In the latter part of the 19th century, Madrid, like most of the capitals of Europe, experienced unprecedented urban modernization. However, what sets the Spanish capital apart is the variety of designs that flourished around the city as local architects reinterpreted multiple styles of previous centuries and embraced emerging trends from other European countries and the United States.
A Modern Architecture Showcase
Gran Via, the main artery of the capital and its most famous avenue, is also a prime shopping destination. Created in the earliest years of the 20th century to open up and modernize the chaotic center of the city, it is a showcase of Revival architecture, and a journey through the recent history of the city.
At number 28, the 89 m (292 ft) tall, New York-inspired Telefonica Building was the first skyscraper built in Spain. A few steps farther, the Avant-garde Gran Via 32 Building occupies the largest block of the avenue. Originally built as the first department store in Madrid, the building is now the flagship store of Primark in Spain and a great place to shop for bargains.
Among the several other emblematic buildings, it is impossible to miss the Metrópolis. Located on the corner of Calle Alcalá and Gran Vía, this symbol of the area was designed in 1905 by the French architects Jules and Raymond Février. The brothers created the facade in an elegant Beaux Arts style, with first floor balconies separated by four pairs of Corinthian colonnades, topped by statues representing Mining, Industry, Agriculture and Commerce. The central slate-covered dome is enhanced with elaborate gold-leaf garlands.
At the far end of the Gran Via, a very different but no less iconic building is the Palacio de la Prensa. Commissioned in 1924 by the Madrid Press Association (APM) for its corporate headquarter, the building was intended for mixed use, including rental apartments, office space, a movie theater and a concert hall. The stark, Eclectic style brick-clad features a16-floor corner tower that rises to a height of 58 m (190 ft).
Palacio de Cibeles
A mere 10-minute walk west of Gran Via, the Paseo de Prado and the Paseo de Recoleto, two of the grandest shaded boulevards of Madrid, meet to form the Plaza de Cibeles, named for the fountain at its center. It represents Cybele, the Greek goddess nature and fertility, depicted on a carriage drawn by two lions. Designed in 1782 by prominent local architect and artist Ventura Rodriguez, it was moved to its current location in 1895.
However, the dominant masterpiece of the square is the spectacular Neoclassical Palacio de Cibeles. Designed by architects Antonio Palacios Ramilo and Joaquìn Otamendi the monumental building of stone, iron and glass is one of the is one of the first Modernist landmark in the city. Construction began in 1905 and took 12 years to complete. It was for over 80 years the headquarters of the Spanish Postal System and Madrid’s central post office before becoming its city hall in 2007.
Today it serves as a major cultural venue about the city, offering an extensive program of cultural activities focusing on contemporary art. Under its impressive glass dome, the vast Glass Gallery provides multi-purpose exhibit space as well as a 262 seats auditorium. Above the 6th floor —now a gourmet restaurant — the roof terrace bar offers unbeatable views of the Madrid skyline.
Art Deco Metalic Architecture
A major product of the industrial revolution, and a defining feature of 19th century architecture (think London’s Crystal Palace or Paris Grand Palais) —wrought iron also found its way into the mix of Madrid Revival Architecture, My first encounter with it comes as step off the very 21st century express train from Marseille, France, at Atocha, the city’s main railway complex.
Atocha Train Station — Inaugurated in 1851, the original train station was largely destroyed by fire in 1888, and promptly reconstructed to reopen in 1892. The architects for this wrought iron Art Nouveau style replacement were Alberto de Palacio Elissagne, in collaboration with Gustave Eiffel (best remembered for his eponymous tower in Paris). The train platforms were covered by a steel and glass roof in the shape of an inverted hull, 27 m (89 ft) in height and 157 m (515 ft) long, flanked by two brick buildings.
In 1985, a complete remodeling began, based on designs by the prestigious Spanish architect Rafael Moneo. The overall project included taking the original building out of service as a terminal. Now on the site of the old tracks and platforms under the great glass canopy, a concourse with shops, cafés and office space surrounds a lush 4,000 m2 (43,056 sq ft) central tropical garden featuring over 260 species of plants from five continents.
El Palacio de Cristal — One of the most striking examples of wrought iron architecture in Madrid is the Glass Palace in El Retiro , the elegant park just a few steps east of the Prado. Originally built in 1887 as a greenhouse to showcase flora and fauna as part of an exhibition on the Philippines, then a Spanish colony, Designed by architect Ricardo Velázquez Bosco, who modeled it after the Crystal Palace erected in Hyde Park (London) back in 1851. Here, the delicate Glass Palace sits at the edge of a pond filled with bald cypresses (originally natives of the the swamps of the South-eastern United States).
Mercado de San Miguel — Opened back in May 1916 as a local food market just a stone throw away from the Plaza Mayor, it is another fine example of local wrought iron architecture. In recent decades, it has evolved into a gastronomic food hall where you can sample the best specialties Spain has to offer, including a dizzying variety of irresistible tapas. A dangerous place for foodies to wander into.
Good to Know
- Getting there — By plane: Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport is the largest international airport in Spain, and the home base for Iberia Airlines. It is located 13 km from the city center and includes 4 terminals. Terminals 1, 2 and 3 are serviced by the same metro station, while Terminal 4 has its own metro and commuter train stations. By train: RENFE, the Spanish national railroad company operates frequent daily service between Madrid and all major cities in Spain as well as, in association with neighboring European Union countries rail road companies, to Lisbon, Milan, the French coast and Paris, with continuing journeys to most of Europe.
- Getting around — The center of Madrid is easily walkable. However, the city is also blessed with Metro de Madrid, one of the better and least expensive subway systems in Europe. This underground network covers practically the entire metropolitan area and the airport. There are easy-to-use ticket dispensers in all the stations, with multilingual with instructions in Spanish, English, French, and German.
- Visiting — Palacio de Cibeles, Plaza de la Cibeles, Madrid, is open year-round, Tuesday though Sunday from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm. Closed on Mondays, 1 and 6 January, 1 May and 24, 25 and 31 December. El Retiro Park and Palacio de Cristal , Paseo República de Cuba, Madrid, is open year round, 10:00 am to 7:00 pm October through March, 10 to 6:00 pm November through February, and 10:00 am to 9:00 pm April to September. Closed: 1 and 6 January, 1 May, 25 December. Mercado San Miguel, Plaza San Miguel, Madrid, is open from 10:00 am to 12:00 midnight from Sunday through Thursday and from 10:00 am to 1:00 am on Friday, Saturday and Holidays.