The Paseo de la Castellana as the structuring axis of the city of Madrid
Allan Jacobs (1) remarks that some streets could be called “structuring” in the sense that, through their original design or their evolution through time, are able to provide with understanding or “order” a territory, a city or a part of it. The “structuring” street presents a unique dimension as a supporting structure of the city’s morphological framework and as a civic institution, capable of bringing a new urban meaning to its basic functions as a communication channel and as the foundation of the immediate built-up fabric. It is, thus, a key element in the interpretation or reading of a city in that, beyond its objective functions, it helps individuals to build up a mind map or a legible image of their environment.
The Paseo de la Castellana has the role of a real Structuring axis of the city of Madrid. That is, beyond its basic functions as communication channel and foundation of the immediate built-up fabric, it constitutes a supporting structure of the city’s morphological skeleton and a key element of its mind map, in that it provides the city as a whole with order and understanding. The historical development of La Castellana Axis shows how this unique quality is the result of a long and fragmentary process in which initiatives and projects have been chosen around a coherent argument capable of organising the street’s planimetric, topographic, building and functional dimensions.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Madrid’s urban development presented a dual nature. On the one hand it was based in a weak orthodox growing of the city planned on the Ensanche’s (expansion district) grid. It was designed in the middle of the 19th century by Carlos María de Castro —following the influential precedent by Cerdá in Barcelona— with the intention of building a complete city. But the overflowing dynamism of the real estate market in the informal city, built outside the perimeter of the Ensanche’s planned grid, revealed the existing deficiencies both regarding planning resources and land and housing management. On the morphological side, this duality aroused the need for a new spatial planning model capable of integrating the Ensanche and the outskirts (the so called Extrarradio) as the pieces of a new metropolitan space. The options for discussion (not with regard to the theory, but to the economic interest) were quite evident: submitting the peripheral growth to a new ring-shaped structure or abandoning the idea of the open-ended expansive growth, choosing as an alternative a directional growth or the decentralization of new settlements into satellite urban centres.
The origins: the Prados systematization
The formative stage of Madrid’s urban core was determined by the morphological peculiarities of the settlement site. The steep hillsides over the meadow of the Manzanares river made the growth direct from the primitive Castle or Alcázar to the east, until finding a new natural limit in the streambeds of the “Prados” (wooded lands turned into boulevards) of San Jerónimo and Atocha. Until 1625 —year in which a Royal Decree issued by King Philip IV concludes the physic demarcation of a stable urban area— urban growth can be understood as the sequence of overflows of the artificial borders (successive walls and ramparts) which are added to topographic restraints.
The construction of the new Buen Retiro Palace in 1632 in the surroundings of the San Jerónimo Monastery to the city’s eastern border had the potential not only to reinforce the urban polarity between west and east, reflected in the scale of the constructions of the primitive Alcázar and the new Palace, but also to define a new civic imaginary. As David Ringrose (2) points out, the baroque capital can’t be reductively interpreted as a mere random accumulation of monuments, not even as an integrated aggrupation of processional routes and public spaces, but as “a mythical, symbolic and almost magic diagram”, overlapping the real space of the built-up city. From this perspective, urban renovation and city beautification operations can be understood not only as the testimonies of an ornamental “mask” that keeps the medieval city’s structure intact, but as the configuration of a new mind map of the city.
The analysis of the ceremonial routes and the urban itineraries of the royal cortèges, retinues and processions performed by Carlos Sambricio (3) brings to light the evolution of the very image of the city. It is particularly interesting in that these ceremonial routes shape the urban context, becoming polarizing elements of the city’s physical growth. This way, the street systems that are able to connect the symbolic eastern and western poles —San Jerónimo, Alcalá, Puerta del Sol, Mayor-Platerías-Almudena and Atocha— are defined as the structuring axes of the city.
The analysis of the urban growth during the second half of the 18th century reveals how much this fact determined Madrid’s urban evolution. The city didn’t consider using the existing opportunities in order to direct its growth towards the north following the axis made up by Montera, Fuencarral or Hortaleza streets—running from the very Puerta del Sol— and Ancha de San Bernardo street. Neither did it organise its growth towards the south, aiming at the Manzanares river, where a new centre of attraction —the completion of the Toledo Bridge (1979) and the layout of Paseo de los Ocho Hilos avenue— seemed to induce to the consolidation of Toledo street as a potential axis focusing a new growth. On the contrary, the housing expansion was directed towards the Prados, in the triangle made up by Alcalá and Atocha streets, although not as a progressive regular growth, but directionally driven by the minor axes structuring the area as tentacles.
From this perspective, the works for the systematization of the Prados (from Ferdinand VI to Charles IV) should not be considered as a mere proposal of street embellishment, but as the consolidation of a complex urban operation aimed at transforming the symbolic pole represented by the Palace into a civic agora and, starting from there, promoting a radical transformation of the urban growth directionality.
In the writing of history, there has been a consensus in the highlighting of the “peripheral” (4) nature of the urban reforms from the Enlightenment, based in the limited operations accomplished for the morphological transformation of the existing urban core and, on the contrary, the tendency to undertake the re-arrangement of the urban borders in order to provide the city with clear limits, promenades, parks, tree-lined boulevards and gateways. From a more current approach, this reductive interpretation must be corrected. We’ve had the opportunity to analyse some other time how for the new enlightened mind-set, the inner transformation is not only limited to the renovation of urban spaces, but it embraces a wider concept in which infrastructures, hygiene and the architecture of special elements converge in a new global concept of urban embellishment (5), from which the new symbolic map of the city that we’ve mentioned before should be understood.
The interventions on the Prado, systematised by Hermosilla and Ventura Rodríguez, summarize, somehow, this new approach. Originally conceived as an intervention for the sanitation and regularization of the city’s borders (channelling of the stream, levelling and planting), the project evolved towards the “soft geometrization” of a new civic space, configured as an hippodrome and embellished by a series of mythological fountains conceived by Ventura Rodríguez: Cybele and Neptune to the edges and Apollo in the axis of the composition. The complex spreads northwards as a spindle along Prado de Recoletos, where the granary and the Convento de los Agustinos monastery were located, and southwards along the Prado de Atocha until the former Hospital General and the Paseo de las Delicias avenue.
The plan by Espinosa de los Monteros (1769) is doubly interesting for featuring the land planning projected as an integral part of the planimetric drawing-up, and also for including, in a separate box, the real topographic condition prior to the urban development works (1768). Some years later (1793), Antonio Ponz’s words reflect his contemporaries’ perception of the undertaken improvements:
“From the Atocha monastery until the gate bearing the same name, and from there, in an angle until Recoletos gate, the Paseo de Atocha and Paseo del Prado boulevards run along. They were whilom uncomfortable ways, but now, due to the great works on them performed, giving them the proper width, filling in ditches and streams, levelling and consolidating the ground, building all along —except from the crosses with the side streets— an engraved stone bench with an iron back and planting a great number of trees in several lines, the boulevard is the greatest ornament in Madrid and the most comfortable promenade for pedestrians and carriages one can imagine (…)”. (6)
However, the configuration of the new “salón” (tree-lined boulevard) wouldn’t have had the nature of a structuring urban component for the whole city if it hadn’t evolved from its initial orientation towards a more complex conception as a “cultural project” (7), by becoming a privileged setting for the implementation of the new urban equipment: Botanical Garden, Natural Science Cabinet (today the Prado Museum), Machines Cabinet and Astronomic Observatory, destined to express, via Juan de Villanueva’s architecture, the new world view of the emerging scientific thinking.
The plan by Tomás López (1785) overlaps once again the projected city over the real city and adds the plans of the Natural Science Cabinet and the Botanical Garden to the new road layout. By contrasting it with the plan by Tardieu (1788), which features just the performed works, it is possible to reconstruct the area’s incremental transformation and the commitment to the pre-existing elements, deforming the geometric pureness of the original proposal and shaping a more ambiguous space. The plan by Juan López from 1812 reflects the layout that, except for minor variations, has come down to the present day. The section between the Alcalá street and the Atocha gateway preserves some unity, forming a wide central tree-lined boulevard and two sidewalks on a noticeably horizontal platform, with a gentle slope northwards, below 2%. This section —about 130 metres before the Natural Science Cabinet— narrows as it reaches the Botanical Garden. However, the stretch corresponding to the Prado de Recoletos presents a noticeable twist of its directrix and section, segregating from the Salón in perception and composition. (8)
A new directrix for the urban development northwards
The convergence on a unique public space of the old royal symbols, the new aristocratic palace and the new civic equipment transformed the traditional centrality relationships. But the city would still take time to consolidate the new development directrix following the south-north axis outlined by the Paseo del Prado. The reconstruction of the Royal Palace on top of the Alcázar ruins would strengthen the importance of the eastern cornice above the Manzanares river, even more after the destruction, during the Napoleonic wars, of the Buen Retiro Palace. Besides, the systematization, driven by Charles III, of the empty land between the Manzanares river and the urban city, through a geometry made up by boulevards having their origin at the tridents of Atocha and Toledo gateways, seems to propose a will of colonization of the south-western periurban surroundings already suggested with the construction of the Toledo Bridge and now reinforced by the projects for the creation of a navigable canal system parallel to the river up to Aranjuez.
Why wasn’t it successful as a residential expansion district an area with such favourable environmental conditions? Couldn’t the city develop in the direction given by the Prado towards south, starting from Atocha and following the existent monumental axes? But something occurred that cut this possibility short, demonstrating the profound concatenation of urban events. The building, in 1848, of the “Embarcadero de Atocha”, the first railway station for the Madrid-Aranjuez line, entailed the specialisation of Atocha as the city’s border and gate. The creation of a railway track connecting Príncipe Pío station, to the west, and Atocha station raised an insurmountable barrier between the river and the city, specialising the southern urban area as railway and industrial area —in which three more stations were placed: Imperial, Peñuelas and Delicias—. It’s not by chance that, further in time, the personalities who provided the final boost for the northern development in the 1930s —Indalecio Prieto and Secundino Zuazo—, were those who understood that the thing was closely related to the redefinition of railway access, driving the construction of a new station in the north connected with Atocha by an underground railway.
But we are anticipating events. During the second half of the 19th century, once the discussion about whether renovating the existing city or spreading it was biased in favour of the latter, the options for structuring the growth were very conditioned. Without the possibility of a residential development southwards and considering the barriers represented by the difficult topography to the west and the royal possessions of the Buen Retiro palace and gardens to the east, the prevision of the urban expansion towards north seemed unavoidable. These circumstances were properly assessed by Carlos Mª de Castro when conceiving his project “Ensanche de Madrid” in 1859. A fast reading of the plan seems to suggest an option for the progressive semi-ring shaped growth starting from the existing urban core. Nevertheless, both the project’s intentionality and its material execution belied the illusion for continuity and homogeneity, distancing the experience in Madrid from its contemporary in Barcelona.
Castro rightly sensed that the construction of the stations and, later, of the rail beltway, would specialised the city’s southern area —today Arganzuela— as the goods exchange area or “logistic area”, being allocated to storage, industrial activity and subsequently to working-class housing. But in the north, the urbanization of the Fuente de Castellana ravine, concluded around 1834, suggested the configuration of a new urban “Salón” with the potential to become an emblematic piece of the city, as El Prado was. For that purpose, the section of the Prado de Recoletos stretch needed to be widened. This renovation plan was incorporated to Castro’s Ensanche Project and some years later it was undertaken. The configuration of the new avenue is analogous to the Salón del Prado —central boulevard and sidewalks— although its section is reduced to 90 metres.
In Castro’s proposal for social zoning, the aristocratic dwellings are located in the surroundings of the new Paseo de la Castellana, while the middle classes are located to the northeast and northwest —today Argüelles and Salamanca neighbourhoods— and the working class housing is established in the poorly communicated area located to the east of the Real Sitio del Buen Retiro. Meaningfully, the conception of the boulevard following the model of the classic “salones” deprives the Project of anticipating the structuring potential of the new north-south urban axis, made up by the sum of Paseo de las Delicias, Paseo del Prado, Paseo de Recoletos and Paseo de la Castellana. On the contrary, Castro conceives the Paseo de la Castellana as the organizing element of a small “garden city”, adapted to the topographic difficulties and to the poor consolidation of the lands located on the banks of the former stream.
“We take for granted that the Fuente la Castellana ravine will be covered by the extension of the sewage system beyond the new limits indicated to the citizens, but nevertheless, the construction ought to be interrupted in the slope spreading from the bank of the ravine until the plateau that runs steadily until Carretera de Aragón road and beyond. This slope (…) can be pleasantly arranged, by dividing it into graded banks, flower beds or low gardens, or what we esteem better, by drawing irregular slightly sloping streets, embellished by trees and flowers, just like an English garden (…). This neighbourhood might be considered aristocratic, for the high price of the plots wouldn’t be affordable for the small fortunes of the isolated buildings constructed on them (…)”. (9)
The plan by Ibáñez Ibero (1877) reflects the execution of La Castellana according to these principles. From the former Puerta de Recoletos —Plaza de Colón—, where the Fábrica de la Moneda is relocated, the traditional nature of the boulevard changes, its edges becoming a succession of urban palazzos on independent plots, following a more modest version of the model established a century before around the Buenavista Palace. Paradoxically, this typology rarely found in the city of Madrid would benefit —as we’ll later go through— the area’s morphological transformation, by enabling the speculative substitution of the original constructions for free-standing larger buildings intended for offices.
The boulevard layout obeys a landscape conception. The north-south directrix guiding the main axes in the Ensanche turns into a succession of turns following the course of the primitive stream. From the convergence with Calle del Cisne street —today Eduardo Dato— onwards, a significant turn towards the northwest is produced in order to avoid the Colina de los Chopos hill, whose hillside would host the racetrack in 1878. It would prevent the Paseo de la Castellana from reaching the Ronda del Ensanche street —today Joaquín Costa—, condemning the most important urban axis to incomprehensibly come to an end at Plaza de Isabel la Católica square before of the current Natural Science Museum. For this reason, the north access to the city is still the former Carretera de Francia road —today Bravo Murillo street— which runs over a rise twenty meters above the racetrack level.
In this stretch, the avenue transversal section paradoxically adopts a distribution typical of the high-capacity urban roads. The pedestrian sidewalks are doubled up in order to create a central pavement with a limited number of intersections connected by roundabouts and two side service roads allocated to the tramways. The section decreases to 80 metres in the straight stretches, reaching a diameter of 120 metres in the roundabouts. The longitudinal profile is almost even, with an average slope slightly over 1%.
The emergence of the metropolitan dimension
The development of the Ensanche entailed the city’s definitive move forward towards north, thanks to the discovery of a stable directrix for the urban growth and to the consolidation of the central functions displacement started out with the Prado project. However, there were two facts preventing the identification of the plan’s geometry as a model of the real city. First, the urbanization of the new city is discontinuous and heterogeneous, but tends to structure around the northern directrix represented by La Castellana along Serrano and the immediate parallel streets (Claudio Coello, Lagasca and Velázquez). The image offered by the “new city” to its contemporaries is not a uniform and continuous grid, but a tentacle-shaped urbanization. It is not mere anecdote remembering Arturo Soria’s reference of the configuration of Serrano street as one of the inspiration sources for Ciudad Lineal (linear city). The urbanization of the Ensanche spreads progressively, finding the new structuring axis of Alcalá street to the east and the support of the Bravo Murillo axis and the industrial suburb of Chamberí to the west, whose road network wold be incorporated to the Ensanche’s residential fabric.
Secondly, by the end of the century, when the Ensanche’s grid was still starting to consolidate, a spontaneous growth outside the limits of its outer ring roads took place —el “Extrarradio” (the outskirts)—. The new settlements depend on the city’s main connective axes, pressuring the planned concentric structure towards a tentacle-shaped configuration. In 1876, Fernández de los Ríos was already able to identify the vast majority of the germinal core of the future peripheral land divisions, which are present in the 1900 plan by Facundo Cañada as an irreversible physical reality. Soon, these hubs’ growth rate will surpass the Ensanche’s building rate. The origin of this phenomenon is not other than the speculative price raise of the Ensanche’s land, subject to a slow and expensive urbanizing process, compared to the lower land prices and development costs of the land division performed outside the scope of the Municipal Regulations, in a moment in which the massive nature of the immigration phenomenon in the city was confirmed. (10)
Is in this context where we must understand the proposed alternative models for structuring this development as Arturo Soria’s Ciudad Lineal. The interest of the project by Grases y Riera to create a north-south major road (1901), pointed out by Fernando Terán (11), lies in translating the Ciudad Lineal idea to the axial organization of the existing city, contemplating the extension of the axis Delicias-Castellana from Villaverde, to the south, until Fuencarral, to the north, in order to configure a metropolitan backbone with a total length of sixteen kilometres.
The fateful dualism between the weakness of the orthodox development in the planned city and the overwhelming housing dynamic in the spontaneous city evidenced the existing deficiencies both in planning and in land management instruments. Morphologically, it aroused the need for a new land structuring model capable of integrating the Ensanche and the Extrarradio as pieces of a new metropolitan space. The existing options were obvious: including the peripheral development in a new ring-shaped structure, as the municipal engineer Núñez Granés (1916) defended, or abandoning the idea of a new progressively-growing indefinite “expansion district” and opting for a directional development or for the decentralization of the new settlements.
The proposal by Zuazo-Jansen for 1929 Madrid’s Urban Planning Competition has the advantage of synthesizing the latter options by proposing a limited directional development northwards, based on the creation of a new urban element —the extension of La Castellana—around which to structure the new metropolitan centrality. This new expansion district brings, together with the consolidated city, a new area whose development is contained by a green belt, structuring the new developments as “satellite hubs” external to the aforesaid belt, connected to the metropolis by means of a new railway network.
The discussion on the extension of La Castellana
The idea of bringing back the axis made up by La Castellana as a growth vector, the key idea of the Plan by Zuazo-Jansen, wasn’t something new in essence. As the avenue’s development northwards was interrupted due to the interposing of the racecourse, the suburban growth had developed around the axis made up by Bravo Murillo and Chamartín roads, leading to the establishment, during the first third of the century, of significant slums in the Cuatro Caminos and Tetuán areas, as well as a constellation of garden-city residential areas in Chamartín de Rosa. This contradiction was soon evident for the contemporary citizens, and so, independent of the discussed metropolitan planning alternatives, the need to extend Madrid’s main artery towards north appears as a recurrent proposal. In 1916, Núñez Granés conceives a project for the extension of Paseo de la Castellana which is remade by López de Sallaverry in 1942 (12). Unlike El Prado or La Castellana projects, in which the road axis was understood as the structuring support of an urban piece also made up by the resting space and the built-up fabric, the projects by Núñez Granés and Sallaverry separate the road network from the urban morphology, unveiling the new —and reductive— conception of the road network as an independent traffic channel.
However, the axis is still understood as a representative will leading to highlight the monumental elements, particularly the creation of a large square in the avenue’s starting point, on the racecourse traces, and to the adoption of a rectilinear layout towards the north, instead of following the oblique direction of one of the two ravines branching off from La Castellana streambed. For that purpose, the new avenue has to climb the small hill Altos de Maudes, which entails an important earth moving in order to obtain a relatively even slope, around 2%, from the starting point in the racecourse (level 682) to the intersection with Carretera de Francia road (level 730).
Although the City Information in 1929 included this layout as a mandatory reference to the competitors, the Plan by Zuazo-Jansen introduced significant modifications in the renovation’s understanding, bringing back the idea of the Extension as an “urban operation”, that is, as a major argument around which the design of the road network, the centrality functions and the new residential typologies must be structured. The following explanation by the authors features a draft of every element of what we understand today as the formulation of the new urban centrality creation strategy:
“Madrid’s representative nature relies mainly in the great connection between north and south, from Paseo de la Castellana to Paseo del Prado, a magnificent avenue that equals, with its natural beauty, the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris (…). But the characteristic importance of this avenue is founded on, due to its significance with regard to the total map of the city, its role as an essential artery for the edification and the traffic, being the linking road that connects the northern and southern Spain (…). In the future, the avenue will gather the most important buildings for the culture —Gran Sala de Exposiciones (Great Exhibition Hall), Gran Kursaal de la Música (Great Music Centre)— and for the economy, with state-owned and private commercial buildings, great hotels and foreign representations buildings. It will also host the city’s future Central Station (…). The most essential hubs for the running life of the metropolis are directly connected with this avenue: the old city, as the absolute and commercial centre, and the new city with the industrial and business sectors and the green areas with the sports stadiums”. (13)
The proposal by Zuazo-Jansen is also interesting regarding the compositive aspect. The rotundity of the option of development towards the north is reflected in the avenue’s clear geometry, conceived as a large straight and symmetric axis between the old Paseo de la Castellana and the crossroads with Bravo Murillo street, Tetuán suburb’s backbone. Its directrix starts from the racecourse’s eastern edge —and not from the centre as in Núñez Granés proposal—, substituting the monumental square by a group of emblematic buildings, hotels and a station. This appropriate intuition would later allow modifying the project in order to establish, on the plot formerly occupied by the racecourse, a complex of government premises (Nuevos Ministerios) which would make irreversible the option for the development of the centrality towards the north.
The avenue is longitudinally divided into two sections, separated by a transversal green corridor. From the junction with the Rondas del Ensanche roads, runs a vast boulevard in which the main pavement is accompanied by two green sidewalks 190 metres wide. In the second stretch the composition changes, the green areas being placed to the back of the blocks facing the avenue. The major cultural facilities are located in the junction point between the two sections. The new railway station is located at the avenue’s north end —today Plaza Castilla—, which, together with another symmetric singular building, completes the composition, presenting a turn in the axis’ direction, from which the Carretera de Francia road runs straight until Fuencarral.
The layout’s geometry is coherent with the symmetric and severe nature of the volume design, based on a sequence of lineal blocks, identically sized, perpendicular to the avenue’s axis in order to get the most adequate positioning towards the sun. In a subsequent review of the project performed at the request of the city council, Zuazo modified some of the most radical aspects of his initial proposal, without compromising the project’s solid clarity. He substituted the first section’s longitudinal green areas by closed blocks designed according to the model tried out in the Casa de las Flores, with a view to promoting the section’s building possibilities and, thus, the operation’s financial viability for a possible involvement of private investment.
The project benefited from the boost received by the urban reform from the new republican government. Santos Juliá (14) has pointed out the new regime’s will to build a city able to adequately fulfil the function of federal capital and the trust in the State’s power to intervene as the mobilizing elements of the initiatives for the regeneration of Madrid.
In 1931, the Municipal Technical Office drafted a new proposal for the extension of La Castellana, included in the city’s Extension Plan. Its interest lies in that it represents a reinterpretation of Zuazo’s pojects without questioning the new avenue’s basic morphology. The ideas of the green sidewalks and the monotonous succession of parallel blocks running east to west remain, although the blocks lose the monumental nature proposed by Zuazo, thoroughly analysing the different residential typologies included. A new feature is the redefinition of the turning point in the avenue’s section, drafting, for the first time, the idea to create transversal roads connecting with the suburb of Tetuán by extending the streets Marqués de Viana and Francos Rodríguez, which will eventually become key elements of the post-war period projects.
However, despite their morphological coherence, Zuazo’s proposal and the Municipal Technical project differ in an important feature. While the first one opts for a centrality fostering operation, the municipal experts understand the Extension as a new residential expansion district. Paradoxically, the decisive factor for undertaking the renovation some months later wasn’t considered in any of the projects, although it is consistent with Zuazo’s strategic conception of the area.
The building of a new centrality to the north of the Ensanche
The arrival of Indalecio Prieto to the Ministry of Public Works and the creation of two new bodies in charge of the analysis and promotion of urban interventions —the Rail Services Commission and the Technical Cabinet for City Access and Outskirts— allowed the infrastructural operations not to be considered separately, but as driving forces of a metropolitan —or regional— planning wider idea in which the extension of La Castellana constituted a crucial link. As we’ve mentioned before, in the Plan by Zuazo-Jansen, the proposal of a new urban structure relied on the rearrangement of the railway access network. The construction of a new station in the north and its underground connection, along the axis of La Castellana, with the old Atocha station, aimed to reinforce the city’s axial organisation by introducing a symmetry between the north and south city “gates”. The former boulevard would become, according to this idea, the main structuring axis and service channel of the modern metropolis.
The idea of building a new administrative centre gathering the headquarters of several ministries, among them the Ministry of Public Works, constituted a unique opportunity to boost the project that Zuazo and Prieto had known how to understand and make good use of (15). For this reason, the architect suggested that the new complex were installed on the public land occupied by the racecourse, proposing its construction together with the first section of the new avenue. By this, he pretended that the architectural work formed part of an urban renovation of major importance that had an impact on three basic structural levels: a) pushing the beginning of the urban works for the extension of La Castellana according to the northwards directrix established by the Zuazo-Jansen Plan, b) supporting the north-south railway connection by building an important linking station on the racecourse and, c) starting the decentralization process and relieving the congestion in the Old Town by moving to the new avenue some of the functions typical of the traditional centre such as the State’s administrative offices.
The opening, two years later (1933), of the Axis’ first stretch, between the end of Paseo de la Castellana and the Rondas del Ensanche roads, coincided with the placing of the first stone of the ministerial complex, representing the connection between architecture and infrastructure. There is a relationship, beyond the mere formal reference, between the operation’s complicated conception and the precedent represented by the systematization of the Prados. In both cases a strong urban-oriented idea unifies the architectural and infrastructural projects, promoting their ability to be transformative elements for the city. The Prado cultural “forum” and the new northern administrative centre have as common thread a great avenue, which, unlike Paris’ Historical Axis, is not conceived as an element for the appropriation of land from the city, but as a symbolic summary of the city building historical process.
The projects for the Extension of La Castellana performed after the Civil War doesn’t represent relevant cultural contributions to the urban idea and to the executive strategy previously drafted. Nevertheless, the comparative analysis of the proposals by Zuazo (1929 and 1931), the Municipal Technical Office (1931), the Reconstruction Council (1941) and the Urban Planning General Office of Madrid (1947), constitutes an urban planning lesson by itself, in that they contemplate every possible solution for the typological and morphological arrangement of the new avenue’s sides. At the same time, this analysis exposes the importance of articulating the urban projects according to a structuring idea capable of integrating the modifications and deformations inevitably produced during the extensive implementation time. The urban impact is maximized when the structuring idea has, at the same time, the ability to become the seed for a new city, as in the case of La Castellana.
Making a first reading, in the General Plan from 1941 the northern vector strategic priority seems to fade away against a new argument about the city’s organic reorganization or against the importance given to the proposals for the emblematic recuperation of the historical Cornice above the Manzanares river. The extension of La Castellana appears considered as an “expansion operation” among other proposals for the extension and finishing of the city. But once again, the planning documents might seem illusory when compared to the relative weight that the real urban strategies had. La Castellana soon stands out as a “major urban project” and, although the writings about urban planning still refer to it as “expansion operation”, in the operative scale, the project’s centrality operation features are stressed during the republican period: the Nuevos Ministerios project was incorporated and it was extended with new administrative offices, the creation of a large commercial area was contemplated and new cultural and sports facilities were included.
The proposal drafted with the 1941 General Plan designs the final avenue’s layout. A 100 metres wide section is established along 2250 metres, made up by a central road and two side service roads physically separated by two tree-lined pavements, following the model of the last stretch of La Castellana. In order to highlight the perspective effect, an almost uniform slope around 2% is established along the whole avenue. There is now an increased concern about the integration with the pre-existing layout and, for this reason, the scope is extended until Bravo Murillo street, four transversal roads and a diagonal one are established, working as “ribs” emphasizing the arranging nature of the new Avenue and a planning system based on 250 metres long “superblocks” is proposed, in a way that, in the old layout, the existing blocks are subsumed in a new built-up edge, and in the new area it allows arranging the streets following the traditional alignment system and developing small open building complexes inside the large facilities defined by the perimeter building system. (16)
The relationship between open and closed construction adopted in this transitional project would be abandoned in the area’s planning definitive version approved in 1947. The chosen option, the traditional closed block, was justified by management criteria over cultural considerations: easing the private intervention by means of known and simple reparcelling techniques, following the experience gained with the execution of the Ensanche.
The new project’s traditionalist iconography, especially the scale model in which Rafael Moneo believed to feel the “metaphysical appearance” of De Chirico’s figurations, has detracted attention from the proposal’s deepest urban meaning. For Pedro Bidagor, the Project’s inspiration, it’s not a matter of urban composition but a choice —today considered as “strategic”— for the city’s future, since the new area:
“is called to be Spain’s most important urban element of the next fifty years (since, in it) is being located the city’s most prominent commercial hub and, therefore, somehow, the nation’s most exclusive commercial centre” (17)
The functional argument, this way, prevails over the neo-Herrerian rhetoric of the new service sector complex’s first images. It’s always remarkable the disregard towards the proposed planning’s formal details showed by Bidagor more than once. The well-known analysis by Rafael Moneo and Antón Capitel (18) save us going into details about the area’s architectural configuration in order to focus our attention on the urban proposal’s most relevant “structural” features.
We’re not facing a traditional “expansion operation”, but a mid-scale urban planning arranged according to a very clear street hierarchy. The Extension of La Castellana (Avenida del Generalísimo) and the two transversal east-west streets (General Perón/Concha Espina and Sor Ángela de la Cruz/Alberto Acocer) constitute the basic skeleton, completed by the creation of a large boulevard above the streambed between Bravo Murillo and the new Avenue. The borders connecting with Tetuán and Chamartín districts are regularized without trying to transform the pre-existent structure, the connection irregularities being absorbed by the buildings. The units contained in the base urban pattern are solved by arrangements into closed or semi-closed blocks in which a lineal north-south disposition prevails, except for the area between General Perón and General Yagüe, where a reminiscence of the arrangement into superblocks from 1941 remains.
The differentiation between the proposal’s two structure levels made possible the eventual creation of Partial Plans to transform the blocks into “modern” open-block entangled arrangements, but respecting the fundamental urban idea. Although the fragmentary execution has meant a deterioration of the architectural and environmental conditions originally planned (19), it hasn’t stopped the area from becoming the most dynamic directional centre in Madrid, reaching its definitive “maturity” at the end of the 20th century: surpassing the saturation, traffic congestion and land price limits.
In the Project from 1947, the area was sectioned into several zones according to their use and main typology. The commercial area occupied the superblock between Raimundo Fernández Villaverde and General Perón streets and ran longitudinally along Avenida de la Vaguada (today Avenida de Brasil). The middle-class residential area was located in the limit with the suburb of Tetúan. The open-block option was chosen in relation to land public development allocated for cooperatives and corporate boards. The rest of the area was allocated for residential use, under the ordinary regulations of an “expansion district” and private development.
It’s just in the latter zones where the more radical transformations took place. Muñoz Monasterio’s proposal for the surroundings of Santiago Bernabeu football stadium (1951) opened the typological criteria review, paving the way for open-building solutions. But the turning point was undoubtedly produced after the Competition of Ideas for the Planning of the Commercial Hub (1954). The winning proposal by Antonio Perpiñá entails a determined choice for the CIAM’s idea of city (clarity of functions, separation of traffics) and an “international” style repeatedly applied outside Spain in the new “directional centres” new typology. This tendency was reinforced in the Competition of Ideas for the Arrangement and Volume Composition of the Ministries of Industry and Commerce (1956), won as well by Perpiñá under the same criteria.
However, both projects are limited to singular spaces and uses. The implementation of the open-block criteria into residential areas materialised during the same period, through the Project for the partial rectification of the Avenue’s north-east sector (1954). In contrast with the open but “well-balanced and calm” planning of the first Commercial Hub project, the north-east sector review introduces a dogmatic revision of the blocks leaving aside the topographic and spatial criteria of the general planning. The height and buildings growth joined the entangled road layout, having as a result the functionally congestive and perceptively disconcerting effect typical of the area.
But no doubt, the most important transformation arrived with the new extension of the avenue towards the north. From Plaza de Castilla square onwards, the axis’ urban nature faded away, becoming a country road running along the limit of a highly dilapidated suburb. The Project from 1951 pretended to offer a new urban façade to the city’s north access, acting as a curtain interposed between la Ventilla’s substandard housings and Chamartín’s railway facilities. Despite the fact that the renewed avenue is conceived to have the same width than the first extension section of La Castellana, and despite the efforts to build up similar facilities in it (the headquarters of the newspaper Arriba, Ciudad Deportiva sports complex, La Paz Sanitary City), the area wasn’t able to get rid of the peripheral nature given by its origins, and the new urban boulevard failed to take form. The decision to dissolve the avenue’s northern limit into a highway link before La Paz Hospital, together with the road junctions at different levels, frustrated the idea of urban continuity originally pursued. At the same time, it reinforced the nature of city’s northern limit traditionally attributed to the Plaza de Castilla square, as a symmetric replica of the southern limit represented by Atocha.
The avenue’s contradictory configuration has, in fact, an obvious expression in the uncertainty and vagueness characteristic of its northern limit. The several projects that have historically followed since wavered between understanding the new square as the “city gateway”, that is, as the limit of the urban confines, and understanding it as an inflection or articulation point of a growing city.
Zuazo conceived Plaza de Castilla square as a crossroads focalised towards the north, in which the finishing buildings, one of them allocated to the new North station, serve as a curtain, and somehow, as a gate for the new city designed facing the ambiguity of the outskirts growing behind it. On the contrary, the 1931 project by the Municipal Technical Office formalise the Square as an agora or urban lobby, materialising the corners of a more virtual than real rectangle which breaks in the north-south axis and in the intersection with the cross street Bravo Murillo. The Project from 1947 defined the Square’s star-shaped configuration, maintained until its most recent renovation with the introduction of the new axis: Avenida de Asturias (connecting Carretera de la Coruña road to the west), San Aquilino and Agustín de Foxá (connecting with Chamartín station, finally separated from the Square’s perimeter).
The design of the new Northwards Extension of the Avenue would put a strain of the Square’s directionality, bringing up the premonitory idea to build two twin towers on the symmetrical triangles delimited to the north of the Square. This idea was taken to the extreme in 1967, by locating in these plots the volume resulting from concentrating the building exchanges of other lots affected by the Avenue’s opening, materialized into two 44-storey towers, whose construction would lead to the transformation of the Square’s roundabout into a mere extension of La Castellana.
Similar criteria have inspired the latest renovation of Plaza de Castilla in the 1990’s. The avenue’s continuity is maintained underground, dissociating the road functionality from the urban significance carried by the Axis along its route. The volumes, however, try to recuperate the “gate” image, by means of the “acrobatic” arrangement of the twin towers. If the intention was to capture the architectural expression of the uncertainty and unease that this city’s incomplete piece inspires, a better picture of the disaffection of these towers leaning around a non-existent axis couldn’t have been chosen.