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Owen Hatherley's Eurovisionaries: Madrid

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The architectural legacy of the Franco era looms large in the Spanish capital with little trace of the historic architecture you’d expect  

It is quite hard to locate the centre of the Spanish capital. The guidebooks will tell you that it’s the Puerta del Sol, or as it is known on the Madrid Metro, ‘Vodafone Sol’, a little crescent draped in giant canvas adverts. But it doesn’t feel like the heart of the third largest city in the EU. Madrid isn’t built around a river or an acropolis, and the most famous monuments of the Spanish monarchy are just outside the city, at El Escorial. So my guess is the Plaza de España, which is after all called the Square of Spain. This is a classic bit of imperial urbanism, a grand square at the end of a grand road. There are fountains and an Art Deco monument to Cervantes, and two skyscrapers; the tallest, the Torre Madrid, is an unremarkable late-50s high-rise, which you could imagine on the Costa del Sol were it faced with concrete rather than marble. But it’s the slightly smaller Edificio España that you notice, aligned as the square’s dark heart. 

Edifico espana 2

Edifico espana 2

Source: Owen Hatherley

Edifico España

Edificio España was designed by Julian Otamendi in 1948, at the height of 20th-century Spain’s long-running experiment in Fascism. A friend who has lived here all his life tells me ‘to understand Madrid you have to understand the legacy of Franco’, and so this seemed like a good place to begin understanding it. Stamping itself across an entire city block, it’s a stepped, stone-clad ziggurat, with restrained Classical detail in the local tradition, and extraneous little obelisks on the top of each tier. Built as a hotel, it currently stands derelict and empty; a Chinese developer promises to turn it into flats, but has sat on it for years. Another friend who moved here from London 10 years ago tells me of ‘two Spains’, living here side by side since the civil war. The newly elected mayor, Manuela Carmena, a leftist lawyer backed by Podemos, clearly represents the other Spain to the one tht produced this square; Spain was once a centrist, post-dictatorship EU success story, but the sheer extent of the crash since 2008 here – a housing crisis, massive evictions – has pushed many to the left.

After Edificio España, Madrid architecture seems to have passed the whole 20th century without ever having an avant-garde

Ignore the weather, and the history of Spanish modern architecture, at least in the capital, resembles that of countries east of Germany: a brief flowering of ‘heroic’ era Functionalism in the 1930s, cut off by Neo-Baroque authoritarianism for two decades and then from the late 50s followed by a thoughtful, regionalist form of Modernism. The difference is that here, unlike in post-Soviet Europe, these trends were allowed to flower after the fall of the dictatorship, rather than being sidelined by developers’ banalities. Edificio España may prove the ‘theory’ of extremes meeting, with its combination of Albert Speer detail and Lev Rudnev profile, but after it, Madrid architecture is anything but extreme, seeming to have passed the whole 20th century without ever having an avant-garde. Unlike Barcelona or Bilbao, it shows no interest in appearing in the starchitect map of Europe. The only recent buildings that might appear in any ‘1,000 Amazing Buildings to see on Easyjet’ list are Herzog & de Meuron’s Caixa Forum, a perverse contextual bricolage built on top of (and suspending in mid-air) a red brick substation, and MVRDV’s Mirador apartments, which we will come to later. In fact, Madrid seems a rather unknowable city, keeping its secrets, quite happy about the fact the tourists prefer Barcelona.

The main drag is Gran Via, a fabulous transatlantic broadway of wedding cake apartments, a couple of pre-civil war skyscrapers, such as the flamboyantly spired Telefonica building and the streamline-Moderne Capitol building, swooping into view like a bullet train. Clotted streets of opulent blocks march down long, wide, straight streets; going east, past the fruity Gothic-Moorish Ventas bull ring – one of the symbols of the city – you pass over the network of urban motorways that come surprisingly close to the centre.

Gran via

Gran via

Source: Owen Hatherley

Gran Via

In this mostly late 19th and 20th century city, it’s hard to find much trace of the historic architecture you’d expect in the capital of the country that dominated the early modern world, but there are exceptions, the major one being the majestic Plaza Mayor. This rectangle of red-rendered Neoclassical flats, demarcated by spindly spires, is a great illusion – only inside it can you imagine yourself in the capital of a vast colonial empire. It was laid out in the 17th century, yet the arches that pass through into it lead to late 19th-century tenements and underground car parks. Madrid vernacular veers from a flamboyant Neo-Baroque, which lasts well into the 20th century, to huge quantities of sober red brick. I’m taken to the top of the Circle of Fine Arts, where you can pay for a view of the skyline: close by, the fussy pinnacles of turn-of-the-century boom architecture, such as City Hall (currently decorated with a ‘REFUGEES WELCOME’ banner); to the north, a tightly drawn cluster of skyscrapers; and in a ring around everything, just in front of the mountains, sheer cliffs of red brick blocks of flats, as if speculative development has become a geological feature.

The nearest thing Madrid has to a common aesthetic, the red brick fixation, may have emerged with the first, tentative Modernist buildings when Francoist architectural traditionalism loosened. The earliest of these is the stepped tower of the 1950 Ministry of Work and Social Affairs, designed by Francisco de Asís Cabrero and Rafael Aburto, and built initially as the headquarters for the Falange’s state-run trade unions. It stands just opposite the Prado, and has a strict Classical discipline, yet it doesn’t pay lip service to Spanish heritage like the Edificio España does, resembling Italian rather than German fascist-era architecture, balancing Modernist precision and authoritarian hauteur. Blank, scowling and impeccably made, it’s a short step from here to our contemporary Classical Modernists.

The Palomeras style is  interwar retro, the social architecture that the Spanish Republic never got the chance to build in the 30s

The red style could develop into something much looser, as seen at the 1966 Girasol apartments by the Barcelona architect Josep Antoni Coderch, whose curving red tile walls and delicate louvres swing casually around the corner of a street of pompous luxury buildings of various styles and eras. The strict version of the same can be seen at its peak in Rafael Moneo’s Bankinter offices, begun in 1972, with its tripartite structure and its mechanistically perfected, unromantic brick detailing. In these buildings, late Francoist Madrid can be seen as being as influential on current European urban orthodoxy as Schinkel’s Berlin or Berlage’s Amsterdam, an urbane, street-oriented architecture without sentiment. 

These, though, are the city-centre versions of the Madrid vernacular. The Madrid Metro – fast, cheap, bright, a less smelly version of the Paris Metro with good street furniture and the odd bit of enlivening mosaic and sculpture – will take you to the suburban equivalent. Around Buenos Aires station is Palomeras, a district of the strongly leftist working-class suburb of Vallecas. By the 1970s this was a sprawling shantytown, slated for a slum clearance that was fiercely resisted by residents. 

Palomeras 4

Palomeras 4

Source: Owen Hatherley

Palomeras

From 1979 until 1992, Palomeras was gradually redeveloped as council housing by a huge team of local architects. It’s a red brick grid, mostly of no more than five storeys, with three linear towers on the main Pablo Neruda Street, with shops on the ground floors, pedestrian streets and squares, and impressive if shabby internal courtyards. The style is actually interwar retro, the social architecture that the Spanish Republic never got the chance to build in the 30s, with obvious references to the Erich Mendelsohn or Karl Marx-Hof, but on a much smaller scale. Everything is clad in a lower-budget version of the precise, hewn-from-one-rock red brick used by Rafael Moneo for bank HQs. The complex interpenetration of public and private space recalls both 1920s Red Vienna and 1980s IBA Berlin, but unlike those, it’s kept in less than perfect condition, with grass and weeds growing from the stairs leading down the hilly streets. Nonetheless, for its time, Palomeras is a triumph, and a welcome reminder that in southern Europe, the social democratic welfare state and its architecture comes from the 1980s, not the 1940s.

Vallecas is on a hill, and here you can get a better sense of Madrid’s metropolitan sprawl than you can in the centre itself, where the Torre Madrid is as tall as it gets. Around eight miles down the bottom of that hill, as if as a goad, are the city’s two adjacent clusters of skyscrapers. Most of the high-rises, which were developed from the 60s on as a result of the late Franco-era economic boom, run along Paseo de la Castellano, originally Avenida del Generalisimo. They’re on a straight line, and the earliest and closest to the centre are the most interesting: the sharp, tense Brutalist angles of the Torre Valencia; the bizarre, semi-Postmodernist Torres de Colon, with its green plastic condom pulled onto a red-tinted curved glass shaft. They get duller closer in, for example Yamasaki’s preciously named Torre Picasso. Then, Madrid is demarcated from its satellites by a very late Philip Johnson and John Burgee project, the Puerta del Europa. There were few people more apt to design the ‘Gates of Europe’ along a street once named after Franco than the one-time enthusiastic fascist, and these two tilting mirrorglass towers, both pompous and cheap, serve almost as well as Johnson’s political record to caution against recent attempts to restore his reputation.

Gates of europe

Gates of europe

Source: Owen Hatherley

Puerta del Europa (the Gates of Europe) by Philip Johnson and John Burgee

But at least they try to carve out some sort of urban drama from their tawdry means, unlike the more recent Four Towers. These four skyscrapers, built in the 2000s, sit on the edge of the city, by the equivalent of the M25. They’re most notable for their extreme height, although Foster’s Torre Cepsa, with its cubic offices held in a vast steel vice, has a certain cold elegance, and the splayed legs of Pei Cobb Freed’s Torre Espacio look impressive from a distance. But their lack of urbanist ambition is striking; compared to La Defense or even Canary Wharf there is no attempt to pull these skyscrapers into a coherent continuous space with (even pseudo-)public squares and no reasons to visit if not an office worker. It’s aptly named – Four Towers, that’s all you get. Madrid’s most interesting high-rise is an outlier on the other side of town: the Torre Blancas, an early 70s luxury apartment block designed by Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oiza. Bizarrely, Moneo was on the team, but it’s the reverse of his sensible, considered architecture. Given the city’s lack of an architectural avant-garde, this experiment in extremist organic Brutalism is a one-building manifesto, a writhing, contorted wail against all that overpowering order.

In that, it isn’t that different from the city’s most famous recent building, MVRDV’s Mirador, in the recent exurb of Sanchinarro. To get there and back, your bus or tram loops around seemingly endless blocks of five-storey speculative blocks, the ground zero of Spain’s housing disaster. Unlike Palomeras, it’s clear what’s public (the strips of greenery between the streets, with playgrounds) and what’s private (everything else), with little relief from the relentless humidity. MVRDV’s two social housing blocks, the monumental Mirador and the lower, longer Celosia, try to provide an outward-looking, public alternative to the endless streets of orange tenements, but they can only do this via formal melodrama, and in the case of the Mirador, through an ingratiating game with colours and cladding (each colour denoting flat types).

Mirador jpg

Mirador jpg

Source: Owen Hatherley

Mirador by MVRDB

The vertiginous open spaces the architects have created in both buildings are strictly residents only. You’ve seen, very probably, the image of this would-be enigmatic iconic edifice with its hole in the middle, an emblem of post-OMA ‘Supermodernist’ eclecticism, but unless you’ve visited you wouldn’t know that it holds the space at one end of an oversized roundabout, a lonely sentinel in the suburbs. Ending the deals the city has cut with developers that created places like this is one of the leftist mayor’s goals. Sadiq Khan – and Jeremy Corbyn – may be watching her intently. 

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