Architecture Tour: Madrid, Spain

Originally published in 
Madrid, Spain

Architect and designer Andrés Jaque takes us on a tour of pre-modern Madrid, highlighting the spaces where progressive design is breaking the mold.


It’s 2 AM on a Saturday night in the Spanish capital and traffic flows as if it were a weekday rush hour. The labyrinth of 14th-century cobblestone streets in the Lavapiés neighborhood, Madrid’s next big thing, is buzzing with life. The immaculately dressed bar and restaurant crowds huddle in groups on the sidewalk as they discuss where to go next; African immigrants sell pirated CDs displayed on blankets; dreadlocked squatters circle in a powwow in the plaza; and, lest we forget that this is Europe, a Ferrari races by. As Madrid, still spreading its wings after only 30 years of democracy, struggles to find its place amongst world-class 21st-century cities, resolution to its identity crisis lies somewhere in the chaotic mix of old and new.

Contemporary architecture and design reflect this trend of turning old into new with recent starchitect projects like Herzog + de Meuron’s CaixaForum, which conserves the old facade of an outmoded power plant while completely restructuring the building. Juan de Villanueva’s beloved 18th-century Prado Art Museum got a respectful addition from Rafael Moneo in 2007 (no Gehry whorls or refracting metallic skin in sight). In
a city where up-and-coming designers are bucking what they see as a crotchety, inefficient system of commissioning public works in a tear-it-down-and-build-it-up mentality, the next big thing may simply consist of rethinking what is already here.

It all makes perfect sense to architect and designer Andrés Jaque, a 36-year-old Madrid-based principal of Andrés Jaque Arquitectos, university lecturer, and founder of the playfully heady Office for Political Enhancement. The OPE promotes a kind of democratized, eco-Ikea model of urban living emphasizing utilitarian design, making the most of any and all floor, wall, and ceiling space and the merits of colored plastic. For someone like Jaque, modern ideas effortlessly merge with the old-world mentality, both in the physical state of the urban landscape and the lifestyle that goes along with it. 

What can you tell me about this recent tendency in Madrid to build around things instead of starting something new?

I think it’s a very exciting tendency in architecture. Most cities are built already. But what can we do to make them current, to transform them so that they represent us? We have so many abandoned buildings and there’s a desire to do something with them, and there’s not always a need to start with something new. It’s not necessary to have everything in the city so coherent either. You can have something high-tech along with  something taken from the garbage.   Most designers I talk to now don’t like to just throw things away and make something new. We are very aware that our actions have an impact on both the environment and society. We don’t like to create things that are so “sharp” in terms of design—–using the best new design, with the best new material, for the highest of culture. That separates people. We prefer to design things that are “soft,” and that can relate to anyone. Something that’s cool, but cool to anyone because it can be transformed by anyone into anything they want—–things that you can relate to in a more relaxed way.

What are some examples of that here in Madrid?

Madrid is like two cities that exist at the same time. One city is the official one, and it’s not very interesting. It’s the city of big architectural commissions. In that sense, Madrid has not been so successful. It’s not very contemporary. Recently, with the new mayor, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, there have been some newer commissions, like the CaixaForum by Herzog + de Meuron and the Teatros del Canal by Juan Navarro Baldeweg, but these are exceptions. Underneath this official scenery there’s something very interesting happening, which is daily Madrid. It’s not so easy to spot, but once you get to know it, you see that there are so many interesting things: restaurants and bars such as Café Moderno in Plaza de las Comendadoras; shops selling more specialized things like Victimas del Celuloide, an avant-garde graphic design shop selling home decor; and all of these groups of people in terms of street action like Zulo_ark and their urban activism. There’s all kinds of music, graffiti, T-shirt design by people like VelvetBanana—–very rough things because they don’t have the money to do it properly.

What aspects of this unofficial city set Madrid apart from other European capitals?

What you can experience here at night. The night is lively, and it’s very innovative in terms of design, creativity, and the arts. This is something that can only happen here. People in Madrid put a lot of effort into their nightlife. And the official part of Madrid tends to think that the nightlife here should emulate the scene in Paris, and in my opinion that’s not a very interesting thing to do. The official part of the city tends to just follow what’s happening elsewhere. But we have something very exciting here in the neighborhood Lavapiés, or clubs like Ocho y Medio.   It has become such a mixture of cultures, and everyone deals so well with one another. This is new for Madrid. It’s very exciting.

You’ve contributed to this with your Casa Tupperware project.

The Casa Tupperware is kind of an experiment. I don’t mind trying to do things without knowing how they’re going to end up. A Casa Tupperware can turn a one-story space into two.

Which nonplastic buildings most excite you in Madrid?

I don’t have one favorite, but I’ll choose Las Torres Blancas by Rafael Moneo [a high-rise condo built in 1968]. It’s so visionary. It’s one of those utopian architectural ideas that has actually worked. The apartments inside continue to be a very special place to live. I’m kind of retro with my choices of buildings.

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