Letters from Madrid – Architecture & Planning

Sociedad General de Autores y Editores (S.G.A.E.) Building

After my first impressions of the museums, I turned to my initial impressions of architecture and planning. As you will see, the large round abouts where one feature we never had to deal with in Albuquerque and made an impression on me the first three months we were in Madrid.


April 18, 1996

Architecture and Planning
Architecture and planning is quite interesting in Madrid.  In the middle of the centro, where we were in a pension for two weeks, the buildings are old, streets generally narrow and winding, making a quasi radial pattern resembling a messy spider web starting or ending at the Plaza Mayor.  As you head any direction from the centro, you start getting a mix of old and new buildings, wider streets, and somewhat less winding and twisting roads.  Of course, they have those stupid round abouts everywhere, which to cross them makes you really go “round about”.  You will be walking a long a beautifully landscaped median, in the middle of a large boulevard, that has pathways, sculptures, flowers, birds, cafe bars and playgrounds, and then you come upon the round about.  These things are huge, with beautiful fountains, gardens, sculptures or memorials in the  center and, perhaps, a half a dozen or more streets intersecting them from all different directions.  To get across these things you have to either go around them or, in some cases, under them (Anyone would be an absolute fool to try and walk across even a small round about in Madrid. Traffic is fast and does not stop for pedestrians unless there is a red light).   Timing the lights at these things must be a nightmare,.  I don’t think they have quite figured it out yet  either (judging from the number of police officers directing traffic at the rush hours).  You have to cross a lot of streets to get around the round about and continue on your way.  Traffic will  have a red light at the street your are crossing, but the crosswalk will still have a red light for a long time, because of all the traffic turning off the circle.  Across the median there will be a green walk sign, but you still have a red.  Your walk finally turns green, the one across the median is flashing green, meaning its about to turn red.  If the street is less than 3 lanes you might make a run for it, if it is any larger you don’t.  Once traffic gets a green light in Madrid, they are off like Indy cars.  All vehicles around here have amazing acceleration.  Back to the layout.  The suburbs have taller buildings, more of a grid street pattern, and the farther you go out from the centro the more rows and rows of high rise apartment buildings you see.

Round about with a more modern fountain in the center

There is a lot of construction and renovation going on all over Madrid.  In the centro buildings seem to have 3 obvious states of renovation before demolition and replacement.  The first is the structural elements of the building are sound and the interior and general exterior are in reasonable condition, but the spires, cornices and other ornate features around the roof, doors and windows need work.  You will see whole tops of buildings covered with nets to keep pieces of ornateness from falling to the street as the building is worked on.  The second phase, which you see a lot of, is the exterior and facade are in reasonable condition, but the entire interior is gutted as they remodel it.  The third level is stripping the interior and exterior down to the superstructure and rebuilding.  And, of course, if the building is in bad enough shape they raze it and leave an empty space between the buildings on either side until they rebuild.

Palacia de Comunicaciones also called Palacio de Cibeles. The Cibeles Fountain in is the center of the round about for Paseo del Prado and Paseo de la Castellana.

The resulting architecture varies greatly depending on the level of remodeling.  It seems that in the centro they try to just do interior remodeling, and preserve the original facade as best they can.  I don’t know if they have historic district ordinances or not, but the architecture that completely replaces buildings in the centro fit in pretty well.  As you get away from the centro the newer buildings often stand in great contrast to the older buildings on either side.  What would be a decent building on its own looks ugly and out of place amid the old ornate buildings in the block.  Sometimes the modern mixed with the old is quite handsome and works well.  For instance, on Gran Via, a major street in the centro that is lined with absolutely beautiful, ornate buildings, there is a modern all black glass building stuck between two really pretty buildings, obviously replacing a building that had to be torn down.  As you walk towards the building you think how odd, but then once you are right in front of it you realize all that black glass is reflecting the image of a stunningly beautiful old building across the street.  It is a very nice effect to have the image of the building on the side of the street you are on reflected between the other two beautiful buildings across the street from you.  I assumed this was planned, if not it’s a great coincident.

Next parks and open space…