Democratic memory

This is the project to convert Via Laietana police station into a building against repression

The Barcelona City Council wants the interrogation room and cells to be turned into a museum, but also wants current victims of repression to be heard

4 min
The Vía Laietana police station.

BarcelonaA space for memory but also a place about the resistance and repression in the present, and where victims can be heard. This is Barcelona City Council's vision for Vía Laietana police station, according to the project to which ARA has had access, if they get the Spanish Ministry of the Interior to remove the Spanish National Police high commands from the building, alongside administrative and other personnel that are still headquartered there. So far it has refused to do so, and there is nothing to suggest that the ministry will give in. The Spanish government has even allotted €2m to improve the current facilities. But the City Council is not giving its arm to twist. "We are convinced that this is a space that has to be recovered for citizens and we know why we want it and what we want to do with it," says Democratic Memory councillor Jordi Rabassa. Neither Rabassa nor anyone from the council has been able to enter the headquarters: they have not been allowed.

It is unknown what state the facilities are in, if the prison cells, interrogation rooms and torturers' offices – including infamous superintendent Antonio Juan Creix's – or the closet where all-size truncheons were kept to beat detainees are preserved. The City Council is trying to safeguard what it can, and is attempting to get the Headquarters declared cultural property of local interest (BCIL). Rabassa hopes to get the BCIL during the first half of next year.

"Arming" against repression

What would happen if, finally, the building was given to the City Council? "The most symbolic part, such as the cells, the interrogation room or, if it still existed, Creix's office, would be turned into a museum, but there would also be a space to talk about and show the resistances that are currently taking place in the world or that have taken place recently, such as Tiananmen, Hong Kong or Minsk, as well as today's repression, such as the one against journalists and photojournalists", says the author of the project, the historian and museologist Antoni Nicolau. It is conceived, therefore, as a space for exhibitions, reflection, activities and debates, but also for attention and information for the victims of repression who seek tools to be recognised as such. "There is a certain regression of rights and freedoms and those of us who defend them have to arm ourselves symbolically", reflects Nicolau, who had previously directed Barcelona's History Museum and Catalonia's Institute of Advanced Architecture.

Nicolau trusts that there will also be an archive that will provide documentation so that the victims of repression can prove that they were subjected to all kinds of torture. These include the "stork", in which hands were handcuffed behind the knees and her legs bent; the "operating room", where a person was lain between tables with their trunk in the air; or the "bar", from which the handcuffed detainee was hung. It is difficult to know how many men and women were victims of all kinds of humiliations in the police station, because the archives are kept inaccessible in the Central Archive of the Ministry of the Interior. Some may also have turned to ashes. As the jurist Óscar Alzaga, who was a member of the Spanish Constituent assembly, recalled in October, Rodolfo Martín Villa ordered in 1977 the destruction of the archives of the police services dedicated to controlling the militants against Franco's regime, trade unionists and intellectuals who defended democracy.

An artwork in the hall

Nicolau believes that it will be easy to tear down partitions and walls that now separate the offices and imagines a hall with an artistic installation conceived to be in the street. "A work by Jaume Plensa would be fantastic, which could dialogue with his work located in front of the Palau de la Música," he says. There would be a first exhibition space dedicated to the resistance in Barcelona and Catalonia to Franco's dictatorship with photographers of the period and audiovisual documents. Nicolau advocates an educational programme and activities aimed at teachers, conferences, workshops and itineraries through different areas of the city where there has been repression. The space of resistance would include courses, discussion groups, book presentations, conferences... and would have to keep up to date with any movement that confronted authority. And finally, the place dedicated to repression would aim to raise awareness, reflection, criticism and dissemination among citizens about the repression of journalists and the media. "It's not so strange, because there are similar projects in the United States, Latin America and Europe, which have turned negative spaces into outreach centres," says Nicolau.

Spanish government's changing attitude

There was a moment, before October 2017, when it seemed that the police would leave the building. In fact, there is a non-binding proposition approved by the Spanish Parliament on June 1, 2017, with support from all parties except the PP, to convert the police station into "a museum-memorial, a documentary and archival centre on Franco's repression". The City Council also approved in November 2019 a non-binding proposition on the conversion of the police station. As they are non-binding, the police have no legal obligation to comply with them.

It now remains to be seen what will be the future of the building. Built in 1878, it was the residence of a bourgeois family and that under the Republican Generalitat it became the headquarters of the commissariat for Public Order. In 1941 it was the Barcelona Headquarters of the Social Investigation Brigade, the dictatorship's instrument to put an end to any opposition. For decades, men and women from the whole ideological spectrum who defended rights and freedoms against Franco's regime were imprisoned in its cells. Today it is a place with an uncomfortable past but also one of the greatest symbols of state sovereignty in the heart of Barcelona