In between study, I spent my days off drifting through the inner city and experiencing Madrid’s heterogeneity, layer by layer. My maiden trip to the Spanish capital came via sponsorship for a graduate architect workshop at the ETSAM, Madrid’s school of architecture, affording me scope to discover the city in my downtime. The surprising juxtapositions – new and old, formal and informal, monumental and banal – give Madrid its rich texture and urban character.
Throughout the trip, I found myself deleting the usual tourist snaps from my camera in order to accommodate more pictures of these urban scenes. There was a strangely domestic scale to the city streets, revealed in the smallest of details – carefully tended potted plants in a grated blind window.
The city’s soft infrastructures, such as urban vegetation, are a surprising indication of the state of care (or neglect) of a neighbourhood. One street would feature year-round blooms maintained daily by neighbouring cultural institutions such as the Caixaforum, while in contrast, the vegetation in the next street across was no longer ‘green’. I also came across a heavyset 70s housing complex with the most amazing cascades of hanging plant growth, tucked away on a quiet street in Malasaña.
The Edificio Princesa was completed in 1975 by Fernando Higueras in true Corbusian fashion. Originally built for military retirees, it is now the inner-city home of many design-oriented entrepreneurs and young families. From the prolific vertical vegetation to the asymmetry of hand-laid breeze blocks, Princesa’s time-worn concrete facades are enlivened by expressions of domestic life.
A more sculptural use of concrete may be found in the university suburb of Moncloa. Edificio Galaxia is another example of a lucky encounter with Madrid’s idiosyncratic architecture, a dense collection of apartments around a sunken plaza of shops, replete with bright-coloured awnings and a generous deep-soil roof garden. A cast-in-place spiral ramp sweeps off the street onto the mezzanine level above, featuring pedestrian circulation almost as a processional rite-of-passage into the building. The use of concrete is embraced across all the scales of design, from large building structures to planter boxes. It is a large, ageing concrete housing complex near the University, with a curiously sculptural pedestrian bridge that encircles the front carpark entry in a (completely gratuitous) ceremonial path up to the residents’ roof garden. Like many other hidden gems of the city, Edificio Galaxia doesn’t broadcast its presence – it is virtually invisible to those who aren’t looking.
Walking through the streets of Madrid was like traversing a large, evolving patchwork – each patch heralding a different set of urban conditions and textures, yet tightly stitched to the next. To me, Madrid will always feel ‘unfinished’ – as if caught off-guard in a state of transition. I hope to continue recording these small moments of urban ambiguity in the next cities I visit.