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.


  1. And thank you for the extensive documentary, Richard. Maybe there should be any other site in Spanish where such a detailed and entertaining history of la Gran Vía was written. But I couldn't find it.


  2. Great your blog! A fantastic point of view!

  3. excellent exposure, you're a great storyteller about madrid

  4. Really nice pictures Richard, good work with this subject.


  5. perfect story, congratulations Richard.

  6. Wow! Everyone is so nice. Thank you for such great comments. It makes it all worthwhile.
    @Chelo, I will collect those kisses later this week!!!!!

  7. Great account of the street! Very interesting!