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.


  1. Hi, Richard

    Just a little correction as far as I've read in your interesting article: the King Alfonso XIII abdicated in 1931, not in 1933.


  2. Very interesting piece, Richard.

  3. JR, dammit, I knew that! I always remember as 31 is opposite to 13. Thanks for the correction and I have modified the blog.

  4. Alberto from London21 February 2010 at 20:51

    I must say that I enjoy you writing about my hometown from my London exile. You are probably one of the most balanced blogs about madrid I have seen.

    That said your ideas about spanish naval history seems to be heavily tainted by a (generally prevalent) anglo saxon view of history.

    I would hence invite you to look into the Battle of Cartagena de Indias to start adressing those less balanced views.

    Keep writing as you do!

  5. @Alberto: Thanks for the positive comments about the blog. And you are absolutely correct about the English view of the Spanish Navy. My comment was heavily biased by that, it was a very stereotypically English humerous aside, but one I could not resist. (And I knew someone would comment - but then the blog IS my "view".) I am, of course well aware of Spanish victories. Spain had an empire long before we Brits did. So, with a string of naval victories, why do you commemorate a stalemate? But I do not mean to cause offence.

  6. Some really fun photos and info. I'll be back to peruse a bit more later.

  7. @Richard,

    You didn't cause any offense as it is difficult to offend when you are so balanced and sensitive to everyones views despite this being your view!

    As for why do we celebrate a slatemate. I can't answer. We spaniards are a funny lot and there are still a few things that need evolving specialy when it comes to accepting/recognising/learning our own history.

    Keep doing the blog in the same way!

  8. Hi Richard,

    thanks for this amazing blog. I am from Madrid but I have lived in Oslo since 2000. You describe every single aspect of it with incredible accuracy. I get home sick while reading.

    By the way, your writing is beautiful. Why not writing a complete Madrid guide? you know more about the city than anyone I know (Madrilenhos included).



  9. You know more about that than an authentic cat...

  10. I enjoy reading his stories about madrid.!Un madrileño!

  11. The buildings along Gran Via are truly amazing. I could just walk there all day gazing at the many architectural wonders. Its about time Gran Via gets worldwide recognition.

  12. You made me home sick... I´m now in Tucson AZ wishing a walk around my beloved Madrid...