Thursday 12 November 2009

Monumental Folly

By Richard Morley

Madrid has a new landmark. Usually after a statement like that, given that Madrileños are a conservative bunch who don’t take easily to change, I would write “and opinions are divided”. They certainly are over the new layout for the plaza del Sol and not everyone agrees that the Cuatro Torres, the highest buildings in Europe, are an iconic symbol of the city. However, I have yet to hear one complementary word about the new addition to Madrid’s skyline.

Officially it is called the Madrid Obelisk and is a present to the city from the Caja Madrid bank. It is there to mark the bicentenary of the French getting kicked out of Spain. Standing, as it does, at the Puerta de Europa, I am not sure if that is terribly diplomatic. (According to an entry on Wikipedia the obelisk is to celebrate three hundred years since the inauguration of the bank. I am told this is not true. Well, it is Wikipedia!)

It’s other names range from the polite, “Golden Needle” to, rather rudely, (and those of a sensitive nature do not kill the messenger,) “El Dildo Dorado”, The Golden Dildo, which is nicely alliterative as well as descriptive. I get the idea that the city’s residents, at least the ones who talk to me, are not impressed.

Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, it stands ninety two metres high with a diameter of two metres. Apparently it is meant to sway like bamboo in the wind. Now the Plaza Castilla is already a place to avoid for sufferers of vertigo as the leaning towers of the Torres Kio dominate and hang over the plaza like opposing tsunamis. Stick a swaying, golden column in between and you have an instant recipe for seasickness.

But at least the two towers played well their role as a gateway out of the city and a frame for a city-side view of the four towers. This new monstrosity blocks that view and seems as alien, with its golden flutes, as an acupuncturist’s needle in the face of a well loved friend, to paraphrase the English crown prince.

Perhaps that is the obelisk’s problem. It has been built in the wrong place. It’s Rococo / Ormolu fluting would be more at home in the more classical parts of the city; Opposite Atocha station in the Plaza Emperador Carlos V, for instance. Or even in, or at least near, the Retiro Park. Hidden by the trees it would hardly be noticed close up and yet be seen from afar.

But surrounded by some of the most daring and modern architecture in Madrid, it seems definitely out of place. Trying to take photographs there this week I found it cluttered, and detracted from, a modern, open urban landscape.

Well, it’s too late now. Its base is rapidly nearing completion, so they are not about to tear it down and move it.

And really, what is its point? It commemorates a bank! I have no idea what the cost of this folly is, but can’t help thinking it could be money better spent. The Caixa Bank has given the city a wonderful addition in the Forum to an already impressive list of art galleries and Caja Madrid itself has sponsored many great exhibitions. So who was the idiot that decided that in this time of deep financial crisis a fitting monument would be an insulting finger upraised in the face of the suffering public?

Last month activists belonging to Greenpeace climbed to obelisk to protest against climate change. Their banners seemed to put the blame on El Presidente, José Zapatero.

At least someone has found a use for this monumental mistake.


  1. It's just ugly and seems totally out of place! And people wonder why everyone prefers Barcelona to Madrid when it comes planning a weekend getaway.


    Reminds me of this Not The Nine O Clock News Sketch

  3. @VP. Thanks for reminding me of that. A very funny sketch.

  4. I hate this damn thing. I know it´s not finished, but so far it looks to me like a pile of trash, or old driftwood. It doesn´t look golden, it just looks dirty. All I can say is, at least they put it out near the Cuatro Torres, so that it doesn´t detract from the character of the ¨real¨city, by which I mean the old city.

  5. I can't say it has an impact on me one way or the other. If I want to look at attractive buildings in Madrid I'll got to the Plaza Mayor or walk around Madrid de los Austrias. To me Plaza de Castilla is a transport hub, and that's all it will ever be. I really don't think it has any bearing on Barcelona's tourist appeal either. Brits go there because it's on the coast or they've read about Catalunya from George Orwell. People like me prefer Madrid as generally locals are more open, the water's drinkable and you get free tapas with your drinks. If I want to see great monuments I'd go to Segovia, Toledo or even El Escorial.

  6. @CafeMark: You have a point. Sticking it out there will not detract from the "Traditional" centre. It's quite likely no turist will ever see it. Segovia would be my choice!