The city of Madrid has very recently developed a big and magnificent new park that stretches for some miles along the Manzanares riverbank. Despite being an important alteration of the city center in its very essence, this change cannot be considered on its own; quite on the contrary, it is the result of a dubious engineering scheme, namely the subterranean transformation of an urban highway. Burying the M-30 offered the opportunity to create the new park –but it also buried municipal authorities under the biggest debt, both in its whole history and of all cities across the globe. To judge whether the operation was worth the debt is a delicate matter.
The riverbank catches the eye in its pass through Madrid, with a very steep and impressive profile. However, the river itself is very small and lacks volume of flow – from old times it was called ‘apprentice river’. The city was erected on the steep riverbank by the Moors, and for a long time this was the natural border of the settlement, as if it were the coast. Madrid grew mostly to the North and to the East. The first Islamic stronghold was replaced under the Austrian dynasty with the King’s ‘Alcázar’, and when it took fire the Bourbons built the currently preserved Royal Palace (probably the best in the whole world) in a spectacular location. A garden called ‘Campo del Moro’ extends below the palace and towards the river. Casa de Campo, Madrid’s biggest park and formerly a royal property, is to be found at the other side of the water in strong connection with Campo del Moro.
Finally, in the 20th Century city developments crossed the river and merged with older towns located on the other side. The river was now an urban environment with suburbs on one side and the old city center on the other. Some monumental bridges, particularly the Segovia and the Toledo bridges, were designed with the aesthetic scope of removing the stream’s mediocrity by means of a metropolitan disguise, but the success of these enterprises was partial. Also in that period, a very interesting project was built: the public swimming pool ‘The Island’, a rationalistic building from the thirties by architect Luis Gutiérrez Soto which was to be sadly demolished during the fifties. Under Franco’s dictatorship the river was channelized, and locks for navigation were added. However, democracy arrived before the waste in the water flow was treated.
An operation started in the last years of Franco’s regime which would only come to term in the early eighties: the construction of a loop freeway for the whole city, the so-called M-30, which was designed along the course of the Abroñigal brook on the east-west axis, parallel to Arturo Soria’s Ciudad Lineal, and following the Manzanare’s riverbank on the North-South axis. However, the old franquist idea was built so late that the freeway never was an external loop, but rather an internal, urban way. A sensible decision in democratic times was to close the ring by means of a large urban avenue, ‘Avenida de la Ilustración’.
There is no dispute that the location of the M-30 parallel to the river never was a nice solution –especially to the neighbouring families; but there is also no doubt that preserving the freeway by having it buried was a bad idea. Not just because of economic expense, which has been very significant and will strain the sinister local authorities under debt for decades. Above all, a good answer would have to rethink the city without that sector of the freeway as it had been until that moment, and conceive a sensible replacement.
The replacement could have been an act of simple erasure: to remove that sector of the ring and trust self-regulation of the traffic, thus contributing to the decrease of private vehicles in the center –one of the city’s worst plagues. This first option might just have needed a regular urban street in the city surface, as is the case in Paris, London or Rome –the remaining area could have been declared for recreational use. However, the city was far from having an intelligent administration, and this optimal solution was not even taken into account by anybody. Or ever publicly formulated.
A different solution was to repeat the ‘Avenida de la Ilustración’ idea in the riverbank. Namely, to replace the freeway with a different road. A smaller road, of course, but also very large, a mixed road with a park, vehicles and pedestrians, an excellent urban way. This solution was not the best, but it would have represented a moderate and ‘centrist’ option with the power of providing partial satisfaction for everybody. Also, with but little design, urban and landscape aesthetics would have been more than satisfactory.
In any case, it seems that the strategy was to make big money disguising an insane engineering operation with the appearance of civic urbanism. To transform the M-30 in a subterranean freeway –and emancipate the whole surface in an apparently magical solution that solves the problem with a spell, but is no doubt aimed at the big priority of profit. The author of this article does not believe that the city government took part in this big business, together with the engineers and companies that designed and developed the operation. But he is absolutely certain that the primary objective, rather than to improve the city, was to channel very large sums of public funds into private accounts.
And so then, rather than burying the freeway to get a great park, the park was offered as the decoy that not only allowed but even seemed to demand the burial of the freeway. As such the lineal park along the Manzanares, ‘Madrid Río’, has been born, like Jew and Christian men, under the original sin. Having explained the latter, let us focus on the park itself.
The huge surface and enormous length of the new park are its two most striking features at a first glance. Moreover, this quantitative data has been turned into qualitative value: indeed, the dimension and strategic position of the park make it a very attractive and positive transformation of the city.
The visitor is stroke on a more relented glance by an apparently excessive addition of formal and figurative elements. Were they really necessary? It is true that the construction of the park must very probably had confronted a number of situations, of which a considerable number must have been due to the facilities and other peculiarities of the engineering infernus just below. This explains to some extent the constant parade of singularities in the park, its obsession with variety and the picturesque. It is also evident that recreational purposes also act as a powerful condition by adding playgrounds, gym equipment for adults, beach resemblances, and so on. They all contribute to explain the obvious discontinuity and variety of the whole.
Over these rather material justifications, is there not however a nostalgic remnant of the English garden, of the old British picturesqueness? So it is, or so it seems at least. The whole layout is thus more baroque than it is relaxing. It always stands out, and it does not always keep good company to the river. However, the final product does not lack quality, solves the mentioned situations brilliantly and in an agile manner. I do not conform to the too formal intention of the park, but I can’t deny the excellence of its design.
Madrid Río could have featured a different British condition, and a more attractive one –even though more difficult on Castilian land than it would have been, for example, in any of the North-Atlantic Spanish regions, like the Basque Country or Asturias. For instance, London parks usually are nothing more than simple fields of green terrain and trees, accompanied by a lake or pond here and there. Quite simply, they are just large unsophisticated green areas. True, in Madrid a green lawn is impossible or, to say the least, unsustainable, and to refrain from it counts among the wiser features of the park. In spite of past obsessions and efforts there are no greens, as they are exotic, costly and of difficult maintenance in the Spanish capital. To create Castilian gardening systematically designed for dry land with beautiful results is one of the biggest achievements, and one that deserves high appraisal. Sometimes the systematic approach even conveys the sense of continuity and changelessness which is to be expected of a park, as it is of nature.
Naif survival of past decade folies (a word which should be replaced, immediately and with no nuances, with stupidities) are the pedestrian bridges over the Manzanares. These bridges and their formal banalities greatly contribute to the impression of excessive picturesque and superfluous design produced by the park as a whole.
The best bridge is oblique, cannot be seen, and is the transformation of an old structure. From those that can be seen, the best has a Y-shaped top-view and presents an almost technical and simple image. The main folie is a formalist and excessive platform designed by Dominique Perrault (the question of why the French architect was chosen makes us wander in the mists of local administration, as his qualities, in spite of what some people may think, are quite dubious). His bridge is very apparent, and stains the whole with a frivolous and inappropriate image, although it no doubt will turn into a popular piece of Madrid’s visual identity. Another two folies are the twin foil platforms in the vicinity of the old slaughterhouse. Although the solution is not deprived of formal and visual ambition, it is also more technical and attractive than Perrault’s. Architects working as engineers, as much as engineers themselves, are very frequently formalist bridge designers, and this condition turns them into banal sculptors, unaware of the essential moderation and elegance of good architecture that can be seen in the three historical bridges: Puente del Rey, Puente de Toledo and Puente de Segovia.
I believe the best quality of the park lies in the details of its construction and design, which manifest the excellent contribution of the architect designers, Burgos & Garrido (and their team). Stone curbs, for example, which separate walk paths and gardens, are absolutely systematic and preserve identical concept and shape even when they are forced to change and turn into objects, such as benches. The same happens to small and medium facilities and to vertical walls, always solved with the beauty and soberness of granite stone. Or, in general, to pavements and the different layout details in frames and finishings. The gorgeous and inspired design of all these details, and their continuity throughout the entire park are the best deserving and admirable aspects of the project –although they surely won’t be sufficiently perceived by the great majority.
The outrageos old faith in engineering wits against traffic lives on, easy and abusive. In Madrid, it has generated an overwhelming debt and a large beautiful park. I believe the survival of this pseudorational belief does in itself more harm to the city than the debt, and that following the vision of Spanish engineers with folded eyes will always be very negative and lead to completely incorrect policies. Let us find comfort in the beauty of the park, eloquent alibi to a gruesome urban failure.
Antonio González-Capitel Martínez · Doctor architect · Professor in ETSAM
Madrid · september 2012
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.