Sunday 28 February 2010

Esta es la Via - The story of Gran Via, Part 3

By Richard Morley.
The past two post have been about the construction of Gran Via, from it’s 1910 beginning as the first demolitions opened the way off the Calle de Alcalá, to its completion in 1929 when it arrived at what is now known as the Plaza de España. It’s conception was punctuated with miscarriages of political, legal and financial indecision and its growth to maturity marked with the growing pains of changes in architectural style and building techniques.

The beginning: The Grassy Building by day and by night.

A walk along the Gran Via shows a progression from the elegance of a latter “Belle Epoque” through Art Nouveau to “Block Functional”. The grandiose, almost refined, first stretch of the original Calle Peñalver, built in stone, become flirty and a little gaudy as we reach the Boulevard. The Teléfonica building excepted, there is something of the whimsical here, particularly in those buildings built for entertainment. It is as if the restricted childhood of the first section gives way to an uninhibited adolescence. Then, in the last section, from the Plaza Callao to España, we see changes of style and attitude with the introduction of the new reinforced concrete and the philosophy that buildings can have multiple uses.

The Architect's Plaque on the Grassy buliding showing its date of construction - 1916

This starts with the very first building in this last section with Palacio de la Prensa which was designed from its inception to contain a cinema, retail outlets, offices and residential space. It’s architect, Pedro Muguruza, openly admitted to “importing” the “New American Style”. A paper from the Faculty of Geography and History, Universidad Complutense de Madrid by Luis Enrique Otero Carvajal, (et al) Professor of Contemporary History (in 1999), states that in this third section the designers deliberately renounced any temptation to be “Consciously Historicist” with their plans and were certainly looking towards a Brave New World of (then) Contemporary design.
Decorative Facades of the early years.

Ornate doorways and entrances.

One, slightly ironic, opinion of Professor Otero is that the opening of Gran Via presaged for the greater development of the Calle de la Princessa that leads into the Arguelles district and onwards to Moncloa, allowing it to become the shopping street that Gran Via should have been.

Taking that into consideration, do we have to consider that Gran Via is a success or not?

It is undoubtedly a major thoroughfare. It fulfils its original conception as a “Great Way” to join the east and west of the city very well. And it is certainly regarded as an icon of the city. It is never deserted. All human life is there and while apart from clothes shopping there does not seem much else to do (and I take the typical masculine attitude here that shopping for clothes is a necessity and not a pleasure!), the hustle and bustle continues unabated. But I suspect all those people are going somewhere – not stopping to shop or eat there, except for the final descent towards the plaza España where there are some excellent bars and restaurants.
El Mesón el Jamón

All this is really a preamble for a series of photographs I have taken as I walked the Gran Via and which I could not fit easily into the previous two posts. What I think they demonstrate is that the street has two faces: its day face and that of the night, and this being Madrid, the evening is when the street comes alive. The famous multi-coloured Schweppes sign casts its ever-changing light down onto the “Boulevard”, the pierced and tattooed, aging, punks meet, drink, smoke and, in the descent towards España, the bars and theatres radiate noise and light – and life – into a sometimes dismal daytime street.

Let's meet in Gran Via - then go somewhere that sell good coffee!

Many thing are sold in Gran Via - This being one of the oldest.

The junction of Gran Via and the Calle de Montera is famous for its ladies of negociable affection. Every city has them, but they easy to avoid - if you want to!
The other thing for sale at Montera
No trade for the shoe-shine men.

But plenty for the Lotterias y Apuestas del Estado.

The photo above shows just a small portion of the queue waiting to buy their tickets for "El Gordo", the grand state run lottery at Christmas that promises to make millionaires - but rarely does. Many people won't buy their ticket anywhere else. The queue stretched around the corner of the block for about two hundred metres.

The Teléfonica Building looms over the city by day but seems to cast a benevolent glow at nightime.

Once called the "Boulevard", then the "Avenida de Pi i Margall" and the "Avenue of Shells" - the explosive kind - the central part of Gran Via.
At night, the traffic never stops.

Outside a theatre one morning : to sleep, perchance to dream ...

Or write poetry to sell
The pavement poet sits outside El casa de Libro, the flagship bookshop of this Spanish chain. Arguably the best bookshop in Madrid. Its selection of books in foreign laguages, including English, is very good. Down in its basement you can buy books to learn any language.

The Capitol Building, housing a cinema, residential apartments and the huge Schweppes advertisement that flickers like a beacon over Gran Via at night.

Photographed from the Plaza España, the final section of Gran Via, once known as the Avenida Edyardo Dato.
And at night.

This final part of Gran Via has become iconic in its use in the Spanish Film "Abre los Ojos". To my non Spanish readers this might not be familiar, but they will certainly have heard of the Hollywood remake, "Vanilla Sky" and its famous scene of Tom Cruise standing in a deserted New York Times Square. Below I reproduce that scene from the Spanish film, much better in that it did not star Tom Cruise, but the scene was filmed from the top of the slope looking towards where the picture above was taken.

The scene from Alejandro Amenábar's film Abre los Ojos - Open your eyes - made in 1997

And with that, I am about done with Gran Via. It has been interesting researching the history and the problem has been more about what to leave out than include. I hope you have found it as interesting as I. At the end of Hemingway's "The sun also rises" the street features as it does in Georges Conchon's 1959 novel "La Corrida de la Victoire", translated into English as "The Hollow Victory". For a wonderfully researched account of Madrid just after the end of the Civil War I could suggest C.J.Sansom's evocative "A Winter In Madrid". Great description, but I found the story over long.

Thank you for bearing with me.

Sunday 21 February 2010

The Way Ahead - The Story of Gran Via, part 2

By Richard Morley
There’s a plaque on a wall Just as you enter Gran Via from the Calle de Alcalá. It commemorates the memory of Nicolas Peñalver, mayor of Madrid at the time that construction commenced, and his efforts to promote the building of Gran Via. I looked at many other plaques of designers and architects who worked on the thoroughfare over the years, but nowhere could I find any memorial to Carlos Velasco, who after, dreamed up the idea in the first place.

Construction begins
The same view today.

But in 1910 his dream began to be realised with the construction of first part of the street, confusingly known as “Avenida B”. This stretch, from the Calle de Alcalá to the Plaza de Red de San Luis was finished in May 1917. Once the old buildings had disappeared and the limits of the new road delineated, important architects vied to build grand buildings. The first to go up was the Metropolis building from a design by Jules and Raymond Février. Then came the Grassy Building with its tower.
The Grassy Building
The width of Gran Via allowed for tall buildings without the cramped canyonesque feeling one gets in the central parts of nearby Alcalá.
Gran Via - Calle de Peñalver.
In this section 67 houses were demolished and the street of San Miguel vanished forever under the new road surface. A house where Victor Hugo had lived as a child disappeared under the rubble, as did a girls’ school and the palace of the Duchess of Seville. In fact the only building left standing was the Oratory Caballero de Gracia, although there is not much left of its original façade. And you will notice that this building had an effect on the construction. The original idea was to drive a straight road up to the Red de San Luis, but the church caused the builders to take a slightly different direction and bend the road outside the church.

Oratory Cabellero de Gracia

I write about the “Red de San Luis”. This is the area where Fuencarral, Hortaleza and Montera meet, and according to the maps that is still the name. But you will search in vain for a street sign. The metro station that stands there is now called “Gran Via”, which I think is confusing seeing as how the street called Gran Via has four metro stations along its length. The station used to be called after the plaza, Red de San Luis, which is sensible as a location, but some bright spark changed it.

Six new city blocks were created on the rubble of the old and most of the buildings were finished in 1918. But the first section of the new thoroughfare, the actual roadway, was completed a year earlier. And in honour of the mayor already so well commemorated on the plaque at its beginning, the street was named in his honour.
The Teléfonica Building.

The next section, the “Boulevard” began work immediately. It most famous edifice, the Telefonica Building, wasn’t actually built until the late twenties, but for a time was, at 88 metres, the tallest building in the city. The similarity to a generic New York skyscraper is no coincidence. The architect was Louis S. Weeks, and American who also designed the Phone Palace in Bucharest and the International Telephone Building on Broad Street in New York and the as well as apartment blocks in that city’s Park Avenue.

The "Boulevard" under construction in 1922
Two years later - 1924

The “Boulevard”, from Red San Luis to Callao, known as the Calle Pi I Margall, after Francisco Pi I Margall, (some spell it Maragall) a man who had been the country’s president for one whole month in 1873, and the roadway was completed by 1921, although building continued until 1927. This was meant to be the pride of Madrid. A street of iconic buildings, grand hotels, luxury shops, including Spain’s first department store, and a new theatre, the Fontabla. Together with the work of the American architect, Weeks, Spanish designers, including Zuazo Muguruza and Antonio Palacios, the designer of Madrid’s Metro stations, were also included here.

The “Boulevard” roughly followed the line of the now mostly vanished Calle Jacometrezo, which had been described as, “Sordid and narrow with squalid boarding houses and a bewildering succession of dim shops, pawn shops, barber shops and student accommodation. Probably one of the most picturesque and animated streets of the previous century”. It sound like a fun place, if not exactly healthy, to live. The grandiosity of the new street did away with all that. What’s left of Jacometrezo has recently been pedestrianised and is now quite a pleasant street leading down to the Plaza de Santo Domingo.

The “Boulevard” terminated, as it still does, at Plaza Callao; a plaza named for the Battle of Callao, a naval stalemate for Spain that took place on May 2 1866 between a Spanish fleet and an alliance of Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Ecuador in the Peruvian port of that name. Quite why it should be celebrated I have no idea, except a naval battle in which Spain was not defeated was probably something to shout about!

The Third and last section of Gran Via under construction - looking up the slope from Plaza España

A mayoral decree of the 15th of February 1925 announced that work on the third and final section of Gran Via would begin the next day. This would be known as the “Avenida Eduardo Dato”. Two years later the work had progressed as far as the Calle San Bernardo with demolitions and the reconstruction for the final section down to the Plaza España taking place from 1927 to 1929.

The direction this section took sliced through the older streets at a very acute angle. You can see this particularly if you walk along the northern side of the street and notice how the buildings terminate in very sharp points. The Movistar office is a good example, but there are several others that would serve just as well. It seems no thought was given to a remodelling of neighbouring blocks and they were left just as they were.

Sharp turns and pointed corners

So, nineteen years after work first began, and sixty seven after Velasco had first had the idea, Madrid had its new thoroughfare, with its three sections commemorating the memory of three politicians; Peñalver, Pi I Margal, and Dato.

Then in 1931 the king, Alfonso XIII abdicated, Spain entered the period known as the Second Republic and it was decided these patrician names were not suitable. In fact many street names were changed as new political sentiments held sway. Early in 1936 the first two parts of the street were combined under the name of the “Avenida de la C.N.T”, which celebrated the Workers Party, or the Confederación Nacional de Trabajo. Then after the Civil War began the name was changed to firstly, the Avenida de Rusia and then the Avenida de la Unión Soviética, because of the USSR’s support for the Republican cause. Be that as it may, to many Madrileños, it was simply known as the “Avenida de los Obuses” referring to the shells that rained down from the Nationalist stronghold in the Casa del campo. As a centre for communications, the large and iconic Telefónica Building was an obvious and large target.

The famous photograph by Robert Capa, titled “Watching for the bombers” clearly shows that Gran Via was not a safe place to be. The glass canopy shown in the photograph has only recently been removed. I recognised the part of the street immediately as one I have often walked. It makes you think!

But, as history recalls, the Republicans were defeated. Their names for the streets that made up Gran Via could not be allowed to endure. So it became the “Avenida de José Antonio”, after the founder of the fascist party, the Falange. It wouldn’t be until 1981, six years after Franco’s death when Madrid’s socialist mayor restored many of the original street names and the whole avenue simply called, “Gran Via”. The satirists, music hall comedians of the 1880s, and the composer Frederico Chueca must have been laughing in their graves.

People tell me, because it was before my time, that Gran Via reached its pinnacle of greatness during the two decades of the sixties and seventies. What the building of Gran Via did for Madrid was to introduce the city to the “shopping street”, like London’s Regent street or the Rue de la Paix in Paris. For the first time fashionable ladies could window shop and spend their husbands’ money on international luxury. Those type of shops, Dior, Burberry etc, are now out of the true centre in the Calles José Ortega y Gasset or Serrano, where the tourist never goes. In its prime Gran Via was THE place to see and be seen with fashionable cafés and society restaurants.

Gran Via - Circa 1950
In this, its century year, it’s not like that any more. Yes, it’s the one place you can find clothing chain stores, and Madrid’s best bookshop with La Casa de Libro’s flagship store. But the grand cafés have been replaced by tawdry souvenir shops, the grand houses of haut couture replaced by H&M. Gran Via is beginning to border on the seedy.

Just off the street, of course, are some wonderful cafés and restaurants, usually down one of those narrow streets that escaped that “Axe blow on the map”. So although Gran Via might be Madrid’s famous street, it doesn’t truly reflect the city. It fulfils its function of connecting the two sides of the city, but the grand facades of it high buildings hide interiors nearly a century old. I know, I have stayed in some of them.

It is not Broadway. Yes, Spamalot and Chicago are playing there now, (and Tricicle are back – the funniest show in town!), but the real theatre is elsewhere in the city, and the theatres themselves show their age. The Art deco frontages of the cinemas around Callao display the lines of infirmity. Callao Plaza might be a place where people meet, and its recent refurbishment is a credit to the city, but they don’t take their tapas in Gran Via. It’s one hundred years old – and shows it.

It is a similar story in many capitals. As the city has expanded the centre has lost out on funding. Out of town shopping centres like Plenilunio and Isla Azul, with their ease of parking - if not easy connection to public transport(!) - have taken retail trade away. But all is not lost. My spies tell me that as the licenses for the various businesses in Gran Via come up for renewal, the city council will press for change of use. They want to attract the major names back. Over the next few years, “la crisis” permitting, Gran Via will hopefully be restored to its former glory. Already, following a fire, the street will have its first new building in nearly a century.

I was staying in the hostal next door when this building caught fire. The building has since been demolished and they are building its replacement. The first new building in Gran Via in almost a century

But a hundredth birthday is something to celebrate. This year will see a series of events in the old street. Among others an attempt to break the World Record for the largest crowd sing karaoke! But I am sure something more typically Spanish is planned as well.

So, it’s “Cumpleaños Feliz” to Gran Via. Happy Birthday. According to the ayuntamiento, the official date is the 4th of April. But after a turbulent century of ups and down, war and peace, prosperity and poverty, it’s time for a facelift.

But walk, as I did recently, from the start at the Calle de Alcalá to its end at the plaza España. Don’t just look at the ephemera of what the shop windows display, but look high and take in the timeless design of the facades of the buildings. See gods and angels fly from the rooftops, nymphs carved in stone around the window frames, and the exquisite proportions. Regard the immense scale of the buildings, the width of the road. Recall the history. Imagine sandbags lining doorways and bursting shells. See well-dressed ladies shopping and the clang of the trams passing by. And in that space try to picture the narrow, dank, depressing, dirty streets and alleys that Gran Via replaced. The street is a triumph, an architectural marvel.

And remember Carlos Velasco, whose idea it was, because no one else does.

Monday 15 February 2010

Where there’s a will – there might be a way

By Richard Morley.

This photograph, taken in 1900, is really part of the history of Madrid's longest road, the Calle de Alcalá. On the left hand side, in the background, is an entrance to another street. Those who know Madrid will say, "Oh, that's the entrance to Gran Via". Except that in 1900 Gran Via did not exist.


Cast your minds back, say to, a Century ago. Imagine an expanding Madrid. To the east there is the newly sprawling district of Salamanca and to the northwest the bustling areas of Moncloa, the university district, Arguelles. And in between them Old Madrid; a messy tangle of ancient, narrow, and not very sanitary streets. The only route from east to west is along the Calle de Alcala, through the confused and crowded Puerta del Sol, a crowded, gridlocked intersection, and out along the Calle Mayor towards the palace. At the time none of those roads were wide – some are still not – and with traffic of horse drawn carts, the first trams, perhaps an early motor car or two, the congestion was more than the town could take.

What was needed was a by pass.

The plan was simple: Drive a road from the Calle de Alcala, somewhere near what is now Cibeles, to the Plaza de España, but no suitable alternative route existed. When Carlos Velasco drew up the first draft in 1862 it was obvious its execution would be far from easy.

To build a road through the mess that was Madrid in the late 1800s was going to throw up many problems. Maps of the time show the radiating roads from Sol heading north to be continuous, but none of the short, disjointed, east-west streets were really suitable for the widening and straightening that this new thoroughfare needed.

The name on the original plans was “The elongation of the Calle Preciados and it’s link with Alcalá”. Those who either opposed or thought the project impossible gave it another, ironic, name: “The Great Way”, or in Spanish, “La Gran Via”.

Although first dreamed of in 1862, the first proposals did not see the light of day for another twenty four years. In 1866 Carlos Velasco presented the city with three routes.

1. A straight line from the church of San José in the Calle de Alcalá to the Plaza San Marcial. Many places in Madrid have had one or several changes of name over the years. Today, the plaza San Marcial is better known as the Plaza de España.

2. In two straight lines with a bend in the middle. Using the present day names, the route would have followed the Calle de los Reyes and then have turned sharply eastwards along the Calle del Pez and continuing straight through the Calles de Puebla, San Onofre, Infantas to enter the Calle de Alcalá much closer to Cibeles than it does today. For those of you who know the city, think of Gran Via being a couple of hundred metres north of its present position and sweeping through that mass of tiny streets between the Telefonica building and Tribunal.

3. In three straight lines. The first from San José to just north of the confluence of the Calles of Montera, Fuencarral and Horteleza, (the area now called the Plaza de Red de San Luis – or where Gran Via Metro station stands). From there due west to present day Callao, and then a swing northwest down to España. Of course, this was the route finally decided on.

Calos Velasco had grand plans for the Gran Via. It would be twenty five metres wide, with the centre section, meant to be the “poshest” bit at 30 metres. At the intersection with the Calle Alcalá there would be a large roundabout to direct traffic. At it end at España would be a long, elliptical roundabout. To make it really distinctive, the original plan was to have the pavements, (sidewalks for my US readers), made from wood.

So far, so grand!

And the City Council rejected it with the words, “…it did not create any obligation for the Municipal Corporation”!

Basically, it was going to be expensive. In that maze of streets that lay between Alcalá and Marcial stood three hundred and thirty-four buildings in thirty blocks that the council would have to purchase – and demolish. The mayor, Conde Romanones, formed a committee to study the feasibility of “forced expropriation”, but due to a legal technicality its findings were declared null and void. A French company’s attempt to take over the project was denied on grounds of cost. So the plan went to the national parliament to declare the project a “Public Utility” and for the government to enforce the Expropriation Act, part of the Laws of Enlargement, drawn up in the latter half of the 19th century, that allowed Madrid to expand.

Around this time the citizens of Madrid were of several minds regarding this proposed new street. There were those who thought it a good idea; those who thought it would never happen; and those who chose to make fun of it. It was a subject for music hall jokes and an opera by Chueca. Taking the form of a Zarzuela the opening scene is of the streets, personified by actors, who are bewailing their fate. Here we see the Calles de la Sarten, Libertad, Primavera, Paloma, Reloj, Luna, Priora, Caza, and Pez. And the alleyways of Perro and Gato all wondering what will happen to them.

Those names are, or were, real names and it’s a great shame that Madrid has lost “Frying Pan Street” and “Clock street”, “Hunting Street” and “Cat” and “Dog” alleys. (Actually, the bane of any student of old Madrid is the cavalier manner with which street names get changed. I am sure one day we will awaken to find they have changed the name of the city!)

For eight long years the project was delayed even though yet another feasibility study was published in 1888 by the State Council and there was even an attempt by the widow of the now “late” Carlos Velasco in 1894 to renew the declaration of the project as a public utility. She tried again the following year and also in 1898.

However, in the intervening years the Spanish Government had passed new sanitation laws. In August 1898 the mayor ordered the municipal architects, A. Octavo and F. Lopez de Salaberry to review the project and an unnamed physician was to examine the sanitation of the affected area. It was the sanitation that clinched the deal.

According to a Royal Decree given on the 26th of January 1901 the construction of the Gran was justified based on the following points:

1 To unclog the Puerta Del Sol; 2 To ease communications between the prosperous districts of Arguelles and Salamanca; 3 To improve journey times between Atocha and Principe Pio railway stations; and, 4 To remove the unhygienic housing and clear the dismal and “murky” streets.

Note the year: 1901. So far, from first inception it had already taken thirty nine years. So, they got down to work immediately. Er! No they didn’t.

It was decided to build the thoroughfare in three parts. Avenue A, from San Martial (España) to Callao, “Boulevard” from Callao to Red de San Luis, and Avenue B, from Red de San Luis to Alcalá. And despite the alphabetical terminology, they planned to start with Avenue B first!!

The final design was for a road of 1,316 metres of 25 metres width, except the posh “Boulevard”, which would be 35 metres wide. The total area affected was 141,500 square metres or property and 40,100 square metres of roadway. 312 houses were to be demolished, 44 plots of land to be acquired, nearly 9000 square metres of pavement, 26,365 square metres of paved and cobbled squares to be removed. Also they had to remove and reroute fourteen and a half kilometres of water and gas pipes, 274 street lights and 100,000 cubic metres of soil, rock and rubble. The city would lose 48 roads and the report I culled these figures from says 358 fincas, which I understood to be “farms”, but can actually mean any type of property. One definition is “town house”, which makes sense.

It was a sizable undertaking.

On the 21st of August 1904, the project was approved, although it included a clause abolishing the “Boulevard” if it was so decided. And the project was now divided into four sectors as Avenue A was bisected by the Calle San Bernado. Thirty two new city blocks would be created.

So now the project was approved. Now the City council had to decide who would do the work. There were various architects and contractors bidding for the work. Finally Martin Albert Silber suggested that the City itself be the main contractor and in 1909 this was done, appointing one Martin Albert Silber as the man in charge. Now there’s a coincidence!!

Finally, in 1910, forty eight years after being just a twinkle in a city planners eye, Madrid’s mayor, Nicolas de Peñalver Zamora, initiated the start of works.

"Demolition of houses for the opening of the Gran Via - 1912"

Like “An axe blow on the map”, the demolition teams moved in, and over the next nineteen years the face of Madrid was going to be changed for ever.

This is part one of my Gran Via post. Come back soon for part two.