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Chris Stewart

Collective Architecture's Chris Stewart discusses his overlapping roles as architect and member of the Scottish Ecological Design Association in promoting green design to a wider audience.

Fortnightly Blog - Madrid real vs imagined

May 9th, 2016

Once upon a time a King moved his palace to the centre of his divided realm. This was no ordinary King, he ruled over the worlds first super power and the wealth from that empire flowed into his new capital. The city grew quickly never shedding it’s political roots to become a centre of conflicting views and reflect a country whose national anthem has no words. This was the chosen destination for the 2016 Stratharch third year field trip which unfortunately clashed with a reunion to celebrate Carmen Polo, beloved wife of General Franco. Dr J immediately sent out a warning to his fellow companions, avoid traditional architect black.

Checking in at Glasgow airport it quickly became clear that none had heeded the warning and the tutors would have no problems blending in with any fascist reunion. The students on the other hand were bright and cheery, to the extent our own leader Don Pedro was seriously tempted to don a discarded pink sombrero, as a metaphor to the split personality that is Madrid. Pedro resisted but later admitted to a recent Ebay swap of his 1970s AR collection in exchange for a pair of Carmen Polo’s under garments, which dwelt beneath his very own Primarks.

The sharper trolls in the box might be questioning the authenticity of the many facts being spun, and they would be correct, the bigger question is which ones. Keep a score of what is gospel and we shall see who wins, Real or Imagined. For example polls show that those who vote for the rightwing People's party are three times more likely to support Real Madrid than Atletico Madrid, anecdotal evidence backed by former Spanish prime minister José María Aznar, a card-carrying Real Madrid fan who has repeatedly mused about joining the team's management. Or Spain is now being run by a party called ‘we can do it’ who barely two years old, seek to address the problems of inequality, unemployment and economic malaise that followed in the wake of the European debt crisis. There will be a prize for the correct score.

Day one brought choices, Don Pedro had organised a tour of regal proportions including the Palacio Real where it is claimed that the Hapsburgs invented a medieval form of photovoltaics using South American gold; the Plaza Major where the Spanish Inquisition expectedly burned a witch in each corner and a large one in the middle; a rusting metal structural wonder conversion that is the Caixa Forum; and the star of the morning Pedro Salinas Library by Juan Navarro Baldeweg (1992) apparently ‘zapped out of Terry Eagleton´s discworld’. Are you keeping a tally.

The alternative choice made by myself and a handful of die hard students, was Dr J’s tour of the Spanish Civil War front line which formed the siege of Madird. Coincidently this ran from our hotel across North West Madrid to the University, most visible in the Parque del Oeste where bullet holes decorate statues and two hastily built concrete gun emplacements strategically guard a summit. The exact route is carefully described in ‘Frontline Madrid: Battlefield Tours of the Spanish Civil War’ by David Mathieson, a copy clutched tightly by Dr J as he preached ‘Imagine the war, it’s easy if you try, fascist bastards below, above us only sky’, then proceeding to mock bayonet the nearest rosebush. Our imaginary war snaked to it’s conclusion at the Dept of Philosophy, the first structure taken by Franco, which he proceeded to blow up and murder the inhabitants. Madrid held out for two and half years but in the end fell on the 28th March 1936 to the Francoist armies aided and abetted by Adolf and Benito. The ramifications of this inglorious war are still felt today in a divided country of haves and have nots. We wondered back past the humble monument to the fallen International Brigade wedged between two car parks then onto the monstrous Moncloa Gate designed by the ironically titled Modesto Lopez Otero (1949) which celebrated Franco’s victory. Through the main arch on a clear day you can see Franco’s grave, 158.23 kilometres away in the Valle de Los Caidos. Do you believe all this.

Day two, I joined Don Pedro and Ayrshire Gordie who delivered a gruelling schedule of architectural fare, frog marching us past some delicious gems such as Francisco Javier’s brutalist wonder the Torees Blacos (1968) and Moneo’s beautifully proportioned Bankiter (1977). These were sadly more than matched by some gut retching piles, none fouler than the Hotel Puerta America by Jean Nouvel (2005) complete with starchitect interiors. Middling fare preferred nicknames in an attempt to elevate their blandness, this simply brought derision as we chortled at the ‘handbag’ by Norman Foster (2009). Ayrshire Gordie had scrapped the mud off his tattie hooking boots to reveal spanking black leather which he used in an attempt to move us all quickly past these atrocities. Don Pedro was not having it and gathered the eager faced and recited jubilantly from his guide book the merits of Bankunion by Corrales and Molezun (1975), I quote ‘with it’s vocation of absence, seems to attend the ensuing carnival with some sorrow, wearing brutalist shoes it can be heard muttering, I would prefer not to.’ After scratching our heads we could do nothing but stop and gawp at the 23 storey freak show which is the Torres de Colon by Antonio Lamela (1976) affectionately known locally as ‘Plug’. Am I pulling your leg.

Day three the entire party united for Don Pedro’s tour of social housing, which started in a failed urban landscaped amphitheatre in the periphery of Madrid. We put the ruin to good use with a lively debate on the merits of social housing and it’s links to politics. After such a build up and a dangerous wander across the motorway to MVRDV’s Mirador (2005) slab block with it’s communal hole in the middle was more than a disappointment. Projects seemed to alternate between thumbs up and thumbs down, the work of the B listed starchitects varied as follows; Shepard Robson, fed to the lions; Coco Arquitectos, saved to fight another day; Morphosis, throat humanely slit; Foreign Office Architects which even Ayrshire Gordie had to admit deserved the freedom of the city. Who is kidding who.

All journeys in Madrid seem to end at the glorious triumphant of art galleries; the Prado, Reina Sophia and Thyseen - Bornemisza. In a past life I had spent many an hour wondering through the Prado, marvelling at Valazquez jutting chins and Goya’s madness, so I headed for the Reina Sophia. First stop Picasso’s Guernica partly to get the obvious out the way but this time to take in film footage of the Internationale Brigade. I was wondering why there are no historic films of the Fracoist army, when I heard a whisper, Dr J in full architectural combat gear was beckoning me downstairs into the New Babylon exhibition, what a revelation as Dr J introduced me to Constant and the Situationist City. After such an intellectual feast we were in dire need of something more physical and stumbled across the Casa Fundada a former Workers Union Cafe behind the Peurta del Sol which has managed to retain genuine Madrilenos charm. To our surprise and resembling a pair of Hemmingways there were Pedro and Gordie, for whom the bar they propped, and together we devoured Rabas and drunk Rioja until the sun also rose.

Now to the final score, a whitewash for the real Madrid as everything written is the whole truth and nothing but the truth. For those students whose score matched my own please forward a self addressed envelope to Don Pedro at Stratharch who will post you his Carmen Polo's which I have to confess was the only untruth.

Huge thanks to Peter Welsh for organising yet another fantastic field trip, to Cat Mirren for her help on the trip and most of all to the students who as always were fantastic ambassadors of Strathclyde University. For the best in high brow writing please visit Jonathan Charley’s web page at

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