines, who maintain a monastery (and a boarding school) on the extensive grounds, and who celebrate a daily mass for the salvation of Franco, who died in 1975.

The fact that Pope John XXIII, who was stylized as a liberal, elevated the peculiar sacral building to the rank of a Basilica minor the year after its consecration, once again clearly underscored the side on which the institution of the church had stood and continued to stand during the Spanish Civil War.

This Church cut out of the rock is a place of rest also for victims of the civil war

After the end of its original function as the tomb of the dictator, the time has finally come to reflect on the future of the “national monument”. This Church cut out of the rock is also the resting place of over 33,000 victims of the civil war, hence the name “Valle de los Caídos”, a fact that it is usually overlooked.

Although the vast majority, but not all of the victims fell on the side of the Franco rebels. There are also Republicans among them – although the church insisted on burying only those dead whose affiliation to the Catholic faith was proven.

That is no pettiness in view of the strongly anti-ecclesiastical character of the civil war, especially in its beginnings in 1936, which as social revolution was directed against the centuries-old connection of church, feudal nobility and large estate owners and claimed numerous victims among priests and members of the Church.

The Berlin office Hybrid Space Lab traveled to Madrid

In Berlin, Hybrid Space Lab is located in the beautiful refurbished industrial buildings between Köpenicker Strasse and the Spree River, where the German Architecture Center was established soon after Berlin’s reunification. The office, headed by Elizabeth Sikiaridi and Frans Vogelaar, consists of representatives from various disciplines, from architects to archaeologists and anthropologists.

With the project “Deep Space: Re-signifying Valle de los Caídos“, the “Lab” is involved in the reflections on the redesign, or better, re-evaluation of the monument. In Berlin, the “Lab” has come to the fore with the proposal of the “Humboldt Volcano“, a “stacked oasis” that grows like tropical vegetation from the future subway exit on the facade of the new palace building.

Quite different is the proposal for the Spanish monument, which was already discussed last year at a Madrid workshop, but now, due to Corona, must remain on paper for an unforeseeable time.

There was no public contract, nor was there any corresponding project financing – Hybrid Space Lab wanted and wants to remain independent. The “artist’s fee” from a Dutch cultural foundation was put into the organization of the workshop.

The “goal” of the workshop, according to Vogelaar, was “to understand how such a place works”. So, the workshop participants drove to the national monument to experience the daily mass at Franco’s tomb. The mystification of the memorial since its opening was certainly helped by the fact that photography and filming inside the basilica was strictly forbidden – and that the security personnel rigorously enforced the ban.

Destruction of the memorial was not an option

The transformation or even destruction of the huge memorial complex was not up for debate, emphasize Sikiaridi and Vogelaar during my visit to their light-flooded Berlin premises: “This strategy of transforming the monument without first physically altering it was particularly convincing, since such a process of ‘digital transformation’ can start directly and support the public discourse from which proposals for the longer-term, perhaps even physical transformation of the site can emerge”.

Meanwhile the cross with its statically problematic arms is crumbling, so that the ascent to the mountain top is already blocked. On the other hand, the monument should not become a mere cenotaph, an empty tomb. First of all, the traces of forced labour must be found and secured, such as the remains of the barracks in which not only the prisoners but also their families lived in miserable conditions.

Today’s visitor learns nothing about this. It is therefore a matter of reconstructing memory and, beyond that, of an altered perception. Hybrid Space Lab pursues a “digital strategy,” says Sikiaridi: the visitor is to be provided with an “Augmented Reality,” a kind of foil that lies over reality on the tablet and makes the hidden layers visible.

The graves of the fallen of the civil war are not visible inside the basilica, they are hidden behind the side walls. Sikiaridi speaks of a future “X-ray view”. Visitors can address their very specific questions to the data program and establish a “personal relationship”.

“It is not a matter of naming the culprits, but of addressing the events,” Elizabeth Sikiaridi makes clear the connection between the Valle Project and the processing of Spanish history. “Transgenerational memory”, she says, takes place over three generations: the first who experienced something, the second who knows but keeps silent, and the third who feels the memory gap and gradually begins to fill it.

This process has been going on in Spain since the end of the Franco dictatorship in 1977, and Spanish politics has deliberately refrained from taking legal action to deal with the events of and after the extremely violent civil war, with its hundreds of thousands of victims.

In the meantime, however, far more than a whole generation has grown up in democracy and knows the dictatorship, even in its sclerotic late period, only from family stories. With the exhumation of Franco in the “Valle de los Caídos”, now the last and most important memorial site is now free from its, if only ghostly, reference to daily politics and has become completely historical.

It is the third, fourth and future generations who ask their questions to history and demand answers – on the tablet, using today’s technology.

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