European Discordant Architecture: El Valle de los Caídos (Spain)

The building of the Francoist era that perhaps best reflects that shift in perception is the Valle de los Caídos, an architectural complex inspired by Juan Herrera’s El Escorial. The controversy that the Valle de los Caídos continues to cause stems not only from the fact that Franco (his dictatorship lasted in Spain from 1939 […]

The building of the Francoist era that perhaps best reflects that shift in perception is the Valle de los Caídos, an architectural complex inspired by Juan Herrera’s El Escorial. The controversy that the Valle de los Caídos continues to cause stems not only from the fact that Franco (his dictatorship lasted in Spain from 1939 to 1975) had it built to exalt his own figure and power, but that it was built by republican prisoners to glorify those who died for the “Patria” or Fatherland.

Moreover, as a result of the vagaries of history, its basilica ended up being a place not only where Franco is buried, but also José Antonio Primo de Rivera, a previous dictator who had nothing to do with the Civil War. Near them lie a large number of republicans, buried under completely different conditions (mass graves) and as if that were not absurd enough, the complex belongs to the church, but is financed to this day by public funds.

The architercural complex of Valle de los Caídos

Francisco Franco Bahamonde, a conservative catholic general who had seen the war as a “crusade” against the evils of Spain, namely republicanism or liberal democracy, wanted to erect a monument that would defy time and oblivion, to erect a grandiose temple in honour of God and the Patria. In April 1940, just one year after having won the war, Franco issued a Presidential Decree to erect a grand mausoleum of exaltation, a templo grandioso de nuestros muertos, en que por los siglos se ruegue por los que cayeron en el camino de Dios y de la Patria. For such purposes, the architect Pedro Muguruza was commissioned by Franco to undertake the Valle de los Caídos project.

Pedro Muguruza Otaño (Madrid, 1893-1952) was an architect, restorer, urban planner, academic, draughtsman and later in life a politician. In the 1920s he began to make a name for himself with projects such as the Palacio de la Prensa, the first building to be built on Madrid’s Gran Via. Muguruza was a typical architect of his age. He studied academicist classicism and other formal languages, such as regionalism or Art Deco. Also important for his future career, was his work as restorer of monuments, which provided him with a deep understanding of the history of architecture and of certain singular buildings in particular.

If Muguruza, before the war, did not actively participate in political life, nor have any strong affiliation with Falangism, his support for the new regime, once the war ended, seems to have more to do with his conservative ideas than anything else. From 1938, he involved himself much more in politics at the same time as becoming a public figure with a desire to organize and institutionalize the architectural profession. One year later, in 1939, he was named Director General of Architecture, a move that made him a key post-war figure. Indeed, he came to be considered as the Franco’s favourite architect.

Clearly Franco commissioned Pedro Muguruza to undertake the project for political commitment, but also perhaps for his knowledge of classical, regionalist and traditional architecture, as well as for his interest in Herrerism, the plateresque style, baroque architecture and for his wide knowledge of monumental buildings. Even so, most of the architectural complex that we know today is not by Muguruza, with the exception of the primitive monastery and the chapels on the Stations of the Cross.

Muguruza began the project in 1940, but because of a degenerative disease that ended his life in 1952, he was succeeded by his pupil in 1949, the architect Diego Méndez, Méndez being completely oblivious to contemporary architectural trends.

Méndez altered practically everything in the project: he doubled the hollowing out of the crypts, raised the cross to a height of 150 metres, eliminated the youth barracks and backed the abbey onto the Risco, so connecting it with the crypt by means of an inner gallery so that the Benedictine monks could have easy access between one building and another. The inside of the basilica was also changed, especially the finishes, as was much of the outside.

The work began, however, on the orders of Pedro Muguruza. Work on the site began with the excavation of the mountain to house the basilica-crypt. Despite all the danger and complexity that hollowing out the mountain entailed, the most important element of the complex, and the one which caused the most concern, was the cross. Building a 150-metre cross on top of the Risco de la Nava was no easy task. That cross would separate or divide the complex of the Valle de los Caídos in two. On one side of the mountain would be the monastery and the guesthouse and, on the other opposing side, the basilica.

Entrance to the basilica, flanked by imposing porticos notable not only for their size but their austerity, is gained through the central doorway, above which rests the Pietà, the work of the sculptor Juan Avalos. The basilica, excavated out of the mountainside is a total of 272 metres long, which gives a clear idea of the magnitude of the work, as the basilica of the Vatican, for example, is only 193 metres long. It comprises a vestibule, atrium, intermediate space- where the famous monumental iron-gate is situated- crowned by a dome of 42 metres in diameter.

From the basilica one can gain access to the inside of the cross by means of an elevator. Diego Méndez was not only responsible for the planning of the cross, but also its direction, working together with the sculptor. The cross was built in three parts: a base (25 metres high) with the 4 evangelists, one at each corner; a plinth (17 metres high) with the figures of the Four Cardinal Virtues (Prudence, Courage, Temperance and Justice); and the cross itself (108 metres high), giving a total of 150 metres.

The cross which can be seen more than 40 kms away from the north-east of Madrid is both intimidating and disproportionate. It is, however, due to its height and slenderness, the most important architectural element of the complex as far as technique is concerned.

Quite apart from the architectural successes and failures, it is essential to note that for much of the time that it was under construction (1940-58), the workforce consisted of republican prisoners, i.e. prisoners of war, who were offered the opportunity of reducing their sentences through hard labour.

The history of the Valle de los Caídos

General view of the monument

The impetus, energy and enthusiasm with which the work began, added to the fact that there was a cheap, if not free, workforce available in 1940, began to lose strength and faded away as the years went by. As early as the 1960s, the Valle de los Caídos, although recently completed, began to lose its ceremonial status. The discourse on the Valle de los Caídos was changing at the same speed and in the same direction as the discourse and policies of Franco himself. If in the beginning the Valle de los Caídos was referred to as a complex built as a symbol of the crusade and in honour of those who died for the Patria, at the end of the 1960s, as Paloma Aguilar points out, that discourse was replaced in the tourist guides of the El Valle de los Caídos by “all who fell in the Spanish Civil War” and “all those who gave their lives for their ideals

A quarter of a century after the victory, there was a need to convince the public that this change of direction and political discourse was not actually a change but something that had always been true. In 1964, with the idea of commemorating 25 years of peace, one of the greatest image operations in the history of Spain was undertaken, an operation the aim of which was to show Franco not only as military winner of the Civil War, but as the guarantor of peace among the Spanish. It was at that moment that he took the opportunity to reinterpret the national significance of the Valle, not now as a symbol of an ideological nature, but as a symbol of national reconciliation. This change of discourse, however, made no reference to the fact that although the dead of both sides were buried there, the conditions for some and for others were not the same, as the republicans, most of them, if not all, were buried in mass graves.

It was, therefore, only in the 1960s when this change towards the notion of Spanish reconciliation, largely in response to international pressure on the regime, began to take hold. Nevertheless, that reconciliation remained partial, as neither in the tourist guides nor in the monument was there any specific mention to the fallen on the republican side.  There were no names, no mention of where they were from and no indication how many there were. It could even be said that they had just been forgotten.

In fact, it was not until well into the 21st century that the number of the dead in Cuelgamuros began to be known. It is estimated that the total is around 33,800, many of them republican victims of the firing squad and torture, etc. and others that were sent to the Valle without the consent or even the knowledge of their families.

The Valle de los Caídos represented throughout the Franco years- and for many years later- the erased memory of the republican dead. However, it was not only the memory of the republican dead that evaporated or disappeared into thin air, but also the other erased memory: that of the workers who took part in its construction. They were never mentioned in any official guide until fairly recently.

Following the death of Franco on 20th November 1975, the process known as the Transition began. During this period the Valle de los Caídos acquired an increasingly anachronistic symbolism. Six months after the death of Franco, the Confederation of Ex-Combatants and the Blue Division (División Azul) held a funeral service in his memory, and on the 20th November 1976, in the ceremonies held to commemorate the first anniversary of his death at the Valle de los Caídos, all the political leaders, led by the Royal Family, attended. So incongruous was this event that it was the last time that the Royal Family appeared at any official public event in memory of the dictator.

During the 1980s, even though the celebrations of the 20th November were losing media interest, the most dedicated followers of the Francoist regime continued to gather in front of the basilica to commemorate the anniversary of the death of “El Caudillo”. In that same time, the period when democracy was supposedly being consolidated, and although it may seem paradoxical, the remains of the dead continued to arrive at the Valle de los Caídos. Indeed, the final entry in the registry book, dated 3rd June 1983, was made a full six months after the first Socialist prime minister, Felipe González, came to power in the elections of 1982. To add heightened irony to the still popular slogan that Spain is different the monument continued to be promoted as a tourist site, reaching a volume of visitors estimated at more than 600,000 a year. Weddings were even held in the Basilica!

If Felipe González’s government (1982-1996) did little to change the situation of the Valle de los Caídos, the two legislatures of José María Aznar at the head of the Partido Popular did even less, and for obvious reasons. The Partido Popular was, until very recently, a coalition of all right-wing parties, from centre-right to ultra-right leanings. It was not in their interest to suggest any changes to the status quo, as far as the Valle de los Caídos was concerned.

It was in 2004, with the election of a new socialist government headed by José Luis Zapatero and with a clear programme of social reform, that the controversy over the Valle de los Caídos and indeed the war crimes committed by the Francoist regime came to the fore. The Historical Memory Law was passed in 2007. That Law established that the Valle should be governed “by the standards applicable (…) to places of worship and public cemeteries”, no “acts of a political nature or exaltation of the Civil War, of its protagonists or of Francoism” being permitted.

With the return of the Partido Popular to power, this time led by Mariano Rajoy, all the old fears of upsetting the right wing of the party and weakening the right wing alliance surfaced once again, the Historical Memory Law being virtually ignored with the argument that any discussion of what had happened during and after the Civil War would only reopen old wounds. That argument was repeated time and time again even in the face of Pablo Greiff (the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence) saying on a visit to Spain at the beginning of 2014 that[1],

“In its present state, the site does not provide any kind of information or signalling that explains the prevalence of Francoist and fascist symbology and the exaltation of the “winning” side in the Civil War. Nothing explains the ambiguous character or the later idea of providing the site with a sense of “reconciliation”. Nothing states that it was built with the forced labour of thousands of political prisoners under inhuman conditions. No information is offered on the bodies of the almost 34,000 individuals who were buried there, nor that many remains were transported there with the consent and/or knowledge of their families. Nothing explains who José́ Antonio Primo de Rivera was, nor why he was buried in the centre of the basilica, nor why the general Francisco Franco was buried there without ever being a victim of the Civil War” (Moreno Garrido, 2016, p. 40).

His recommendation was that the Valle de los Caídos be “redefined, with the appropriate techniques and pedagogy, in favour of promoting the truth and memory with an educational and preventive function”.

The Valle de los Caídon and the question of memory

The word “memory” comes from the Greek mnéme, that later gave us memoria, in Latin. “Memory” means to set, save, or store. It is the psychic faculty with which we remember, or what is the same, our ability to recall, save, or store memories in the mind. “Remember”, on the other hand, is to take from the memory, bring to someone’s mind or make someone recall something. Whereas memory stores events- memories-, “remember” is the ability to order those memories in a structured way, an ability closely related with language and hence to narrative.

A monument is a work or construction that carries artistic, historical, scientific or literary values, the object of which is to preserve the memory of an individual, individuals or an event in the collective memory, i.e. to defy time and oblivion. A monument is also a public work of great value for history. Colloquially a monument is associated with something very big and excellent. Although Franco managed to combine these three ideas in his Valle de los Caídos, one must not sin, as Cárdenas del Moral says, by confusing “monumentality” with “monumentalism”. If the first term is usually associated with something unique, useful and true, the second is usually associated with something false, ostentatious and pompous. It could, therefore, be said that, with the Valle de los Caídos, Franco achieved a monument in form, but with a content more monumentalist than monumental, at the same time as being totally anachronistic.

Furthermore, a temple is a sacred place of worship. In the case of the Valle de los Caídos, it was designed to be a place to pay homage not only to God, but to all those who died for the Patria. In doing so, Franco actually built a collective funerary monument, i.e., a type of Pantheon, a funerary site where thousands of combatants rest “for the Patria” in the beginning, “for their ideals” later, and, ironically, for himself, as it was here that the body of the dictator was buried after his death on 20th November 1975.

Far from representing a site which all Spanish people can be proud of, it now represents a monument to one of the bloodiest, cruel and anti-democratic periods in the history of Spain. Whilst a small minority of Falangists may see it as the final proof of the power and glory of the Caudillo, for most it represents an insult to truth and a perversion of justice.

Franco’s tomb

So, what is to be done then with Cuelgamuros? Following a successful motion of no confidence in Mariano Rajoy, Pedro Sanchez of the Socialist party became Prime Minister on 1st June 2018 and for much of the following year his government was immersed in legal wranglings with Franco’s family and the Church over removing Franco from the Valle de los Caídos. The present Vice-President of the socialist government, Carmen Calvo, declared that a dictator cannot have a State tomb in a consolidated democracy. The current government understands, and it is logical, that they have to guarantee that Franco is not exalted in any site, as one has to prevent his tomb from becoming a place of pilgrimage for fascist tourists.

Despite the outrage caused by the motion of no confidence and the controversy caused by the socialist plans to have Franco removed from the Valle de los Caídos, the Socialist Party won a clear victory over the now split conservative alliance in the general election of 28th April 2019, although with insufficient seats in parliament to have an outright majority. Whether the impetus to get something done about the Valle de los Caídos can be maintained remains to be seen.

The purpose of a historical monument is to establish a link between events, an individual, or individuals in the past with present society and usually suggests that that event, individual or individuals are worthy of being remembered as something to be proud of.  The Valle de los Caídos, however, does not manage to achieve those links. If today it still generates conflict and controversy, it is to a certain extent, because the Spanish have not faced up to their own history, to the collective myths of the past and the horrors of the Civil War. To address those myths, to live together with them is the cement or basis of any widely accepted national history. In Germany it took 40 years for the criminality of the regime to be accepted by society.

Elena Roig Cardona


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[1] Moreno Garrido, 2016, p.39

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