Architecture Tour: Madrid, Spain

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By Andrew Barsch
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. 

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One of Madrid’s most enduring architectural symbols, the Puerta de Alcalá was completed in 1778 to monitor the road to the nearby town Alcalá de Henares. Located in the Plaza de la Independencia, on what was once an active livestock route, the gate is made of granite and a local stone known as colmenar.

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

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An equestrian statue of King Phillip III presides over Madrid’s central square, Plaza Mayor.

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.

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The CaixaForum by Herzog + de Meuron is a cultural center in the city’s historic museum triangle. p.242

What are some examples of that here in Madrid?

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Café Comercial has provided Madrid’s intellectuals with underground tertulias, poetry readings, and chance encounters since the Spanish Civil War.

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.

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A European classic since its inception, the Vespa, and plenty of scooters like it, provides the perfect solution to modern Madrid’s lack of parking.

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

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Don't miss how nicely modern architecture plays against the old stuff in Madrid. Rafael Moneo’s extension of the Prado, sits as nicely next to the neoclassical original as the gothic Monasterio de Jeronimos next door.

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.

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Teatros del Canal, by Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oiza, is Madrid’s latest world-class music conservatory.

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

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Cured ham hocks dangle from the ceiling of Museo del Jamón, celebrating Spain’s famed Serrano ham culture.

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.

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The Ojalá Awareness Club, designed by Jaque, is among the hippest restaurants in the city.

Which nonplastic buildings most excite you in Madrid?

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The bustle of Gran Viá, one of Madrid’s central arteries in what could just as easily be 4 AM as 4 PM, lives up to its name as “The Grand Road.” Architectural tourists won’t want to miss Gran Viá’s stately Edificio Metrópolis, Edificio Grassy, or the Edificio Telefónica, which were erected in the first half of the last century.

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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For over a century, Madrileños have been frequenting La Ardosa for a regional dose of the Spanish staples: a nice glass of wine and tapas.

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For classic Madrid kitsch and foreign imports, Victimas de Celuloide is the sure-thing stop-off for anyone looking to add something unusual to their home décor.