Urban errors of modern Madrid or the substitution of urban science for traffic engineering | Antón Capitel

Madrid, Gran Vía, años 30.
Madrid, Gran Vía, 1930s.

n the 30s, under the regime of the Second Republic, under the masterful hand of Secundino Zuazo Ugalde  and with the patronage of Indalecio Prieto as Minister of Public Works, there was an important urban reform in Madrid, well known to all: the extension Paseo de la Castellana, on one side, and the construction of underground rail links along the great axis of Paseo del Prado, Paseo de Recoletos, and Paseo de la Castellana, on the other, and from Atocha station to a supposed station, then non-existent, and that would take a long time to be built, Chamartín station. More time still took the city to conclude, architecturally and railwayly, this decisive and new metropolitan feature that guided its most important growth, dilatation that demonstrated, in short, its lucidity.

After the civil war, the Plan of 1942, by the hand of Bidagor – who had learned almost everything from the then banished Zuazo – prolonged the most important road of the city beyond the Plaza de Castilla, point of union between the extension of the Promenade projected by Zuazo and the highway in which the district of Tetuán de las Victorias had settled. But, in addition, he devised another very important new road, the Avenida del Arroyo Abroñigal, which would only see the light much later, and already transformed, for simple temporary reasons, from a bypass of the city, nature with which it had been thought , in an interior road of fast traffic, condition to which the passage of time had inexorably taken. Almost 40 years elapsed between the thought of this highway and its realization, when it was baptized with the abstract name of M-30.

The M-30 was born, then, as the daughter of a contradiction. It was a highway that, without ceasing to be, had automatically become an urban road. Its construction was a good, no doubt, and so the new way helped powerfully to structure the metropolis more adequately. But it also posed a challenge that the city would have to end up assuming: the contradiction in which it was born would have to be, one day, definitively resolved. The M-30 would have to be, otherwise, something else. It would have to transform.

One of the possible transformations was hinted already when the socialist town hall, headed by Tierno Galván, and with Eduardo Mangada as town planning councilor, built the closure of the highway by one of the transformation possibilities that the nature of the old one had. The Avenue of the Enlightenment, a great walk that made compatible the great traffic of vehicles with its urban nature, was carried out in the manner of a new Castellana. Dark voices, supporters of the design of the city as a matter of vehicle traffic, protested a lot then. They were voices that had already become performances very often, and that, from then on, they were practically unique. From before the socialist government of the city and, especially, after him, the metropolis of Madrid became a territory governed from the sole point of view of private transit engineering. A rather sinister point of view, which turned almost all the performances of modern Madrid into serious urban errors, negatively transforming the development of a city that had started so well.

En esta foto del Plan de Enlaces Ferroviarios se aprecia el trazado del túnel Atocha-Chamartín representado en línea discontinua. Foto Fundación Indalecio Prieto
In this photo of the Plan of Railway Links, the layout of the Atocha-Chamartin tunnel represented in a dashed line can be seen. Source: Fundación Indalecio Prieto

The nickname of “the tube of laughter” with which the locals baptized the railway tunnels built by Zuazo, and because they remained empty from the time of the Second Republic until, in the late 1960s, the administration of the The Franco dictatorship carried out the Chamartín station, explains well the ignorance that the city had of what was its most positive modern urban development. At those years, rail links were revealed as lucid as essential, but the myopic and interested optics that the Franco regime had over the city made such an important feature remain isolated.

Isolated even in the same situation, because it was never built, unfortunately, a Metro line that followed all the Castellana – it was thought, perhaps, that with the passage of commuter trains by “the tube” was enough – and neither took advantage the lucidity of the links to think that, sooner or later, they would be insufficient. Apparently, all kinds of facilities and other impediments made it not very practical to double or triple the train tunnels using the subsoil of the same axis.

Estación de Atocha. Colección César Mohedas
Atocha Station. César Mohedas Collection

But let’s go first to what allowed the existence of the M-30, and that was not used. The construction of this road ring – completed in addition, and later, with the other peripheral rings, the M-40 and the M-50 – supposed that the encounter with him could avoid the onset of the great national highways directly towards the city. Not so in the attack of the National VI, towards Galicia, Asturias and Cantabria, which continued to direct directly to the center of the city, sacrificing both the environmental qualities of the old entrance and the way to start the University City.

This is, then, one of the great erroneous urban developments of modern Madrid. The University City, promoted by the final section of the decadent monarchical regime, but actually built by the Second Republic, was destroyed by nationalist forces during the course of the war front, but rebuilt and reinforced later by the dictatorial regime. It was one of the most qualified urban operations in Madrid, which is unparalleled, at least as such use, in any city in Europe. Probably well aware of this, the dictatorial regime greatly reinforced its first section in the postwar period, that is, the one that unites it to the conventional city.

Indeed, after the civil war, both the reconstructions and, above all, the new constructions, consolidated this first section of the University City. The building of the Museum of America, the Schools of Naval Engineers and Aeronautical Engineers, and new Major Colleges were made, and this consolidation was symbolized with the construction of the Arc de Triomphe, which, although, on the one hand, symbolized the victory of the rebel forces over the loyalists, of another, powerfully marked the beginning of the University City, with a stretch of avenue from the arch to the Plaza del Cardenal Cisneros, from which the second section of the avenue opened to the place of the never built Paraninfo, end of the university campus.

But the Ministry of Public Works, already in the 80s, ignoring the university condition of this stretch of street, and abusing without hesitation of its own and very specific role, interpreted the city to your liking and made it the extension of the National VI, removing all other nature that was not this. The sidewalks were greatly reduced, rows of trees were felled and a tunnel was built to avoid the passage through the Plaza del Cardenal Cisneros and turn this university avenue into a section of highway.

Also reformed the first section of the national VI, after the Plaza del Cardenal Cisneros, subjecting it to the one-dimensional ideology of private traffic engineering, and ravaging this piece of territory, as can be seen today. Remember, who can, what there was before. The Iron Gate, ridiculously isolated in the middle of the traffic routes, is the dramatic silent witness of the brutal reconversion that this qualified place was made.

Later still, the construction of the bus station in the “interchange” of Moncloa added the pretext of public transit to the destruction of the place with new tunnels and new roads, only recently finished. Thus, from the 1980s to 2009 a systematic destruction of the urban qualities of the first section of the University City has been carried out, making it an enormously rough territory if not for motorists, and destroying a place whose transformation should have been avoided, given the existence of the large metropolitan metropolitan rings.

One of the biggest urban errors of modern Madrid has been consummated. But, given the exaggerated importance of public works in this whole affair, and in similar cases, we have no choice but to ask ourselves:

Was there really much more to the intentions of all this than the diversion of large amounts of public capital?

The officials, politicians and technicians, who programmed this mess

Did they really have something else in their north?

We can imagine, with some condescension, that it was, perhaps, to kill two birds with one shot, the public service of the supposed improvement of road traffic and the consequent business of infrastructure construction, but, in view of the results, there is no doubt which was the main bird that expert sharpshooters intended to charge. (With great short-sightedness, by the way, then to resolve that this road is better linked to the urban structure of the metropolis would have provided works no less penguins, although more difficult to devise and to project.)

Returning to the Castellana, it is easier to explain the error of its end, because it is clear and in sight. The most important street in the city ends in a spectacular knot of motorways, announced, yes, by the two tunnels that the driver must use if he goes there. The first tunnel can even be considered charitable, since it prevents him from closely observing the horror of the Plaza de Castilla that, inevitably, he will have seen from afar.

There the worst architectures of the city are accumulated: the mediocre monument to the Protomartyr of the Francoist crusade – by the way, the Law of Historical Memory should not force to dismantle that artifact? – the ineffable inclined towers of the tacky American architects, the different seasons of buses that accompany and accompany them as a formal by-product, and, now, the stupid monolith of the engineer-architect-sculptor – something else? – Valencian. The horrors, in the case of Plaza de Castilla are, then, architectural, and only a work of engineering-yes, construction, not transit-the water tank, tries to defend, by itself, the formal quality . I imagine that it will not be long before they throw it away.

The truth is that the great avenue, with the significant announcement of the tunnels, renounces being an urban element in its end to become without a doubt a complicated street artifice. The traffic engineering, has replaced espúreamente, and once again, to the urban. The new and eleventh towers, condemned to be peripheral, seem to contemplate the place they occupy disproportionately, while eloquently testifying that, in modern Madrid, only architecture appears to be fully present – whatever it may be – if it means speculation.

A finales de noviembre de 1958 el Ayuntamiento aprobó el proyecto de construcción del estadio en los terrenos denominados Canalización del Manzanares. Fuente: http://historias-matritenses.blogspot.com/2014/05/estadio-vicente-calderon-o-manzanares.html
At the end of November 1958, the City Council approved the construction project for the stadium in the so-called Canalización del Manzanares. Source: historias-matritenses.blogspot.com

Other entrances and exits, like those of the National III, IV and V, are more united to the great metropolitan road infrastructure than to the central city. Not so the National II, or highway of Barcelona. Prolongation of the large Cea Bermúdez-Abascal-María de Molina axis, which joins without any reason that justifies the radial II and VI, the Barcelona road coincides with the access to the airport. Neither the Ministry of Public Works nor the City Council had ever worried about this absurd coincidence until systematic traffic jams prevented access to Barajas.

It was the town hall chaired by Álvarez del Manzano who applied the magical Madrid municipal solution, the tunnels, technical formula to hide the filth under the carpet and to divert public funds to public works companies with exemplary and extreme efficiency. (It would seem that the coincidence of the adjectives facilitated the identity of the solution).

The municipal tunnel – of unusual underground route, since it gives numerous curves to return to leave again in the Avenue of America – seems to have solved the problem. But,

Would not you have spent the same or similar money if you had booked, for example, the Avenida de América for the Airport and would have looked for an alternative from the M-30 for the exit to Barcelona?

This or another alternative, and beyond or more of the money, would have given Madrid a more attractive solution than the burial of private transit, a race in which the city seems to have committed its efforts until it has the most tunnels in the whole world.

Coches, trolebuses, buses de uno y dos pisos… La Cibeles nunca está sola. Hacia 1955. Fuente: elpais.com
Cars, trolley buses, buses of one and two floors … La Cibeles is never alone. Towards 1955. Source: elpais.com

But, having seen this, we arrived again at the M-30, for which Mayor Gallardón reserved a seemingly surprising transformation, but, as we have already seen, linked to the municipal and modern tradition of the city. The M-30 needed in the medium term a transformation that freed it from its ambiguous nature, as we had already seen, and, in the stretch of the river, it was thus touched by the magic wand that – instead of a baton of command – they seem to possess the mayors of the city, to become something very simple and, supposedly, effective: a tunnel, probably the longest and most expensive tunnel in the world. The administration of the city has been economically mortgaged to limits that were unknown in Spain and that are politically scandalous.

The diversion of public funds to infrastructure companies has been in this case impudent, and that still missing a very important part, that which has been exhibited, with no less impudity, as an alibi of the solution: the superior construction of a Park. That is, the hell below – it is, in fact, a hell: go, please, to check it – and paradise above. Here is the magical urbanism of Madrid. I can not stop remembering the novel “The Time Machine”, by HGWells, when the protagonist travels to the future and meets some idyllic characters, who enjoy a paradise, and stays ecstatic until he discovers that they are the food of the sinister monsters that inhabit the underground spaces.

The gigantic amount of money invested – besides the one that is missing-

Would it not have been enough to turn the M-30 into another Castellana, such as the Avenue of the Enlightenment, domesticating it in an urban form, reducing its transit capacity and resolving knots and connections to send traffic to the other peripheral rings, and thus make a normal city and not a sinister invention?

Naturally, this would not have diverted public funds so effectively, it would have needed people who knew how to think and plan for the city, and would have represented a way of understanding this not subordinated to traffic engineering, but to the nature of cities . It would have needed a firm will to improve the city and not to cynically pretend to solve their problems. Try, please, the new M-30, enjoy its horrific space and its powerful capacity for disorientation, taste the usual underground traffic jams

Check, in your citizens’ minds, what is the management of the city when the ideas of urban science are replaced by the one-dimensional – and in this case monstrous – ideology of traffic engineering. The current mayor of the city has proven to be far superior to his predecessors; that is, to be able to devise and commit the greatest urban error of the twentieth century and of what is going to be the twenty-first century. Of what’s going on in history.

Some commentators, even in prestigious foreign magazines, have glossed the modernity that this Madrid transformation means. I do not envy the scope of your sight or your criteria. Modernity, of course; disqualified, absurd and enormously expensive transformation, too.

What would not a good town hall have done with that crazy amount of money?

It would have been enough for 20 years of qualified and efficient transformation. But, to achieve that, there are too many – and not only munícipes – that would have to be reborn.

La M-30, una autopista con historia.
The M-30, a highway with history..

The last episode is not, perhaps, the worst, but it is the most deceitful and the most ridiculous. Except the previous one – the M-30, which corresponds to the imprudent management of the current mayor – all the other errors correspond to the Ministry of Public Works – or to the Ministry of Public Works, if we follow the ridiculous and nineteenth revival, which should have been changed-, that they were allowed to act according to their engineering ideology and without consulting smart urbanists, some of whom may even work in their own services.

In this case, it is a promotion of the ineffable Minister Álvarez Cascos, initiated by him, but carried out for the most part by the socialist government, which should have had the lucidity and courage to stop it. I am referring to the construction of a large commuter station in the Puerta del Sol, with the consequent connecting tunnels, through the infernos of Madrid, with Chamartín and Atocha. Placing a large commuter station in the old center of the city is such an obvious mistake that Secundino Zuazo, at the end of the 20s or the beginning of the 30s, warned of this so that it was not committed. The error is, then, the repetition of an inadequate proposal of someone nothing less than the end of the monarchy alfonsina, look carefully.

What a rain for this!

The Puerta del Sol is not the center of the city, it is the center of the old town. It is not even the center of the metropolitan rail network, because it is now a modern network that no longer has a center. The center of the city, if you want to look, is in the Castellana, and is linear. It could be located, more or less, between Plaza de Colón and Plaza de San Juan de la Cruz

The Castellana should never have been abandoned as the ideal place for rail links. If tunnels are missing, they should have been built, duplicated or tripled, parallel to those that already exist. It is very difficult, they would tell us, because La Castellana is full of underground conduits that make the work almost impossible. They would tell us the same, or the successors, of those who foolishly placed there several conduits in any way.

If the rail links had been continued by the Castellana, the stations of Nuevos Ministerios and Colón, magnificently located, would have constituted a useful railway sequence, urbanistically adequate. It would have even allowed to transform the stupid Plaza of Discovery – the site of the Casa de la Moneda – into a very important station, with a place for a shopping center and everything, and without needing to be completely underground, but presenting itself as a normal station, which leads finally to the subsoil. This could have served, in addition, to coordinate with the City Council, which will perform on the surface, from Colón to Atocha, the reform of the promenade projected by the team of Siza Vieira.

The work would have been more annoying, perhaps, and more complicated, but the goal would have deserved it. It is true that, perhaps, the great tunneling machines that have bought certain public works companies could not be so easily amortized, nor could they generate the extremely tasty and abusive capital gains that have undoubtedly generated by drilling the Madrid infernos, under the buildings, from Chamartín to Sol and from Sol to Atocha. More distance than by the Castellana and, thus, more money in the certifications. The main bird that the hunters wanted to charge with the expense of a single shot of the holster, has been achieved. The other -the utility and urban quality- whether it has fallen or not, there movies.

But the extension of the underground links more or less direct, was, ultimately, essential, and, thus, Fomento and the municipality are making the passage of a new tunnel through the street of Serrano. Naturally, it has an urban alibi: the street of Serrano will have diminished its capacity of transit of vehicles and very widened its sidewalks. As always, the beautiful solution of the underground hell and the superior paradise, in the best tradition of H.G.Wells. It does not matter that Serrano street was a street with synchronized traffic lights, which circulated very well, and that it already had wide and absolutely sufficient sidewalks. Everything is for the art of dissimulation, and for straining, of rondón, an underground parking, that makes the operation more profitable, and that contributes to increase considerably the private traffic of a city that for a long time should have considered its systematic limitation.

It is this, from Sol y Serrano, the last major urban error in a city that for more than 20 years now seems to have given up definitively the sensible urbanism to give itself exclusively to the sinister euphoria of public works.

It is a pity for a metropolis that had not had a bad history of planning, and that is now capable of despising both the wisdom of urban science that, despite everything, hides in its bosom, as common sense. Well, politicians do not seem to match the professionals and intellectuals of the city – excellent and extensive university city – that no one has consulted for decades. Madrid, city of the King in history, and with a more than convincing planning, becomes a city of private traffic and land speculation. And there is nothing on the horizon that signals a change in such an unfriendly, sad and modern perspective.

Antonio González-Capitel Martínez · PhD architect · professor at ETSAM
Madrid · January 2010


Es arquitecto y catedrático de Proyectos de la Escuela de Arquitectura de Madrid, fue director de la revista Arquitectura (COAM) de 1981-86 y de 2001-09. Historiador, ensayista y crítico, ha publicado numerosos artículos en revistas españolas y extranjeras sobre arquitectura española e internacional. Entre sus libros destacan diferentes monografías sobre arquitectos.

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