|The Prado-Recoletos Axis, a commitment to coexistence|
In the last few years, Madrid has been engaged in major urban planning reform with the rehabilitation of one of its most emblematic areas: the Prado-Recoletos axis. In remodelling this very important axis in the citycentre, the idea is to introduce a new mobility model in which the pedestrian will be the key player on the urban stage.
Architects Álvaro Siza and Juan Miguel Hernández de León, who won the international design tender organised by Madrid CityCouncil, are in charge of the project, 45% of which is already complete.
A commitment to coexistence – that was how the Mayor of Madrid, Alberto Ruiz Gallardón defined one of the largest-scale projects ever designed for the city, the Prado-Recoletos Axis, at the official presentation in the year 2003. Redesigning this important part of the centre of the capital city is a dream that the Mayor Madrid, Alberto Ruiz Gallardón, has cherished for two terms of office, not without various controversies and ups and downs.
The space designed in the Plan by Juan Miguel Hernández de León and Álvaro Siza restores and enhances the cultural, landscape and environmental values of the Paseo del Prado-Recoletos Axis, which is considered to be the "Golden Triangle of Culture" because it holds the capital's three main museums: the Prado Museum, the Reina Sofía art gallery and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.
The project also minimises the impact of the excess road traffic in the area, to restore the historical identity of this urban space and give priority to pedestrians. After the Plan is complete, the pedestrianised surface area will have been increased by 62%, to over 184,000 square metres. Although work started in 2005, according to sources at Madrid City Council, it was 45% complete in June 2011.
A project that was needed
During the project presentation, the mayor explained the need for this major urban planning operation by saying, “nowadays, to walk along the former Salón del Prado is to walk in a discontinuous space where it is hard for the pedestrian to link elements that co-exist in the same environment and which is used as a high-intensity traffic lane more than anything else". The proposal addresses the surroundings as a whole and reinforces the cultural nature of this thoroughfare where three of the world’s most important museums are located. The mayor acknowledged the complexity of the project and the challenge of building a new image of the Prado-Recoletos Axis that citizens can warm to. The municipal ambition is to integrate the surroundings, emphasise the cultural and artistic character of the area and turn it into a space that is accessible to all. Two crucial factors in achieving this goal are to give back the leading role to pedestrians and to redress the balance between public and private transport and pedestrian transit.
Before the work of remodelling could commence, a thorough analysis of the current situation was required. Some of the aspects that were studied included the sociological profile of the local residents, the traffic situation, the infrastructure networks, the urban fittings and the trees, monuments and buildings in the surrounding, both the 27 monumental buildings and almost 500 with some form of protection. The inventory also mentions the diversity of the urban fittings, with 37 different types of street-lamps, 28 models of benches and 23 varieties of bollards, not to mention the trees, which include almost forty different species – plane, horse chestnut, acacia, poplar, fir, cedar, magnolia, cypress, laurel, oak and elm.
Architect Juan Miguel Hernández de León and his vision
Juan Miguel Hernández León, the architect in charge of the project for remodelling the Prado-Recoletos Axis, considers that most of Madrid’s cultural institutions are located on Paseo del Prado and that therefore it is a space where people should spend time rather than pass through. From his perspective, in remodelling this axis, the goal pursued is to reinforce the landscape conditions while paying close attention to the qualities, social uses and topography of the place.
All of the aspects of the historical and cultural heritage in the area were taken into account when drawing up the Plan. As the project states, “a work of art is dependent upon its own contextuality, and the latter is rooted in its historical dimension”. The same express idea that an object is historical does not mean that it should be assessed according to particular time categories, but rather that its nature is from a specific origin. It is its spatial-temporal coordinates that complement its meaning. That is why a strict separation between the aesthetic condition and the historical condition is not possible.
According to Hernández de León, “an intervention like the Prado-Recoletos one should take into account both this slippery notion of character, and acknowledge its nature as a public space whose specificity lies in the architectonic heritage that qualifies it; and that the latter (the architecture) is justified in relation and in dialogue with the former”.
From this perspective, “to define the quality of these architectures, of the limits of its transformations and changes in use, is not just an imperative from the heritage point of view; most of all, it is to focus and concentrate on restoring the quality of a fragment of a city that constitutes (from an unquestionable historical unity, albeit built over the course of several centuries) a landmark of exceptional quality. Similarly, it would seem necessary to justify, in the general sense, the strategy followed in the proposed intervention, of permanent tension with History”.
Paseo de Recoletos
For the architect in charge of the reform project, “the unfortunate interventions around plaza de Colón, involving demolitions, replacements and the change in location of the monument to Christopher Columbus, were detrimental not only to the quality of the heritage, but also to the quality of the place, which affects the scale and context of the remaining heritage”.
Special mention should be made of the regrettable demolition of the Casa de la Moneda y Fábrica del Sello (Mint and Stamp Factory), a building that was designed and built by Nicomedes Mendívil and Francisco Jareño on the plot adjacent to the National Library and the Archaeological Museum, and replaced by the square that we know today. To quote Hernández de León, “the sober construction, which was completed in 1861, consisted of two lateral pavilions, each three storeys high, which marked out the central axis for access; with the right-hand side housing the Mint workshops and facilities and the left-hand side, which overlooked calle Goya, housing the National Stamp Factory”.
The façade over plaza de Colón was built over a small terrace accessed by two ramps and a staircase, and that justified the setback of the façade of the National Library (also by Francisco Jareño and, in this case, Ruiz de Salces), in relation to the built alignment of the Recoletos axis. It was also the backdrop to the original location of the monument to Christopher Columbus. The disappearance of this building affects the original relations between the parts of the whole and leaves the adjacent block off-scale, on calle Serrano, which was one of the streets that were included in the Castro Plan to expand Madrid.
The proposal in this Special Plan aims to restore the landmark of the monument to Columbus to its original position, thus visually enhancing the converging slopes of calle Génova and calle Goya, and to use the new volume that will result from bringing the Centro Cultural de la Villa cultural centre above ground to restructure an analogy of the former visual ties with the National Library.
Salón and Paseo del Prado
On the other hand, as Hernández de León goes on to explain, although the former Prado river floor or stream has been transformed over several centuries and constitutes a unit achieved by the stratification of interventions, no less real is the permanence of the lines that have regulated the entire process. "Basically, they are defined by the lines of the plantations, which ever since the earliest poplar groves and with the successive adaptations to engage in dialogue with the new urban landmarks, have marked out an impression of linear organisation, as may be seen if we compare the current situation and the series in historical maps”.
In the architect’s opinion, “this monumental ensemble presents an overlap between its dimension as a landscape and as exceptional architectonic heritage: first of all, the landmark of the fountain of the Goddess Cibeles, moved from her original position and with changes in perception and scale due to the incorporation of the current lower platform, has definitely conditioned the layout or the compositional status of the two buildings that flank it on either side, the Bank of Spain and the Post and Communications Palace".
In turn, the new “Post Office" or "Palace of Communications", built according to a design by Antonio Palacios and Joaquín Otamendi between 1904 and 1918, is a landmark in Spanish architecture, because of its ability to integrate the premises of stylistic recovery of Regenerationism with the ambition of formal renewal that arose in the context of the Industrial Revolution - and also, with the incorporation of some references to the Central European avant-garde movements. According to Hernández de León, “the complexity and openness of its layout, the sequence of its courtyards and its huge operations hall, means that the possibilities of a change in use should be limited by the need to preserve its architectonic values and by the accessibility of its public spaces”.
As regards Hermosilla’s layout, complemented by the new design and fountains by Ventura Rodríguez (the Cibeles (Cibeles), Apolo (Apollo), Neptuno (Neptune) and de la Alcachofa (Artichoke) fountains), the architect in charge of this project refers to what has been described b Fernando Chueca as the aim of “reducing a large whole, a very lengthy longitudinal space to a unit. It was arranged in a “circoagonal” form, with two semi-circles on either end, in the middle of which two symmetrical fountains facing each other were placed, in relation to a central fountain that was the middle point of this unitary composition”.
The longitudinal layout of the Paseo and Salón was reinforced with the incorporation of the fountains that lent meaning to the composition. The Cibeles fountain was initially placed on the apse side of the end and then in 1895 its location and position were changed. It was also raised and the sculptural group by Miguel Ángel Trilles and Antonio Parera was added. The Neptuno fountain was not in the centre as it is now either. In 1898 it was moved and its position was changed to adapt it to the new design of plaza de Cánovas.
According to Hernández de León, Chueca’s former opinion is accurate, but it is also true that specific arrangements to adapt to layouts and to the urban backdrop, such as is the case with the new relationship with the Campo de la Lealtad and the Dos de Mayo obelisk, in turn condition the layouts of new buildings such as the Stock Exchange, by Enrique Repullés, and the Ritz Hotel.
The Prado Museum determines its own specific dialogue with the boulevard; that between the Four Fountains and the extension of the orthogonal virtual axis with the south-facing door of the museum and the lateral access to the Botanic Garden is of particular interest.
The plots on the western side of the Salón and Paseo del Prado, with their palaces and gardens, were placed in a very different manner, longitudinal to this "urban living-room". In fact, the new streets that were opened up in the orthogonal direction caused many of the gardens to disappear, with those of the Villanueva and Buenavista palaces being considerably reduced in size.
Lastly, the southern limit of this axis is supported by the reproduction of the Artichoke fountain, which works as a wheel of connection with the Paseo de Atocha. The essential components of this end are the former Ministry of Public Works and Atocha General Hospital, now converted into a museum; an unfinished project despite successive interventions by José de Hermosilla, Sabatini or Vanvitelli, of which precise note is taken in the work to enhance this “illustrious” axis.
Location of the Prado-Recoletos Axis Plan
There have been several ups and downs in executing the Prado-Recoletos Axis Plan, of which only 45% is complete. It has been altered up to eight times over the years, despite being preceded by an international design tender, which was approved in 1997 and won by the team of Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza, who signed the contract to carry out the project in September 2002.
The City Council published the environmental impact study and the special plan, according to an agreement reached by the Governing Board on 17 November 2010, but in July last, the Government of the Madrid Region expressed its disagreement with administrative silence, while the City Council is still waiting for an official response that should have been made in April. Although the Regional Government does not specify why the Plan is being rejected and has not informed the team of mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, the reasons are public knowledge, as Esperanza Aguirre’s government has harshly criticised the project from the outset.
The silence implies that the City Council should reformulate the proposal, which is complicated when the reasons for the refusal have not been given, although it is still waiting for a reply from the competent environmental authority informing of the requirements considered for carrying out the project. The City Council's proposal vehemently rejects the idea purported by the Regional Government, i.e. to build a tunnel, and defends the project described in the work “El Plan Eje Recoletos-Prado: Memoria, Realidad y Proyecto" (The Recoletos-Prado Axis Plan: Memory, Reality and Project), which describes the history, the current situation and the future of this the most important 2.5 km long cultural thoroughfare in the city. To quote Mr. Gallardón, the project entails "a commitment to coexistence; not imposing and slicing up Madrid with the kind of urban planning that limits and impoverishes life in the city, but by making a commitment to the needs of its citizens: coexistence and space”.
Text: Carmen Méndez
Photos: Juan Miguel Hernández de León