Our destination for the early evening was indeed an educational institution: the Universidad Laboral de Gijón is a huge complex that was built between 1946 and 1956. Local guide Miriam joined Liliana and me and started to explain this fascinating institution. With a surface area of 270,000 square metres (almost 67 acres) it is the largest building in Spain. The Laboral University has a fascinating history: after a horrific mining accident in the mid 1940s, the then Minister of Labour created an orphanage for children that had lost their parents in this accident. These children were also supposed to receive educational training in a utopian, self-sufficient city.
My two expert guides: Miriam and Liliana
Over the years, this university has trained thousands of qualified tradesmen and engineers. However, after an administrative reorganization the majority of the facilities became obsolete and felt into disrepair until 2001 when the government of Asturias started to breathe new life into this important institution. It repurposed the complex as the “Laboral City of Culture” which today houses organizations such as the Laboral Center for Art and Industrial Creation, the Faculty of Commerce, a School of Dramatic Arts and Vocational Dance, a church, a café, a theatre, an auditorium, and the Escuela Universitaria Jovellanos which teaches university programs in public administration, social work and tourism.
The classical architecture of the Laboral City of Culture
As Miriam took us through the huge complex of buildings, I was absolutely amazed at the stunning architecture. Although built in the mid 20th century, the buildings have a distinct classical appearance and the original architect borrowed themes from the Parthenon in Athens. A gigantic square with dimensions similar to those of the Piazza San Marco in Venice forms the centerpiece that is surrounded on three sides by three-story buildings with arcaded walkways. The western side of the complex is highlighted by a church and an enormous tower.
The 17-story tower and the Laboral Church
Miriam took us to a room with an elevator that would whisk us to the top of the tower on the 17th floor. Both the main floor and the room at the top of the elevator are decorated with brightly coloured hand-painted tile mosaics. When I stepped outside on the 360 degree balcony, I was awed by the breathtaking scenery that opened up in front of us. From high atop the tower I could really take in the size of this enormous complex. With a height of 130 m, the tower is reminiscent of the famous Giralda tower in Seville and provides the best vintage point in all of Gijón. Indeed it is currently the highest building in the Principality of Asturias.
What a phenomenal view from the Laboral Tower!
Back on the ground we visited the Laboral Church, which is the world’s largest elliptical church. The dome weighs approximately two thousand three hundred tons and is supported by twenty pairs of ribs without any columns. Measuring 31 metres in diameter and 35 metres in height, the elliptical dome was constructed in only two months during the 1950s. The floor is made of solid marble; four giant columns of Pontevedra granite surround the altar. During earlier years when the Jesuits were running a boarding school here, 1500 students had to attend mass here at the same time. What an amazing, awe-inspiring structure…
The altar area in the Laboral Church
Then we went to the Laboral Theatre, a former assembly hall that has been transformed into one of the most magnificent theatre-auditoriums in northern Spain. The dimensions of this performance venue are similar to those of the Parthenon. We also visited several meeting rooms that faced the courtyard and featured floor-to-ceiling murals that illustrated the history of this institution.
A great view of the Laboral complex
The mining accident is depicted on these wall paintings; so are the orphans who are shown as children and also as the educated professional adults that they became. One of the murals highlights the battle between good and evil, and all the figures have highly realistic, individualized faces. I asked Miriam who wins the battle in the end and reassuringly she responded “the good guys”.
The murals at Laboral City of Culture
This concluded our visit to the Laboral City of Culture and just as the sun started to set, Liliana took me to one more interesting place: with a heavy grey sky hanging overhead and daylight vanishing quickly, Liliana and I drove to the Fishing Quarter of Gijón. This used to be a fishing port and today houses many pleasure craft that were swaying gently on the waves. As a native of Gijón, Liliana loves the city and indicated that in five minutes on a bicycle she can be outside of the downtown, enjoying nature.
The harbour of Gijón
My guide also mentioned that Gijón is a big centre of music and culture: Tina Turner, Bruce Springsteen, Prince and the Rolling Stones have all had concerts here. With the International Festival of Cinema every November and countless other special events throughout the year, Gijón never gets boring. And the city is even in the Guinness Book of World Records for attracting the largest crowd of cider-pouring enthusiasts: over 7200 people came together to achieve the world record for simultaneous pouring of cider, the famous regional drink of Asturias.
Another view of Gijón’s Fishing Quarter