“I wanted to connect what was happening underground with what was happening on the surface, and that’s how the project was born”
The bombings of the Spanish Civil War left a hidden legacy in Barcelona: at least 1,322 underground air raid shelters. It is a historical heritage that reminds us of the indiscriminate bombings of the civilian population in the Civil War that made Barcelona a testing ground for World War II. The city council has published the book, 1.322. Una mirada fotogràfica als refugis antiaeris de Barcelona (1,322. A photographic look at Barcelona’s air raid shelters), which brings together 170 original images of underground shelters built between 1937 and 1938, with context for this legacy that acts as a testimony of wartime solidarity.
There are community and private shelters for collectivised factories and republican institutions, as well as shelters for political leaders. In this report we focus on three of the shelters, with images from the book that contrast the view above and below ground. The photographer Ana Sánchez visited 40 shelters, a time consuming process due to all the bureaucracy involved. “It’s far from easy to gain access to the shelters. You have to find out who is responsible, who has the key, ask for permission... It took me up to a year to get access to some of the shelters,” she says.
Sánchez already had experience with recovering historical memories of the Civil War, since in her homeland of Andalusia she had worked on projects related to mass graves. As she explains, some of her family were victims of Franco’s repression. “When I came to Catalonia, I went from a land of pits to a land of shelters. The south of Spain was the first to fall in the Civil War and three years of torture, death and repression followed. I had a very different image of the war than the one I found in Barcelona, where the shelters are a testimony of resistance,” she says. Of the 1,322 shelters inventoried, only 5% were built directly by the authorities, while another 10% were publicly funded. The rest were due to the efforts of civil society, of communities of citizens who took the initiative and organised themselves, establishing what became known as the “Barcelona model” during World War II.
Sánchez says she likes to walk around the city streets and that led her to wonder what it would look like to cut through a section of the city and reveal what lay beneath. Two exhibitions on air raid shelters in 2007 and 2008 led her to enter her first shelter, on Carrer València, for the first time. This shelter located at the junction of Passeig Sant Joan had a huge impact on her. It is 350 metres long, has two rows of benches, latrines, a kitchen and a clinic. It was funded by the neighbours themselves, and for this reason the walls still show the numbers that corresponded to the spaces for each family during the bombing raids. To build and maintain the shelter, weekly donations were collected, which varied depending on whether the family also contributed to the work of building the shelter.
“I wanted to connect what was happening underground with what was happening on the surface, and that’s how the project was born,” says the photographer, who adds that she has researched 400 of the 1,322 shelters: “Not all still exist. Some were started, but not finished, others only exist in plans.”
Apart from the bureaucracy she had to overcome to gain access to the 40 shelters that she photographed for the book, she says there were also other concerns, not least safety. “If no one had been in for years, there are almost always toxic gases in the shelter and a lack of oxygen. We had to be careful because obviously I didn’t want to risk my life,” she says. The risk was worth it because the images in the book show her artistic vision: “I wanted to capture the striking beauty of this architectural and civic heritage, as well as the warm light of the incandescence that dances in these spaces,” she adds.
Currently only four shelters in the city can be visited: the one in Plaça del Diamant, the 307 shelter in Poble-sec, La Lira shelter in Sant Andreu, and the recently opened shelter in Plaça de la Revolución, with another in Torre de la Sagrera to open soon.
From religious school to firearms factory with its own shelter
From 1936 to 1939, the Salesian school in Sarrià, in the Tres Torres neighbourhood, was turned into Factory 14, one of the main factories run by the Catalan War Industries Commission. At first rifles were repaired there, but later in the war it began producing new firearms. The pieces were made in various workshops scattered around Catalonia and then sent to the Sarrià factory to be assembled. By the end of the war, some 279 people were working there, turning out about 3,000 new rifles every month. In 1937, the factory got its own shelter as it was a key military target in the city. In fact, the workers themselves built the 400 square metre shelter from reinforced concrete. Three former students of the school (the factory went back to being a school after the war) revealed the existence of the shelter in a paper in 2018. It is currently flooded, but still in good condition.