Archbishop's plans for 'mini Vatican' in Madrid threaten Goya's landscape

Madrilenos up in arms after conservatives agree to huge church complex
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The Independent Online

At the heart of Madrid's distinctive skyline is the San Francisco cornisa, a ridge that has stood unchanged for more than 200 years since it was immortalised on canvas by Francisco de Goya. Beloved of Madrilenos as a rare patch of green space in an increasingly built-up urban sprawl, it is fiercely protected by local residents. But now this green idyll is under threat from a surprising quarter: the Catholic Church.

In general, the city's archbishop is not known for siding with the forces of modernity. But new plans to develop a huge complex of five ecclesiastical buildings in public parkland on the city's west side have pitted him and the conservative city council against furious opposition from those determined to preserve their city's character.

Noisy protests greeted the council's approval of the plans, and residents, architects and landscape specialists plan to intensify protests in the approach of Holy Week. "We want no more cement in our neighbourhood but green zones for our children," shouted one resident at the meeting last month, before being ushered from the chamber.

The painting that makes the San Francisco cornisa such an iconic image of the city is Goya's 1788 work, La Pradera of San Isidro. The masterpiece, much loved by Madrilenos, and typical of the artist's early carefree style, marks the popular annual fiesta – a kind of grand picnic – to honour the city's patron saint, San Isidro. The development would occupy the slope beneath the large, white-domed church of San Francisco el Grande that dominates the centre-right of the Goya painting's background. At present, the site is a favourite spot for locals and visitors to sup a beer and admire sunsets.

The view has inevitably lost some of its bucolic charm over the intervening 220 years, but a stretch of green space sloping down the escarpment still survives, and is much appreciated by locals. That rare piece of leafy green space in the city centre dates from the 16th century, and would be bricked over by the church's 79,000sq-m building plan, which includes 25,000sq-m of public land.

The complex, long a dream project of Madrid's ultra-conservative archbishop, Cardinal Antonio Maria Rouco Varela, is to include a four-storey monastery, a three-storey residence for retired priests, a religious library intended as the basis for a future ecclesiastical university, offices, a day centre for the homeless, plus a 200-place carpark for use of clerics only.

In exchange, the town hall will gain an infants' school and a sports centre on the site. Supporters say the new buildings will be semi-underground, with green spaces, and will have terrace gardens that will not obstruct the view. The majority votes of the conservative Popular Party defeated the combined opposition of the Socialist Party and United Left (IU) councillors. "The town hall has bowed down to the Archbishopric, to bury a historic landscape of the city beneath cement," said Angel Perez, the IU spokesman. "At the stroke of a pen, Madrilenos are stripped of one of their most precious green zones, and one of the most distinguished spaces in the city." The area, already "plagued" with church buildings, would become a mini-Vatican of benefit only to the archbishopric, he added.

The Socialist Party spokesman David Lucas condemned the decision as "a historic assault". The park "is the only zone that has remained intact since the city was founded". It stands on the natural rampart that prompted the city's first inhabitants to build a fortress there.