126 – Brutiful Madrid

Madrid is not a city where your average tourist could admire wonders of old architecture. There is no medieval city centre. There is no breathtaking cathedral. Well, there is Almudena, but the only reason it takes your breath away is its sheer ugliness. There are many precedents in Spanish history that demonstrate certain resistance to architectural development on the Iberian peninsula: while renaissance was taking Europe by storm, Segovia began the construction of a grand gothic (not even neogothic, they were still deeply in the Dark Ages) cathedral with the tallest bell tower in Spain (until a lighting struck and burnt it down, maybe take a hint, like “He” didn’t seem to be impressed by your lack of imagination either). But while being wrong by hundred years in the 16th century is attributable to difficulties with which information spread at the time (especially in a reactionary country like Spain), what’s the excuse for completing a neo…what exactly, neoclassical, neobaroque?… abomination in 1993? That’s a bit too much. Some more clement opinions sustain that this eclectic mix & match of styles is owed to “frequent change of sentiment in the course of construction” (read: the bloodiest civil war in modern European history), but come on, the idea of building something gothic on the inside and baroque on the outside was wrong even in 1879, when they first came up with the idea that the one thing Spain really needed was another cathedral. And besides, Barcelona began building Sagrada Familia roughly at the same time, so progress was clearly possible.

Sunset over Madrid skyline as seen from a picture window of a living room of a flat at Torres Blancas

Almudena apart, Spain eventually started to catch up with what was going on elsewhere, or rather, the brightest minds find a way to shine even in the darkest times. 1960s and 1970s saw the construction of many remarkable buildings (mostly in brutalist style, but not only), while the 1990s saw the demolition of the most beautiful and iconic of them: Miguel Fisac’s Pagoda (officially Laboratorios Jorba), a 7-storey concrete building where every floor rotated by 45 from the lower one, completed in 1967 and controversially torn down in 1999, most probably as a result of a bureaucratic mess up and terrain speculation. Fisac himself was convinced that it was an act of retribution for parting ways with Opus Dei. To be fair, Fisac left Opus Dei in 1955, prior to construction of the Pagoda, and while mills of God may grind slowly, I’d suspect mills of God’s earthly henchmen operate with greater efficiency than 45 years). Either way, Madrid voluntarily rid itself of a world-class masterpiece of modern architecture. Pity.

Laboratorios Jorba / Pagoda; Miguel Fisac, 1967 – 1999  (I don’t own copyright to this picture)

Thankfully, many other modern gems still stand and as my love affair with exposed concrete is likely to continue, I am going to take you to as many of them as I manage to visit in the near future. At the moment, here are the first few:

1.  Gasolinera Gesa (Casto Fernandez-Shaw, 1927): is a beautiful art-deco petrol station, a rare example of pre-civil war construction, that marks the birth of modern architecture in Madrid. What stands today on the corner of Calle Aguilera and Calle de Vallehermoso is the 1990s exact replica of the original structure (which was unfortunately unsaveable by the time the city council decided it was time to restore it after is was partly – and illegally – demolished in 1977).

Viviendas para el patronato de casa militares

2. Viviendas para el patronato de casas militares (Fernando Higueras and Antonio Miró, 1975). Much like the Barbican Estate in London, this fine example of brutalist architecture was conceived to house the city’s “finest”. It is popular belief that the Barbican´s purpose was social housing, but it was always intended for the City professionals and in fact all the flats in the complex were commercially let (as opposed to Golden Lane Estate and Crescent House nearby that are, or were, council flats). Not that there is anything wrong as such with building condos for people who can afford it, but look at the south embankment from Putney to the Thames Barrier, none of these developments are meant to be affordable, and even though literally all of them are sold before the first brick is laid, most of them are uninhabited. In a similar way, Casas Militares on the corner of Calle San Bernardo and Calle Aguilera were commissioned to provide accommodation for high ranking military officers and their families. It’s probably different if you are in the army and believe in the brotherhood of (uniformed) men, but I personally cannot imagine many things actually worse than having people I work with as neighbours. The Casas Militares complex is an extraordinary example of communal living, a symphony of exposed concrete and vertical garden, an authentic oasis in the centre of Madrid, complete with underground parking, children’s playground, and a system of patios and skylights to let natural light into the inner blocks.

At of this moment I haven’t taken as many photos as I’d like, I introduced myself to the smaller building, asking a lady that was going out if I could go to the patio and take pictures and she wasn’t bothered, but the bigger building has a concierge and the doorman wouldn’t let me in without a permission. I guess it’s understandable, as the building still houses mainly military personnel and they are all living in paranoia hangover from the times when they were ETA’s favourite target. Well, the Basques may be dormant at the moment, so it’s probably the Catalans they should fear more. I will try to obtain my clearance later on when the days last longer (as there is obviously no way to get hold of the building’s administrator over the weekend).

3. Torres Blancas (Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oiza, completed 1968). The name suggests there should be more than one tower (some say they were originally supposed to be two or even three, some say the plural is owed to the character of the floor plan of a single tower) and white. I am not sure if there was a plan for some kind of cladding, but Torres Blancas is neither white nor multiple. But it is one of the very few high-rise buildings in central Madrid and an authentic gem of brutalism. You may love it or hate it, but the building – as any good work of art –  will not leave you indifferent. And there is certainly no way you can miss it as you approach Madrid from the airport. The defining characteristic of Sáenz de Oiza‘s career is the constant search for reconciliation of styles, construction and landscape, as demonstrated already in one of his earliest grands œuvres, the remodellation of franciscan basilica of Arantzazu in the Basque countries, which I will visit at some point in the future and bore you to death with dozens of (at best) mediocre photos thereafter.

Torres Brancas, Madrid

If you want to visit Torres Blancas outside the yearly week or architecture, you can forget it. However, I have friends in high places. Namely on the 13th floor. And even when you are someone’s guest and they want to show you the rooftop terrace, your name goes on a special list, along with your ID number. My friend also asked me to hide my camera as we were going through the concierge, because apparently there is a copyright on the building, which may or may not expire this year, no one really knows, but as people invested with the slightest hint of authority tend to make it worthwhile (the less significant the power is, the more they make it weight) and I really didn’t want to discuss the level of professionality of my camera with the doorman, I complied.

I am perfectly aware that finding brutalism beautiful is down to personal preferences and maybe even an acquired taste. And of course not everything built in exposed concrete is beautiful, far from it. Just take a look at any post-war housing estate in any country east of the Iron Curtain. No, concrete is often quite hideous. And while on the outside the combination of exposed concrete and wooden blinds may suggest that Torres Blancas desperately needs a facelift, the interior of the building is breathtaking. Stanley Kubrick could have shot his Shining in there. It would also stand out perfectly as background to any given Dario Argento´s women-killing orgy. (In fact Jim Jarmusch chose it as one of the locations for his not very enjoyable 2009 film The Limits of Control.) Communal spaces are all brought out in the combination of white tiles that sparkle when hit by sunlight filtering through yellow glass bricks and burgundy details (such as doors, faux-leather handrails of the spiral staircases, interior of the elevators). There is not one straight wall. The entire structure may be exposed concrete, but the building feels very organic. If you are wondering how to furnish a flat where all the walls are round, as most things in life, it’s merely a question of taste and money (for property porn related inspiration click here and here).

The most unique thing about Torres Blancas, given its location and prominence of 71 metres, is the unparalleled 360° view from the rooftop terrace (with a swimming pool). Floor 22 used to host a restaurant, Ruperto de Nola, between 1971 and 1985 and my friend says that the flats are still equipped with a dumbwaiter and it used to be possible to order food directly from the restaurant’s kitchen. Some experts insist that the use of decorative details, the spaciousness of the flats, the in-house eatery, the fact that Torres Blancas was never meant to be social (but neither was Barbican), and most importantly the fact that it is generally liked and hailed as a masterpiece, disqualifies the building as an example of brutalism.

The original completion of Torres Blancas was planned for 1965, but the project dragged on for further 4 years and turned out too costly, almost leading to bankruptcy of the developer Juan Huarte, to the point that Sáenz de Oiza was forced to accept one of the duplexes in the building instead of cash payment. It is said he used to wander around the apartment, enraged by the incessant noise of the adjacent A-2 traffic, and complain that “living here is divine retribution for having built such a terrible building”.

View over northern Madrid from the rooftop terrace of Torres Blancas

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