Architecture and Placemaking, Madrid

Blog — 12 May 2015

In his 1974 book The Fall of Public Man, Richard Sennett identified the public realm as a neglected but vital ingredient of the modern city. He explored the relationship between the private realm (natural) and the public realm (man made).

It is still a compelling argument 40 years on. We seem to live in the "age of me", social media, selfies, surveillance and instant communications have externalised our private lives. At the same time planners and architects have once again embraced the idea that the public realm is at the heart of urban life. Perhaps they are both related, it is a cause and effect, as we become less inhibited we start to use public space.

A few days in Madrid brought these thoughts to mind. Here is a city defined by public spaces, grand promenades like the Paseo del Prado, formal squares like the Plaza Mayor, parks and gardens, boulevards and streets, shady local squares and courtyards.

Generally recent architectural interventions in the city centre respect this tradition, and often manage the boundaries between public and private, or outside and inside, very inventively. Jean Nouvel’s entrance building for the Reina Sofia museum creates public space at street and rooftop level (1). Herzog de Meuron’s Caixa Forum does the same sort of thing, but it must be said less successfully, allowing the formalism of the elevational idea to compromise the quality of the entrance sequence and the restaurant on the top floor (2). Rafael Moneo’s Prado extension is a well detailed and reverent stone and brick building next to Madrid’s only gothic church (3). All of these projects benefit fromcomplex public uses, which adds life and permability to the new structures.

1. Reina Sofia Museum Entrance
2. Herzog de Meuron’s Caixa Forum
3. Rafael Moneo’s Prado extension next to Madrid’s only gothic church

There are two recent standout projects in my view, Burgos & Garrido’s Parque del Manzanares, a 6km linear park that runs along the river and buries M30 the ring road (4), and amid.cero9’s beautiful and well detailed new building and garden for the Fundacion Francisco Giner de los Rios in the north of the city (5). The landscape quality of both these projects is exceptional, reflecting the tradition of grand open public space and discreet courtyards in the city.

4. Burgos & Garrido’s Parque del Manzanares
5. amid.cero9’s garden for the Fundacion Francisco Giner de los Rios

Having seen the ambition and quality of these projects, it was interesting to look at the recently expanded city districts or PAU’s to the south of Madrid. These huge areas of new mixed tenure housing were planned and started before the Global Financial Crisis. The plan was to deliver nearly 60,000 new homes between 2003 and 2011, Spanish and international architects were invited to design the individual blocks. The results are mixed, experiments with alternative elevational materials do not always improve the brick and terra cotta palette that is the Madrid vernacular.

dosmasuno arquitectos carabanchel housing
Edificio Bambu by FOA
Vallecas Housing, Peter Cook

The space between the buildings is similarly ambitious, grand boulevards of trees and landscaping set the blocks apart. This is where the problem begins, the monumental scale defeats the domestic scale of a residential neighborhoods, the lack of other uses leaves the ground floors of most blocks opaque and defensive. Not only does the quality of the landscaped areas fall short, the financial crisis means that maintenance has been neglected, and vast areas left un-built. As a result the boulevards are wastelands, the ambitious planting left to die creating a generally miserable environment to live in. The Eco Boulevard at Vallecas is the most graphic example, intended to create a bioclimatic and social space, it is instead a sorry sight.

Eco Boulevard Vallecas
Sentencia Supremo, PAU 1