Madrid is a city that never rests, it is always celebrating. My question for everyone is ‘when do you sleep?’ While the city has so much to offer in its rich past, its vibrant present and its promising future, I am most drawn to the Madrileños themselves – they are warm, fun loving and free spirited. There are no language barriers when it’s all about beer, tapas and music! This sign at a store, loosely translated says, 'I'm open when I am here, I am closed when I am not. Too bad our timings did not cooincide.' I think the magic of Madrid is its very people.
My days are filled with tastes of Madrid’s past, its present and its future. All three stories are rich and complex, filled with challenges faced by its people and rulers around war and strife, as well as opportunities that were optimized to define Madrid as a center for business and culture in Europe. It seems that Madrid’s central location has positioned this city with an important place in history. There were many forces that gave shape to Madrid, but locals speak most fondly of Carlos III, a king ambitious about positioning Madrid as a premiere center for business and culture.
While there are attempts to trace Madrid’s history to the Romans, its Moorish origins are evident since the 9th century when the city served as a military outpost. It was not until the 14th century when Madrid became the seat of royalty. The period through the late 1800’s were grand years for Madrid when the city became a focus for trade, finance, culture, as well as government. Historians here say that at the close of the19th century Madrid was in a tough place, as with the rest of Spain, having lost its last remaining colonies. The period after this was filled with strife for this great city, with its economic and political crises, unstable governments, civil wars and changing hands of power. It was not until the last 20 to 30 years or so, when Spain emerged, ready to reinvent itself and become a leader in Europe.
Perhaps the single most important event in recent times for Spain has been to enter the European Union and adopt the Euro as its currency. Today, Madrid (and all of Spain) is going through a major economic boom, largely focused on new construction and business development. Evidence of this is everywhere. I chuckled (and was envious) when my program coordinator said that locals have to download new Metro maps every few months because of the rapid rate at which stations are being opened. Besides new metro lines, Madrid has seen many new large scale public and private investments. It seems that successful political careers are directly linked to the massive scale public works projects!
Most government officials say that their biggest challenge is to address the housing, jobs, social service needs of new immigrants that are flocking Spain. From Ignatio Nino Perez, the city’s economic development czar, I learnt that the 3.2 million population of Madrid is a fast changing and dynamic number. As recently as 1999, foreign population was 2.6% while it is 17% now. The City of Madrid created a 10 year action plan for the city in 2000, and is now on course in its 7th year. This plan includes major economic and social projects, and a scorecard is kept on a publicly accessible website. There are a lot of concerns about how to work with new immigrant populations, this is where I think the United States has a lot to offer.
City government in Madrid recently completed a highway submerging project – 15 kilometers of the M 30 ring road was buried to create new open space and rejoin neighborhoods. The project is funded by the city of Madrid (I wonder what their debt service payments are like!) and is almost complete in four years. At a tour organized by city officials, everyone took great pride in their involvement in the project and could not help comparing and contrasting their accomplishments with Boston’s big dig. The tour was very impressive, focused largely on what is being done on top of the submerged highways.
Housing that once was adjacent to a noisy four land highway now have a green frontyard. I was assured that property values have shot through the roof! My tour guide, the project manager for construction said that the main complaint from neighbors was that it was too quiet for them to fall asleep.
Mainly, new recreation areas are being developed that access to Rio Manzanares, Madrid’s ‘apprentice of a river’ (No, I did not come up with the term. It was shared by Javier Cerrano, the city’s housing chief and attributed to Cervantes.) When I did get to see it, I was under whelmed by the river itself (I actually mistook it for a nearby creek much to the disappointment of my guide). I made up for my faux-pas with genuine enthusiasm for how much was being done to celebrate their river. Above grade projects include restoration of pedestrian links between new and old Madrid, huge expanses of green including active and passive recreation, new urban orchards that include recently discovered 100 year old olive trees (Buried under years of brush and debris). I was struck by the artistic tree staking methods - see picture. The additional budget for ongoing maintenance added to the city parks department for this park alone is $ 200,000 euros per year. The planning and design process for all these projects have included select invitations to world renowned designers to bring these celebrities into the city.
Another impressive project is the Torrespacio, four commercial 50 storey towers being constructed to the north of the city and envisioned as the new financial center. The towers have been designed by I.M. Pei, and are a source of great pride for the city. I was able to go up to the top of the towers in a work elevator, and get a great view of the city. It was striking to see a clear delineation between the city and the countryside near the horizon. These towers, like the M-30 project, represent 21st century Madrid, and while neither project is to everyone’s liking, they are symbols of the new economy of this great city.
Belinda Tato, an architect and her partner, Jose Vallejo run an impressive design practice in Madrid called ecosistemaurbano.com. Some of you may remember them as one of the five finalists for Philadelphia’s LandVisions competition. Visiting their office was a treat. They live in a historic building and are currently rehabilitating it as their office and home with a unique contemporary approach. With Belinda, I visited Eco-Boulevard in Vallecas, in the outskirts of Madrid, where over a 1000 units of housing and a new regional park is being built. There are some examples within this vast complex of sustainable housing, but most of the units are typical flats of rental and low to middle income housing. The developments are not inhabited yet, and it was concerning to see how separate this area was, with very little opportunity for local shopping and services. In the midst of this housing complex, Belinda has been involved in creating three eco-trees. They are best described as structures built of metal pipes, fabric and cables that serve as programmable recreation and education spaces. Each one is unique in their appearance, and all three are equipped with solar panels that generate power, which when sold to the local utility company pays for ongoing upkeep. It’s hard to know what these spaces will become when the homes are inhabited, but that is the big experiment – to capture the imagination of its users. I am eager to see how things progress on this bold project.
Matadero Madrid, a rehabilitation project of an old municipal slaughter house, captured my heart! The intent of this ambitious project is to create ‘a great space for contemporary creation’ including facilities for artists, filmmakers, architecture firms, theatre production, exhibits, new technologies, etc. The project is led by Carlos Baztan, who serves as the chief project manager and problem solver for the city. His commitment and zeal for the project is very evident as he speaks with pride about what has been accomplished so far. While by no means finished, I was surprised to see some of the spaces already inhabited, people were walking around construction areas, stepping carefully over construction materials and around scaffolding. Carlos explained that if they kept waiting for the project to be complete, then it would not be able to capture the talents of the local artists who add their own touches to their spaces. One area is dedicated to a multi-media exhibit done by local artists highlighting the neighborhood and its people. Another area is being used as a theatre with all the trappings for full scale professional productions. A whole section is dedicated to set design and filming. What impressed me most, was to see how the defunct warehouses and factories were made useable. Everywhere I looked, I could still see the peeling paint, rust and stains. Glass walls installed inside the cavernous spaces, with floating floors and ceilings are used to create new spaces. These glass cubes are like fishbowls within which all the creative activity takes place. Another asset is the proximity to the newly buried M-30 project which means that Matadero Madrid will someday have direct access to Rio Manzanares. Check out mataderomadrid.com.