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Transcending War Trauma through Architecture

The reactivation of the abandoned post-war town of Belchite, Spain, through the tenets of re-use, re-purpose and re-build

by Hanna Sepúlveda

Abstract: With an approach informed by the historical context of the heritage site – both preceding and following events of mass population displacement – this article strives to open a conversation about how activating ruins and introducing place-making activities in the post-war rebuilding process can contribute to the development of sustainable futures and intergenerational healing. After the Old Town of Belchite , situated in Zaragoza, Spain, was declared untouchable by General Franco, following its destruction in the Spanish Civil War, it has remained as a collection of secluded ruins. Only accessible to the occasional film set, photographer, painting contest or tour, the city sees no life or use within its walls. This proposal aims to break the boundaries of the memorial by traversing its historically imposed limitations and potential present activation by means of attuning to the original nature, arts and culture of the town.

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[Image 1] Juxtaposition of images taken by author and Belchite’s Municipality imagery. Image by the author, 2022.


Communities that find the courage to rebuild after suffering massive destruction transcend tragedy by creating a synthesis of history, architecture, and emotion. This architectural afterlife can positively affect and alleviate the pain and trauma which is beyond words. War survivors can find hope to overcome tragedy and military displacement when they or their future generations are given the tools and means to reinhabit a space of tragedy for the creation of new memories. In contrast, abandonment, like untouched bomb sites or mismanaged ruins, symbolizes a loss of hope for future progress.


Rebuilding and reinhabiting a post-war space may bring greater pain than rendering it untouched. However, it carries a more promising future for the survivors to overcome existing trauma. Unfortunately, the ruins of the Old Town of Belchite were deemed untouchable following the Spanish Civil War of 1937, and a New Town of Belchite was constructed just a couple of meters away from the area of devastation. According to Vito Teti, editor of Mediterranean Dialogues, the ability to relate the past and the present bestows a greater reward for the survivors of trauma: “Staying has nothing to do with conservation, but requires the ability to relate past and present, to redeem lost but inhabitable streets that modern life has missed, bringing them back to life and the present. What was seen yesterday as backwardness may no longer be so. Unproductive and abandoned mountain areas today offer new resources and new opportunities for life.”  [1]

In addition to sheer destruction, the people of Belchite suffered military displacement, a major contributor to post-war trauma. Forcing a population to flee their homes and starting anew prevents them from creating cathartic memories in the location where damage was done. The case study of Belchite allows an analysis of the historical regimes, the urban and architectural vogues, and the possibility of healing post-war trauma through architecture. The author Stéphane Michonneau, professor at the Université de Lille, once explained how Belchite was the first town transformed from a traumatic story of a “martyr town” into an icon of sacralizing ruins defending peace. This strategy of sacralizing ruins and leaving a place untouched after tragedy is also found in other cities in Europe and Japan [2]. Nevertheless, abandoned post-war towns or cities could be better used for the benefit of the surviving community and subsequent generations.


Since the catastrophic victory of the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, the ruins of Belchite have been presented as beautiful in new vogues, becoming a surreal setting for films. This makes the Old Town of Belchite an ideal location for the proposition to repurpose a militarily displaced and damaged town into a trauma-healing memorial, ushering in a rebirth of activities that would allow the community to flourish once more.


A proposal for this site has already been made by the Spanish Architect, Burston Daniel, titled “Un paisaje de memoria: la adecuación de las ruinas históricas y memorial de la Guerra Civil, Belchite”. Daniel exponentiates the natural beauty and historical value of the site, while designing a new liveable space for healing memories. However, through strategic initiatives concerning art, community, and public recreation, the proposal aims to alleviate the war trauma by spurring the return of activities that once made the Old Town of Belchite thrive.



Post-war trauma has no limitations, age restrictions, time limits, or control over the damage it can cause in someone’s life. In certain cases, individuals who have experienced the aftermath of war make a deliberate choice to remain in the conflict-affected area or to relocate, retaining some degree of control over their circumstances. However, in other scenarios, they are compelled to abandon their homes, effectively uprooting their lives.


Andrei Tarkovsky, a Russian film director, was able to portray scenes and emotions as products of conflict. In “Nostalghia” (produced by Francesco Casati, 1983) and “Ivan’s Childhood” (produced by Criterion Collection, 1962), he vividly depicts that war affects everyone, including children, showcasing the pain and the creation of martyrs on all sides. Demonstrating war is never just or brings justice.


In the Old Town of Belchite, this was no different. During a summer tour on the 15th July, 2022, Saul López Mainar, the tour guide for Belchite´s ruins, asked visitors how many might think themselves incapable of killing another person but when it is to kill or to be killed you might do things you thought you would never be capable of. Some residents of the Old Town will never do a BBQ again because those aromas remind them of the hundreds of dead bodies that had to be burnt in the Old Plaza before the odors of the corpses suffocated the living. Yet trauma goes beyond the five senses. 

Psychologists who deal with trauma patients emphasize the connections between its physical and mental aspects. Peter Locke wrote in his dissertation named ‘City of Survivors’ that post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina is an uncertain and transitional place, caught between the old and the new. It is marked by a sense of ambiguity and the struggle to move forward, with people hoping for a better post-war life that remains elusive. [3] The individuals in this context grapple with the remnants of a shattered world and the emergence of new but incomplete possibilities.


Locke’s study reasons a trauma-healing environment in Belchite due to its size. In contrast, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the size of the metropolis is a main impact factor for the trauma survivor to feel diminished and uncomfortable. [4]




Warsaw, Poland, experienced immense destruction during WWII as Nazi forces bombarded the city in 1939. Around 150,000 civilians lost their lives, and over 85% of the historic city center was left in ruins. The devastation prompted debates on whether to relocate the city entirely or rebuild it, similar to the situation in the Old Town of Belchite. [5]


Despite the challenges, the city’s reconstruction was aided by the surviving 18th-century paintings by Bernardo Bellotto, which provided detailed depictions of the city. Most of the reconstruction work was completed by 1955, though some continued until 1980. While efforts were made to replicate the original Warsaw, certain elements inevitably changed. [Image 2]


Guernica, Spain, faced a similar situation after being heavily bombed during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. The city, a symbol of Basque Liberty, rebuilt itself despite suffering and tragedy. General Franco ordered Guernica’s rebuilding, contrasting with his decision to leave Belchite untouched. Picasso’s painting “Guernica” captured the city’s anguish. [6] Healing takes time, but actions can help ease the pain.


Belchite faced depopulation and a decree prohibiting habitation in the original town, making recovery more challenging. Building a New Town, however, could help residents find closure and begin anew, although trauma may linger. Warsaw and Guernica stand as examples of resilience and recovery after wartime devastation, demonstrating that rebuilding acknowledges the sacrifices made while providing hope for the future.




The Old Town of Belchite in Zaragoza, Spain, has a rich and complex history, with roots dating back to the early Visigothic settlements in the Iberian Peninsula around 230 BC. This region’s historical tapestry includes the presence of a Celtiberian city and a rebellion against local leaders in 93 BC due to their favorable stance towards Rome. [7]

Throughout the centuries, Belchite’s architecture reflects the influence of the Islamic era from the 8th to the 11th century. In 1116 AD, Alfonso the Battler, King of Aragon and Navarre, established a community of knights, the Confraternity of Belchite, committed to perpetual conflict with non-Christians. [8]


In the 15th and 16th centuries, Jews and Muslims were exiled, though some converted to Christianity to remain. However, the Spanish Civil War in 1937 brought unprecedented destruction, making Belchite a focal point of the conflict. It became a testing ground for international forces, with Republicans supported by the Soviet Union and Nationals aided by the Nazis, vying for control. [9]

The August 1937 battle showcased remarkable resilience, with over 2,000 military nationals and residents, including women, children, and the elderly, defending the town. Although the Republicans eventually captured Belchite, the battle proved costly, transforming every building into a battleground with protective tunnels beneath. [10]


The town’s capture left devastation in its wake, with thousands perishing in the conflict and nearly 6,000 casualties. [11] General Franco ordered the construction of “New Belchite” nearby, while the ruins of the old town became a poignant reminder of the war’s horrors, shifting from “monumental ruins” to “footprint ruins.” [12]


Campo de Belchite is composed of several historical places that could transform into an educational experience. It is strategically located alongside two main tourist routes. The first is the hiking route through the natural beauties of the county. The second is an educational route on the history of Spain called “Huellas de la Guerra Civil” , meaning “Civil War Footprint“.


The Old Town of Belchite has been limited to outside contact due to a perimeter fence placed to contain buildings from vandalization and protect visitors from crumbling structures. As shown on the map on the next page [image 5] the old town touches the intersection of the most concentrated interurban, bus, and pedestrian routes on both sides. It is ideally situated for the implied reconnection with outside activities and visitors.

Today, Belchite serves as an educational site, offering guided tours to pass on its history  to new generations. Or, as Saul, the tour guide for the Old Town of Belchite emphasized:  “A town that doesn’t know its history is condemned to repeat it” [13]. The old town’s ruins now host activities such as filmmaking and art contests, giving them a new life and serving as a testament to humanity’s capacity for destruction and renewal. These scarred landscapes remind us of the enduring influence of the past and the importance of learning from history’s lessons.


Repopulating the Old Town of Belchite would have a prominent impact on the New Town and the quality of life of its residents. The Spanish Ministry of Planning verified that only 10 percent of the nation’s population lives in 70 percent of the country - the smaller cities and rural areas. This means that out of the 42 million inhabitants in Spain, only 4.2 million inhabit the majority of the land. [14] According to Derks Sanne in an article for the Washington Post titled “In rural Spain, people want to bring abandoned villages back to life”, 


“Villages in Spain’s sparsely inhabited interior are attempting a repopulation. People are striving to construct self-governed ecological communities as a “rural utopia” toward a sustainable future, such as in the communities of Barchel or Fraguas… In addition to depopulation, a reverse movement is also underway, in which people want to bring abandoned rural villages back to life. For instance, Didac Costa bought the ruins of a hamlet in the national park La Garrotxa with the dream to create an eco-village.”  [15]


Another reason for reinhabiting abandoned towns is to create a more sustainable future for rural areas. This is an ongoing conversation topic in Spain, as finding the right balance between urban and human space in contact with nature remains a key priority. With the COVID-19 pandemic, conversations and debates further shuffled the reasoning behind a new balance between city life and the countryside.


Spain has at least 23 uninhabited towns. The reasons vary - lack of jobs, closure of industries, dam construction, and evacuation as a result of conflict, among others.  The Spanish government calls this program the “Recovery and Educational Use of Abandoned Villages”. Unfortunately, only 13% of all abandoned architecture has been chosen for this initiative. [16]


The current activities of The Old Town of Belchite involve art contests, ranging from painting and photography to providing background scenery for international films. [17]

Nida Art Colony in Nida, Lithuania is a vivid example of sustainable methods of living, joining arts and education. It is a residency programme of Vilnius Academy of Arts granting artists the opportunity to work and live sustainably for a period of two to six months. Located within a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the surrounding environment allows them to research, recycle, and produce new “green” solutions for today’s problems concerning history, ecology, and politics. Nida Art Colony also engages with the younger community, providing workshops and presentations for local public elementary and secondary schools. [18]


This concept is considered in the proposal for the regeneration of the Old Town of Belchite, retrieving the arts and cultural life that was once there while inspiring the inhabitants of the space through local nature.




This project aims to restore the original essence of the Old Town of Belchite while retaining the positive characteristics of the New Town of Belchite. Therefore, the past is merged with the present to create a unifying Belchite that constructs and maintains a sustainable and inclusive future for its population. 




To revive this town, we start by connecting it to natural and flourishing activities that managed to outlive the war, such as the olive oil factory Molino Alfonso. This first project nucleus will be at the entrance of the Old Town, thus connecting it toward the present location of Molino Alfonso Olive Oil Factory in the New Town. 


This link will be established by an olive tree memorial ending in poppies, an internationally known memorial sign for World War I soldiers who fought and died in war. The experience of this nucleus will be complemented by greenhouses that will be constructed and attached to the remaining facades of buildings on the main street, thus producing sustainable harvesting for the community. Afterward, a simulation of the original olive oil press will be established alongside an educational olive oil laboratory. 


The second nucleus of activity to revive the town will be an arts and culture residency. At the end of the main street, another entrance point will be created for better accessibility to the town. This residency will consist of the primary multipurpose exposition center, a building housing arts and culture studios and workshops, and an artist residence/boutique hotel supporting hosted activities. 


These two nuclei of specific natural and artistic activity will help the town continue current events whilst hosting new educational, ecological, and cultural activities that will transform trauma into hope. Leaving space for other daily activities to be born, the presented masterplan focuses on the two previously mentioned projects and suggests other activities that will flourish by nature in their surroundings.

The current site has many ruins of bricks and other materials idle and readily accessible, which makes material harvesting the first choice for construction materials. The target will be to collect all abandoned residues, classify them, and assign a new location and purpose through reuse and recycling.



St. Martin de Tours is a building in ruins, yet one of the few remaining structures that depict the most visible origin of this body of architecture. Being the largest building that ruins still stand, it is the ideal location for the arts and culture proposal which will re-establish the strength of the town and support activities. 


The existing layers of architecture and various styles form the history’s blueprint to use as a skeleton for St. Martin de Tours retrofit. The project aims to maintain as much of the building’s current integrity as possible. Thus, the concept will occupy the voids in the structure to create a performance and exposition space, public reception venue, supporting terrace, multi-purpose cinema and auxiliary presentation room.




In an era marked by conflict and displacement, the revitalization of the Old Town of Belchite stands as a beacon of hope and a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. Belchite’s historical journey, from the Visigothic settlements to the ravages of the Spanish Civil War, offers profound lessons on transcending trauma. The town’s ability to reimagine itself while preserving its heritage, as reflected in the masterplan, inspires us to think creatively about healing war-torn spaces and the communities they once sheltered.

As we navigate through a world filled with war, 

conflict, and displacement, we find solace in the idea that rebuilding cannot only mend physical wounds but also heal the deepest scars of the soul. It is a reminder that even in the darkest moments, the human spirit has the capacity to turn tragedy into hope and destruction into renewal. This proposal sparks a much-needed conversation on post-war recovery, trauma healing, and the transformation of abandoned spaces into thriving, purposeful communities.


This proposal goes beyond the boundaries of a single town, offering a compelling model for addressing the aftermath of war and displacement in the world and throughout Europe. It redefines the concept of healing through architecture, showcasing how ruins can be transformed into symbols of renewal and sustainable futures. In a world where the echoes of war persist, Belchite’s story serves as an enduring call to action. It reminds us that, just as the old town has found new life, so too can we find the strength to rebuild and reimagine, transcending the trauma of war with hope and resilience, leaving a legacy of healing and renewal for generations to come.

[1] Bascherini (2020), p.205.

[2] Michonneau (2017), p.486.

[3-4] Locke (2009).

[5] Mersom (2016).

[6] ‘Bombardeo de Gernika.’ Fundación Museo de la Paz de Gernika (accessed 15 June 2022).

Image 2 Belloto_s painting of the Church of Holy Cross, Warsaw .jpg

[Image 2] Bellotto´s painting of the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw - view of Cracow suburb from Nowy Swiat street (1778).

Image source: The Royal Castle in Warshaw - Museum, Wikimedia Commons (2020).

[7] González-Ruibal (2020).

[8-10] González-Ruibal (2020).


[Image 3] Civil War in Belchite: 1937. 

Image by the author (2022).

[11] Burston (2015).

[12] Belchite, Municipio y Ayuntamiento (2022).

[13] López Mainar (2022).

[14-15] Derks (2022).

[16] Ministerio de Educación y Formación Profesional (2022).

[17] A selection of films Belchite has been featured in are as follows: “Alas negras“ (1937), “Belchite“ (1938), “Las aventuras del Barón Munchausen“ (1988), “Ella está enfadada“ (1995), “Extranjeros de sí mismos“ (2000), “Jinetes en la tormenta: Los Mécanicos de la Naranja“ (2001), “Buen viaje Excelencia“ (2003), “El otro lado“ (2004), “El laberinto del fauno“ (2005), “Mundo Perro“ (2007), “El expediente Belchite“ (2008), “El Reto de Robbie“ (2009), “Incierta Gloria“ (2017).

Image 6 urban growth.jpg

[Image 4] Urban growth maps. Image by the author (2022).

Image 6 urban growth.jpg

[Image 5] Transportation and building use map. 

Image by the author (2022).

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[Image 6] St Martin de Tours

Image by the author (2022). 

[Image 7] Building use in Arts and Culture Zone. 

Image by the author (2022). 

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[Image 8] Schematic section of Arts and Culture Centre retrofit. Image by the author (2022).

All Images

[Image 9] Current state of the town portrayed in polaroid pictures. 

Images by the author (2022).


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Bascherini, Enrico, ‘Repopulating Abandoned Villages, New Housing Strategies for the Pandemic.’ Festival dell’architettura Magazine, no. 52-53 (2020) pp. 204–209.


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Image Sources


Belotto, Bernardo, Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw (1778), taken from: The Royal Castle in Warshaw - Museum, Wikimedia Commons (2020), (accessed 14 March 2022).

Hanna Sepúlveda, an architect with 5 years of experience, initially established her career in Panama, excelling in mixed-use projects. Currently leading educational projects from concept to implementation at RSS, London. She  focuses on preservation and revitalisation of the built environment, adaptive reuse, community well-being and sustainable development for future generations.



Rivington Street Studio (RSS), Architectural Designer, London, since 2022

MA Architecture and Historic Urban Environments, The Bartlett, UCL, London, 2022

Hache Uve, Architect, Panama 2019 - 2021

BA Structural Architecture, USMA, Panama 2020

Constructora Campestre, Architectural Designer, Panama 2018 - 2019


Published in Issue 2024

Dis-Ruptive Horizons


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