This Navidad, visit the Cathedral of Trash

MEJORADA DEL CAMPO -- One man, with no technology or training, has spent the last 50 years building a cathedral, by hand, out of recycled materials.
Written by Jennifer Riggins, Contributor

MEJORADA DEL CAMPO -- Folks from around the world travel to see Gaudi's incomplete masterpiece, basilica La Sagrada Familia. Its bizarre blend of Gothic and Art Nouveau, with "Lost"-like symbolism and a lack of architectural symmetry, makes it the most interesting church in the world. However, SmartPlanet offers a contender for world's most interesting piece of Catholic architecture. Just half an hour outside the city center of Madrid stands an equally intriguing and odd city-block-sized building. This one just lacks the tourists, sophistication, glory or papal blessing, and will probably be knocked down in the next decade, but it is sure worth a look.

Known as La Catedral de Justo, for the man that has been building it for the last fifty years, it sticks out both as a work of modern art and a sore thumb in an otherwise plain village. This cathedral is literally a piece of trash.

In 1961, Justo Gallego Martinez had to leave a Catholic monastery due to a nearly-deadly bout of tuberculosis. There are two rumors as to why this devout Catholic then decided to build the cathedral, following his recovery. One is that he was super thankful for his miraculous cure and he built it in honor of the Virgin Mother. The other rumor is that his own mother, on her deathbed, asked him to build a cathedral, and, being a typically devoted Spanish son, of course, he said yes.

Either way, there isn't mystery behind why he constructed it out of recycled materials. Without a job or financial backing, using free, plentiful materials is clearly a winning idea.

Over the more than 50 years of construction, Justo is rumored to have sold land he had inherited from family for around 600,000 euros. Another 400,000 has come from donations. This, plus donations of materials from construction companies, adds up to a budget of about a million euros, which, compared with La Sagrada Familia's 18 million and counting, isn't too bad.

Everything about the cathedral is irregular. It's built with exposed, seemingly-haphazardly-placed stone and brick, lacking uniformity, symmetry and, in many places, sealant.

Since it doesn't have an actual bishop residing there, nor in any way the approval of the Roman Catholic Church or any other Christian faith, it cannot be officially dubbed a cathedral. However, it does feature a main temple, three cloisters, a sacristy, a library and a golden crypt, decorated with scalloped shells, the symbol of the Camino de Santiago, Saint James' Pilgrimage to the City of Santiago de Compostela, Spain. One of the cloisters even features a dozen or so heads of Jesus Christ on rods, presumably rescued from churches set for ruin.

The cathedral's round pillars are made of old gasoline drums. The standard "stained-glass" windows are made out of melted real-glass Coke and Sprite bottles, which you'll find in every cerveceria. Nearly all the windows have a similar radiant motif of doves and lambs.

Instead of portraying the more traditional church color of brick and stone, the building itself features a lot of robin's egg blue, with a golden paint compliment. It almost glows as the natural light pours in through the open roof.

Visitors won't see electrical drills or nail guns, but rather, a pulley system made of old bicycle wheels and rope. Sometimes, you can even catch Justo hoisted up on one, sitting on what looks like an old swing seat, painting his intriguing Stations of the Cross and other biblical scenes.

Hundreds of large storks inhabit the eastern part of the Community of Madrid. They traditionally build large nests on top of buildings and in church towers. Justo has incorporated nesting bases on top of the pillars, which the large birds have already taken full advantage of. The domes at the top of the cathedral seem to be built, at least in part, out of barbed wire with the spines removed.

To the unknowing eye, it seems like he just works on the parts that inspire him in the moment because every part is a work in progress, but a glance at his many detailed plans hanging around the temple proves that his design is not merely a whim, but rather a detailed devotion. Over the last few years, noticeable progress has been made, including a 3-D design project that began in 2010, with the goal of helping Justo better envision his final product.

Cool as it is, it's also a lawsuit waiting to happen. Everywhere in the wide open construction zone are signs translating to "Enter at your own risk." There are no railings on the tiny, misshapen stairs. There are no barriers telling you not to enter in a certain area. Justo has received at least partial training to be a monk, but none to design or construct a building. Still, visitors can climb and walk around almost everywhere on the immense, potentially-unstable construction site.

This is probably why there is no permission to build the cathedral from the government. There are no permits, but no one has tried to stop him either. This is probably also one of reasons the Catholic church will not condone, consent or consecrate his work. Despite Justo's robes, he is not a man of the cloth.

Besides being a cathedral-in-progress, it is also Justo's home, where he shares a tiny bed with his miniature doberman pincher. An obvious liability, the cathedral is likely to be knocked down upon this 87-year-old man's death. There is a series of apartment buildings right up next to it, and many residents of the pueblo look at the place as an eyesore and can't wait to see it disappear.

One of the cathedral's visitors compared this public reaction to when Noah announced he was going to build a great ark.

There is no electricity or heat in the Cathedral, with only part of the roof covered and part of the walls closed in. Without electricity, Justo works only in daylight, using simpler tools, like the pulleys. Of course, that's how cathedrals have been built for thousands of years. The only difference is that, besides some help from his relatives, just one man, not thousands, is building this one, piece by piece.

Justo has built it almost entirely by himself and plans to finish it in about 15 years.

This place is also referred to as La Catedral de la Basura (trash) and La Catedral de Aquarius, after a series of commercials about seven years ago for the popular sports drink brand bearing the same name. The commercial shows Justo's unique way of life -- like burning wood in the middle of the floor for warmth -- and his utter lack of fear -- or is it faith? -- as he climbs all over the uneven structure.

La Catedral de Justo could be the largest building ever made out of recycled materials. According to Inhabit.com, Las Vegas recently welcomed the Morrow Royal Pavilion, which is claimed to be the world's largest building made from recycled bottles. According to the website, "the 30,000-square-foot manufacturing facility is made from more than 500,000 beer bottles that were crushed and formed into a composite material...The project diverted thousands of pounds of material from the junk yard, saving an estimated 400,000 cubic yards of landfill space," or eight American football fields. If ever completed, La Catedral de Justo will certainly trump it -- and with no modern technology necessary.

The Aquarius ad slogan was: “¿No es maravilloso? El ser humano es impredecible.” Isn't it incredible? Human beings are so unpredictable.

Photos: Mariela Tellez Fagiani/ Natalie Runnels

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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