Tuesday 28 December 2010

A Roof Over Your Head

By Richard Morley

It was bitterly cold. I didn’t want to remove my gloves to reach the cash in my pocket to pay for the caganer I had just bought for a friend’s Belen, the Spanish word for nativity scene. I love these little characters. They seem so irreverent during this Christmas time, yet they are funny. I was at the Christmas market in the Plaza Mayor. Darkness had fallen and the circles of illuminations swaying gently in the chill breeze above my head did nothing to relieve the cold.

The Caganeres often are used to poke fun at political figures or celebrities.

Summer visitors to Spain can hardly believe just how cold it can get in Madrid in winter. As I write this, the day after Christmas, it’s ten in the morning and there is still frost on the roof of the supermarket across from my apartment block. While I was out and about taking photographs of the Christmas lights for the previous post, the metal body of my camera was so cold I could barely hold it steady, and the ice-covered pavements first thing in the morning last week were a danger to life and limb.

When it comes to weather, Madrid, so centrally placed in the Iberian peninsular, is a city of extremes. So cold in winter and yet, so swelteringly hot in the summer months. I first arrived here one balmy May evening and fell in love with the city and assumed, so far south of a cool English spring, that this was normal in Madrid. My next visit, three months later in August soon dispelled that. The city was oven hot and sensible people took refuge in air-conditioned shops and museums.

And likewise, as soon as my business at the Christmas market was concluded, I escaped the bitter chill to a place of heated air and hot tapas. Albóndigas and Croquetas, steaming hot, was definitely something to be devoutly consumed.

It’s comforting to know that, at least as the plaza mayor is concerned, these extremes of temperature will soon be a thing of the past. Too cold in winter, too hot in summer, this jewel in the Madrid tourist crown will soon be a place of equitable climate all year round.

The Kagod Centre in Washington - designed by Foster and Associates.

Taking inspiration from more northerly countries, which have their own extremes of climate to deal with, the ayuntamiento of Madrid have decided to enclose the plaza under a roof of glass. The construction was put out to tender and the design of a Japanese firm of architects, Yono Creo and associates, has been chosen to do the work. Apparently they has stiff competition from an American company, Darel-Mentisa, who won the contract for the new bio-domes which will be erected at the south end of the Retiro park and which will incorporate the rose garden and provide a new home for the tropical garden currently housed at Atocha railway Station. The Retiro’s army of roller-bladers and skateboarders are said to be not happy at the prospect of losing their playground. The tropical garden at Atocha will become a business centre.

An example of how the southern half of the Retiro will look enclosed in the biodome.

This will not be the first time an open area has been covered with a glass roof. Just a block away in Sol the Casa de Correos, now the home of the Comunidad de Madrid, had its central courtyard covered long ago.

The Plaza Mayor however, covers a much larger area. The specifications for the new roof stipulated that there would be no central supports or pillars. One design proposed a light plastic roof supported by air pressure alone. This was considered unsuitable as it would have necessitated double-door vestibules at every entrance to the plaza to maintain the higher air pressure. The winning design was successful for two reasons. It incorporates a cantilever construction strong enough to support real glass. The glass chosen however, is far from ordinary. Reactive to sunlight like photo-chromatic sunglasses, the full glare – and therefore heat – of the midday sun will be mitigated. Every second pane will be a transparent solar panel generating electricity to power a climate management system, which will allow the plaza to maintain a comfortable environment at any time of year.

As someone who rarely goes to the Plaza Mayor, considering it a place for poor and expensive food, I think will make a great difference to this historic heart of the city. Just next door, the Mercado San Miguel has been converted from a run down food market into a sophisticated and up market food hall and the chosen meeting place of the Madrid elite. If the Plaza goes the same way it might begin to challenge the restaurants of La Latina, Chueca or Serrano.

A spokesperson for the ayuntamiento, Mentira de las Día de los Inocentes, has suggested that if the Plaza Mayor Project is a success, a similar roof will be provided for the bullring at Ventras, allowing corridas to continue all year round.

What do you think?


  1. You are roof-less, Mr Morley. ;-)

  2. I guess they'll pay for it all with the proceeds from selling off the Puerta de Alcala and Cibeles? - http://bit.ly/hiQ0tq

  3. ... and I had just be telling my Dutch husband all about Día de los Inocentes, also a tradition in my home country! (Argentina)- I totally fell for that!!!!
    I loved the name "Mentira del Día de los Inocentes" Lol!

  4. Hmmm...don't know what I think about the roof idea...I think it's an interesting idea though...I love the San Miguel Market, but it has a different feel to it and VERY good food! On another note...I hate the caganeres...eeeew! but hey, that's just me. Hahaha

  5. Ahhh I'm the Inocente!! Got me!

  6. I like the name of the Japanese firm myself!

  7. aah Mr Morley - what shall we do with you??

  8. Got me too. But we went to Nuestra Señora de Communicaciones today to look at the (amazing!) belén, and were hugely impressed by the glass roof they've installed over an l-shaped internal street.