Madrid is not only the national capital of Spain but also its arts and financial centre. In 1561, Philip II decided to take the court to Madrid. However, it was only officially made the capital a few years later by Philip III. The city developed with the preservation of its overcrowded centre and the construction of new palaces, churches, and public buildings around it.
As a result, Madrid turned out to be a vibrant city with many examples of interesting architecture. Today, it is a major tourist attraction as well as the focus of Spain’s government, even after the introduction of the autonomous regions in the country.
Madrid’s urban density was established under the influence of historical events. When it became the capital, residents were obligated by the king to destine a floor of their houses to accommodate ambassadors and visiting dignitaries. As a consequence, people started to build most houses with only one floor. Later, as the city grew, the enormous demand for land became an issue, and density inevitably started to rise. During the reign of Charles III (1759–88), many contributions were made to Madrid’s skyline.
Concerned for the appearance of the city, he built gates, trees, and avenues, relying on the works of Neoclassical architects. Afterwards, Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte took control over the Bourbon line of kings and decided to demolish some buildings in Madrid to create more open spaces such as squares. Today, Madrid is a dense cosmopolitan city. However, most of its buildings are not very high, and there are a lot of squares and parks, which makes it not look cramped.
The architecture of the city has contrasting styles, with different layers of time overlapping in the same space. The old centre is characterized by its squares and historic public buildings. It differs from the earlier Neoclassical buildings and grand boulevards, which also contrasts with the latest modern office buildings, Art Deco skyscrapers, Modernist concrete blocks, and 21st-century glass-and-steel constructions.
The diverse architecture of Madrid is one of the aspects that makes the city so appealing, as a simple walk can turn out to be an interesting history lesson.
Moreover, both the density and the diverse architectural styles contributed to the development of Madrid’s identity. Nowadays, it is not seen only as the centre of the government but also as a vibrant and diverse city, which was influenced by the arrival of several immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s while the city was expanding its industrial belt. Local lifestyle is defined by the varied cultural events and late-hours activities that people often adhere to. The charm and vivacity of the city give it a strong identity.
Modernization and even the advent of modernist architecture—could have put Madrid’s famous street life at risk, as it depends on a certain level of informality that the exaggerated organization of the space to seek efficiency could destroy. Fortunately, it did not happen. The first idea to modernize the city was the Plan Castro in 1860. Later, other suggestions such as Arturo Soria’s linear city of 1892 and the satellite city idea of Núñez Granes of 1910 arose. All of these plans were frustrated.
However, in 1910 a major new landmark appeared: the Gran Vía. It was designed as the local main street, and it is the place where the city’s first high-rise commercial buildings were constructed. The street still has a central role at the centre of the city today. It has already adapted to fit sustainable mobility needs, which reinforces its contribution to Madrid’s modernization.
The city’s modernization process also included the increase of awareness of cultural heritage preservation. As land speculation and industrial development grew in the 1960s, historic architecture was seriously harmed. In 1982, the General Ordinance Plan of Madrid was created with the influence of massive public opinion. It established a scheme for future directed growth, seeking infrastructure modernization tied to the improvement of the quality of life of the residents. The plan made it possible to create specific legislation to preserve old buildings, which was vital for the city.
As a vivid city, Madrid has a busy and well-established cultural life. Due to the existence of two famous soccer teams in the city, some important matches take place in the two stadiums, Santiago Bernabéu and Vicente Calderón. Moreover, the city has many varied museums with masterpieces from the most important painters from Spain. One great example is “Guernica”, a painting from Pablo Picasso that is currently exhibited in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia.
Besides, some artistic masterpieces can be found outside the museums, like the statues and fountains in the squares and parks. Madrid is also famous for its bookshops and libraries, which reinforces the presence of very literate people in the city.
Some landmarks in Madrid are fundamental pieces of the city’s identity. First, some of the outdoor spaces are very important contributions to the city’s vivacity. Perhaps the most relevant of them is the Plaza Mayor, a 129-meters large square surrounded by five-storey houses with balconies. There are also more than 40 parks and public gardens in Madrid. The Buen Retiro Park is the biggest one. It has sculptures, monuments, galleries, and an artificial lake.
Furthermore, the museums and palaces are also quite meaningful for the city, as they are the clearest representations of farther times in history. The Royal Palace and the Prado Museum are the most important examples. On the other hand, Madrid Barajas International Airport Terminal 4 and the public park Madrid Rio are examples of projects that emerged more recently due to Madrid’s modernization.
Madrid has constantly changed throughout the years. The capacity and flexibility to adapt are perhaps the most important cause of its success until today. The urban density and the abundance of public outdoor spaces are fundamental to enhance the quality of life of the inhabitants.
The commitment to the preservation of cultural heritage is equally important for the maintenance of the city’s strong identity. Besides, the crowded places filled with cultural activities make the city a remarkable place even for the international community. The merger of these aspects is what makes Madrid a vibrant combination of culture and history.
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Picado, M. (2017). Architecture City Guide: 20 Places Every Architect Should Visit in Madrid. [online] ArchDaily. Available at: https://www.archdaily.com/877603/architecture-city-guide-20-places-every-architect-should-visit-in-madrid. [Accessed 21 Jul. 2021].
The Spaces. (2016). Making Madrid: 15 landmarks that define the city. [online] Available at: https://thespaces.com/making-madrid-15-landmarks-that-define-the-city/. [Accessed 21 Jul. 2021].