City of Earth
|© Melchor Sarasketa|
In old barrios such as Lavapies and Embajadores, the earth can be sensed just under the cobblestones and in the walls. The jagged backs of houses visible from vacant lots are built of crude muddy brick framed in wood, baked earth braced in timbers and raised over dark hollows of space. The brick is crumbling, the wood twisted and dry, the walls riddled with tiny opportunistic windows, chiseled open from inside and fitted with lace curtains or a makeshift clothesline.
But the earth of Madrid is also a metaphor, an idealization of substance like the English lawn, a distillation of surface and light that captures an essential aspect of the city's character. It appears in unpaved plazas, and in the walks and cafe terrazas of the city's parks, a hard floor of fine sandy earth, like a still pool, like the ground glass projection plate of a camera, an unbroken surface of softened, broken reflected light. We also find it in the faded yellow facades of the oldest houses, which though of paint and stucco have the same luminous, metaphysical surface.
|© Henri Cartier-Bresson|
The abstract, absent quality of this surface is expressively charged by the figures and objects that occupy it. In the Plaza de la Paja or Plaza of Straw, which lies in front of the half-ruined church of St. Andrés in the oldest part of the city, the surface of earth, contained by curbs and walks, is like an empty stage. The lack of pavement, of its subtle regulation of lines and subdivisions, gives to the trees, the benches and lampposts, and the people who move across it, the role of actors in space, revealing the hidden lines and configurations of their formal relations.
The formal clarity of such a space is not accidental. At the Escorial, the monastery-palace of Felipe II in the mountains north of the city, the enormous plaza on two sides of the building (sited so that one side is always in the shade), though of granite, is of such a scale and texture that the divisions between the blocks disappear in perspective, and what remains is the rough surface and yellow earthen tint of the stone. The monumental portals that interrupt the impressive walls of the palace polarize the undifferentiated space of this plaza. Tension radiates from all its borders. On the long sides opposite the palace, low walls, trees and low ranks of buildings hold back the upper town and hill; the two narrow ends open to vistas of mountain and valley. In an old engraving, a procession of royal carriages crosses this empty stage like boats at sea, dwarfed and isolated despite the attending crowd, moving with deliberation between the different antipodes of the space.
The most dramatic effects of surface and light occur in the Plaza de Toros or bullring, where the contest between toro and torero, dressed in the dazzling armor of his traje de luces, his "suit of lights," takes place against the slow eclipse of the sun across the ring of sand by the plaza's walls as the afternoon unfolds. The Plaza de Toros is urban in origin, as its name suggests -- Madrid's Plaza Mayor was built as both market and arena for bullfights and other spectacles, like the Plazas Mayor of many cities and towns. In the stands around the ring or the balconies around the plaza, the price of seats varied according to location, sun or shadow, a division that could influence the development of a town, with the poor settling behind the sunny side of the plaza and the rich occupying the shade. The harsh pressure of the sun and the refreshing chill behind the advancing line of shade, both functions of the thin dry air of the meseta, divide the two worlds of the plaza and the city: a world of pure surface, abstract like a desert but contained, that mediates and absorbs the shock of the light, and a world of shadow, dim interiors and night, with its sightless metaphors of depth and immersion.
This second world begins below the city, in the rich aquifer that descends from the sierra, the springs and underground streams that make Madrid a city of fountains, of curbside caños and ornamental jets. From the permeated soil, water rises like sap in the walls, filling basement cuevas with damp. The houses become reservoirs, lungs to the sunstruck streets. Every portal is a dark bath of cool air, and basement drafts seep from gratings under the doorways of the stores. The rough granite bases of old buildings correspond to the vaulted foundations that lift the building's wooden structure above the waterline. The apartments above reach deep into the blocks, into a darkness cooled by rising columns of air and sifted with the baffled light from narrow patios and shaftways.
But water has all but lost the power it had in Moslem Spain as the representative element of this realm, the mysterious substance that, released from the soil in tanks, fountains and shadowy public baths, gave life to gardens and opposed the oppressive heat of the sun with sensual refreshment. This emphasis was the product of a desert culture, too pure and absolute a distinction for the more moderate climate and abundant water of Madrid.
Something of this association survives in the countless bars of the city, which have replaced the Muslim public bath as centers of social exchange. Certain old bars and restaurants around the footings of the Plaza Mayor in the Cava de San Miguel, and overlooking the Calle de Segovia on the steep slopes of the city's two original hills, are known as cuevas and occupy a nether zone among the cellars and foundations. In a similar way, every common bar functions as an inverted porch or cave to the street, an extension of the sidewalk into the shadows, with tiled walls, a stand-up counter and beer on tap, ordered by the caña or glass, that even if it is drawn from kegs stored under the counter maintains a fragile relation between the thirst of the city and the soil.
|© Melchor Sarasketa|
Above the portals, basements and bars, the aspiration or suggestive image of a typical apartment is more arboreal than subterranean. This is not simply a function of the character of the rooms, of the parlor with its dim light (the avoidance of illumination, of the firelit color of lamps and chandeliers), the dark stained wood of the furniture, the leafy patterns of the wallpaper and the glints of light from mirrors, glass bookcase doors and the gilded bindings of an illustrated encyclopedia.
More important is the position of the apartment, its situation above the ground, overlooking the street and patio. On one side the balcony stands between the parlor and the street, almost a room in itself, a deep double-facing window. It furnishes the parlor with plants and a caged songbird. Morning and evening breezes stir the curtains, while in the heat of the siesta slivers of light force their way through the slated exterior shade. From the street the balcony is a lookout, a descendent of the Moorish mirador, the box from which once-sequestered women still gossip and observe the passing scene. Within the thick opening of the walls, between the parted leaves of the glass doors and the wooden interior shutters, the balcony confers a sense of privacy and privilege, but it is only a step into the sudden public intimacy of the street, where men in undershirts and women in housecoats pause in aerial conversation with their neighbors.
Within the building, a more radical juxtaposition of indoors to outdoors and public to private occurs around the patio, creating a social tension that varies with the class and type of dwelling. In the corralas built for the poorest classes, narrow apartments of four small rooms face an open-air gallery overlooking the patio (a kitchen and sitting room line the gallery, with windowless bedrooms behind, ventilated by interior transoms, and source of the pirate windows lining vacant lots). In unrenovated buildings, each floor may still share a common bath or toilet, and water was originally supplied by a single fuente in the patio. The lack of space, privacy and ventilation imposes a quasi-collective form of life on the corrala's inhabitants in which the patio and its galleries function as a central public space.
In certain more expensive buildings the gallery on each side of the patio is enclosed in glass and becomes the corridor of a single apartment, of a line of rooms leading from the parlor at the street to the kitchen and bathroom at the back. Here the unavoidable presence of the neighbors, of their drying laundry or closed persian shades, is a source of tension, a disruption of middle class insularity. The front door on the landing is the theoretical threshold of a private domain (the elaborate brass peephole resembles the grille of a confessional), but from a back room the confusion produced by a ringing doorbell reveals the collective nature of the building, which is after all a series of divided spaces organized for light and breath around a common open-air hall.
In this ambiguous situation the primary medium of penetration, of interruption or association, is sound: the overheard arguments of the neighbors, or the conversations in the corralas that pass from floor to floor. And these sounds taken as a single picture are perhaps the most important and yet elusive element in the image of the apartment as a whole. On a summer day, the air is filled with voices, a foreground of children's cries, birdsong and barking dogs, patches of conversation, radios and televisions, footsteps and slamming doors, or the sounds and smells of cooking --garlic, olive oil, whipping eggs for tortillas in the evening, frying fresh sardines-- and a background that changes in depth and volume like a subtle tide, rising on weekend afternoons to a solid floor of sound like the quiet roar of a market or a railroad station, and falling in the night to a silence broken by midnight streetcleaners whistling calls from block to block.
The sounds that penetrate the apartment reveal their point of origin but not the intervening spatial boundaries. They measure depth without spatial definition, suggesting an image of the apartment as a home in a labyrinth, or in a body like a forest with its shifting layers of density and transparence, its intermingled territories and hidden lives.
The apartment is a subsidiary of its open spaces, part of a common structure that ultimately comprises the entire city. From a window, the street and patio, themselves no wider than a room, become horizontal windows to the sky, openings in the roofscape, the upper canopy of the city which emerges to view in higher apartments and guardias, a choppy surface rising and falling with the ridges and gullies of the streets below, a hollow landscape dotted with television aerials.
|© Melchor Sarasketa|
The filling of the blocks of the old city with dense four, five and six-story buildings, almost completed in the 19th century, has obscured the former character of the city's open spaces, drawing streets and patios deeper into the shadows. But the streets of Madrid still have nothing in common with those of Toledo or other cities substantially built by the Arabs, whose narrow winding trajectories deliberately impede the penetration of the sun. For the Feast of Corpus Cristi in early June, canvas awnings are suspended above the streets of Toledo, a translucent ceiling that dances with the twisting route of the procession and the changing terrain. Hanging glass lanterns scatter prisms of candlelight or sunshine and the pavements are carpeted with fragrant herbs. Such a procession is inconceivable in Madrid, where the principal streets open like funnels to the sun and the rest, straight and true, admit the sun on one side or the other throughout the day. During the shelling of Madrid in the Civil War, General Miaja advised citizens to walk on the side of the street receiving morning sun to minimize exposure to the bombardment from the west, a counsel that would be useless in a city like Toledo.
Equally foreign to Madrid are the Moorish-style patios of señorial houses from Toledo to Andalucia -- the heart of the house, center and focus of all its rooms, a protected domestic outdoor space with metal or rattan furniture, an adjustable canvas roof to block the summer sun, and a central fountain or cistern to collect and distill rainwater, the walls and floors covered with tiles, plants and decorative objects.
The native genius of the streets and patios of Madrid is without a trace of domesticity. It is visible in what remains of the 17th century city, the corte and villa that in the 1656 plan of Texeira resembles an overgrown pueblo built of two and three-story houses and monasteries backed by orchards and gardens, whose spaces are defined above all by the confrontation of sol y sombra, darkness and light.
This confrontation may be a product of the late and hasty development of Madrid, its crude level of urbanization compared to other more established cities both to the south and the north. The streets of the 16th century extensions already replace the topographic order of the Arab village and medieval town with measured widths and surveyed lines, an incipient rationalism, the first stage in the city's gradual distraction from its site.
The contrasts of the streets also reenact the contrasts of the seasons, the "nine months of winter and three months of hell" of a popular refrain. Madrid is too cold in the winter, too far north, too high in elevation, too close to the sierra, to sacrifice winter sun for summer shade. There may be a subtle intention in the city's general position on a slope tilted towards the sun, with narrow north-south streets and wide east-west plazas and avenues. In the Puerta del Sol at the center of the city, the sun enters in the morning by the wide eastern mouths of Alcalá or San Jerónimo, depending on the season, and leaves by the Calles Arenal and Mayor, falling through the wide span of sky beyond the western escarpment of the Palacio Real. Even the original Arab Alcázar faced south across a large parade ground towards the town, a configuration maintained in the new palace built after the fire of 1734, despite the fact that by then the city lay largely to the east.
The principal model for the city's public spaces comes from old Castilla. It can be seen in its most basic form in the market square of Texeira's plan, a more primitive and casual place than what remains, for example, of the Moorish silk market in Granada, whose narrow grid of passages and stalls can still be traced in the streets beside the Cathedral. Now occupied by public buildings, the Plaza de la Cebada was until the 19th century a large bald misshapen field outside what had been the southern gates of the 15th century town. It is a modest relation of the great trading plaza of Medina del Campo, the commercial and financial center of Castilla in the Middle Ages, where sheep, wool and the royal debt were traded in annual fairs. As big as the town itself, the plaza was more like a state fairgrounds than an organized urban space – filled with animal pens, or canvas booths and stalls like the current marketday plazas of Castilla, its edges lined with bars, restaurants and lodging, buildings like dark caves around the naked light of the field.
An Islamic city, as Córdoba and Toledo once were, is closed, its streets residual spaces, labyrinthine alleyways with few openings or windows, a disorienting passage from the outside to intimate self-centered precincts, secret gardens and patios, columned markethalls, mosques and baths. The Islamic city lacks a facade. Its spaces are composed of blind exterior walls and interior arcades, of shadows, enclosures and rhythmic movement. What is emphasized is not the frontal plane but veiled interior volumes projected around the figure of their inhabitants in motion or repose.
The streets and plazas of old Madrid are theatrical outdoor rooms, lined with balconies and onlookers. They interrupt the closed body of the city, opening to the sky, the sun, the arriving traveler. The mirroring of the two halves of the street creates a space between landscape and interior, an illuminated, Baroque stage of poses and reflections. Buildings line the street like faces, watching, representing. The long passage into the interior of the Islamic city shrinks to an abrupt threshold at the face of the house, a dark, oversized portal or zaguán which, as we enter, frames us for a moment in the light, like the deep background of a full-height portrait, before we are swallowed in its darkness. We step into the doorway, turn, and like the retiring gentleman in the doorway of Velázquez's Las Meninas, return our guarded gaze to the street.
But the facade masks the interior from this public reflexivity, screening a nested, undressed domestic life, apartments where the curtained, windowless alcoba with its bed opens directly on the small front sitting room or gabinete, where visitors are rarely expected or received. Like the zaguán, the alcoba descends in type from the Islamic iwan, a deep three-sided honorific space adapted from monumental Rome, which can serve as the portal to a mosque, the ceremonial receiving room at the head of a palace courtyard, or one of a line of classrooms surrounding the patio of a madrasa.
The alcoba is quickly disappearing as old apartments are rebuilt to contemporary custom, together with the narrow corridor that wraps around it from the front door to the gabinete, gaining space for a deep but narrow living room. In the context of family life, the alcoba is an oddly prominent retreat, part stage, part closet, with an undersized door at its back for direct access to the corridor, a poor domestic relation of the curtained bedchamber of Felipe II in his aposentos at the Escorial, which directly overlooks the altar of the basilica from a secret window high in the vaults.
The interior is a camera oscura, the dim, baffled light of the street playing across its walls. Its surreal distance from the street creates the absence which most defines it. In the religious interiors of 17th century Madrid, this distance becomes spiritual, more than just a metaphor of earthly withdrawal and transcendence, of the religious passions of the Counter Reformation, the ecstatic mysticism of Santa Teresa and San Juan de la Cruz.
|Convento de la Encarnación © Melchor Sarasketa|
In the Real Monasterio de la Encarnación, founded in 1611 by Margarita, wife of Felipe III, the cloister is radically segregated between dark and light, interior and exterior by windows, heavy wooden shutters and red velvet draperies mounted between the patio and the ambulatory. There is no transition between the two spaces, only the shock of their confrontation. The draperies, mounted in the patio with their undyed backs facing the ambulatory, cast a strained, tinted light on the interior walls. The image of the patio projected by this light is of a shielded box of fire.
The convent church, like most of Madrid's churches, is barely illuminated by a thin cool light from the lantern of the dome. The church is an interior version of a Gothic spire, a dark, heaven-reaching vault. The worshippers remain below, almost underground, bathed in the distant spiritual light, their mortal coughs and footfalls rolling like clouds of dust through the hall.
The nuns of the convent live in recluse on the dark side of the cloister, like the señoras of a pueblo in their darkened houses, passing outside only in the huerto, the walled garden where they tend fruit trees, herbs, vegetables and flowers, a regimen of manual labor that accompanies the regimen of the spirit. The nuns are wrapped in layers of fabric as they work like peasant women in the fields, guarding the darkness of the interiors around their bodies, protecting their pale white skin from the sun.
The radical definition of things by a process of segregation, purification, exclusion and expulsion, the absence of synthesis or accommodation, the denial represented by the shutters and draperies, the pressure and stain of temptation and original sin suggested by the light that bleeds through the drapes – how different this is from the Gothic and Renaissance cloisters of Toledo, their gardens and open ambulatories which shield, absorb and scatter the light, creating a middle zone of luminosity.
A secular version of this radical segregation occurs in the chiaroscuro of the contemporary Plaza Mayor, where the shadows spill from the arcades across the blazing pavement, where dark is darker and bright is brighter from their respective contrapositions across the plaza. Here the classic, ironic embodiment of this conflict is the position taken at the edge of the awning's shadow in an outdoor café, with the feet in the sun and the head in the shade, the body caught for a moment on both sides of the divide.
But even in the shadows the eyes wince under the light's interrogation. The head turns slightly down, the jaw sets, the body draws itself in – we think of the eyes of the guardias looking into the camera of W. Eugene Smith in a 1950s photograph, or the remote, steady gaze of the torero as he waits under the portals of the plaza to enter the arena.
|© Melchor Sarasketa|
Only a summer evening relieves the extremes of a summer day. The weight of the light withdraws from the pavements and walls to a yellow glare on the western horizon. Shadows join and overflow the streets. The light retires first from the walls, which fade yellow, blue, gray and black, leaving a silhouette of rooftops against the sky. The air vibrates in the thinning illumination with the cries of circling, racing swifts and swallows. The last faint glow of the day falls on the sandy walks of the Retiro Park from openings in the tree cover, patches of pale reflected skylight like moonlight in the intersections. Once extinguished, the dark still-blue sky is transparent to the stars. The ground exhales the heat of the day. Cool air tumbles from rooftops, collecting in the bottom of light shafts and patios, billowing the curtains of just-opened windows.
The flux of day and night, light and dark, inhaling and exhaling, makes and unmakes the city. The walls are hard, definite under the light; they make and hold the defensive shadows of their interiors, but evening dissolves this difference. The evening dissolves the city. The city, the evening itself, becomes an interior uncontained, everywhere and nowhere, undefended, unconfined.
The evening release is ludic. The day is sober, measured, the evening without end, without parting, without sleep. The evening forms a festive inverse of the city, its festive institutions outdoors, often temporary, amorphous, nomadic, like the outdoor café terrazas that appear each evening in plazas, parks and major streets. There are outdoor cinemas with raked seating and vaudeville stages on the rooftops of old movie palaces, and pistas de baile, walled dance floors with live music and bar service, in the Retiro and other parks. An open summer theater appears every evening in the old corrala of Meson de Paredes, like the first theatrical performances in the corralas of the city's inns, later housed in permanent corralas de comedias (orchestra seating is still found in the patio de butacas or patio of armchairs, mixing images of fresh air and upholstery). And on the Saint's Day of every parish the local streets are closed to cars, strung with lanterns and banners, and opened to all-night verbenas of eating, drinking, singing and dancing.
In the 16th century, Pedro Mendina described the evening pleasures of the paseos just outside the city in the former prados or meadows of Atocha and San Jerónimo, under groves of poplars, with fountains, climbing roses, fresh breezes and lively music, a scene populated by señores and señoras in their carriages, handsome gentlemen bien dispuestos and damas bizarrisimas, which is to say dashing, brilliant, estupendas. Las Vistillas, on the bluffs overlooking the pine-covered hills of the Casa del Campo and the sierra beyond them, with its jerry-built chiringuitas and festive bailes, was the popular alternative to the paseos, famous for its beautiful skies and fresh breezes.
At the end of the 18th century, among the paseos of San Jerónimo, Carlos III built the Salón del Prado, one of the most extraordinary outdoor spaces of the city. Today part of the central artery of the Castellana, not so much destroyed as lost in traffic, it was originally a combination of outdoor sitting room and ambulatory along the paseos in front of the royal palace of El Buen Retiro, the center of evening recreation, a lobby or forecourt to all the surrounding amusements, from nearby theaters, gardens and cafés to the Plaza de Toros in the Puerta de Alcalá.
In the original project of Ventura Rodríguez the Salón was to be lined on one side with a grand two-story hemicyclical portico that would accommodate the rising slope of the ground towards the palace. It was to be occupied on the lower level by fondas, rustic indoor-outdoor restaurants, chocolaterias and other sources of refreshment (like the tree-shaded riverside locales around the gardens of the royal summer palace in Aranjuez), and on the upper level by six open-air ballrooms with coros for the musicians, a royal version of the small-town bandstand with a café-kiosk in its base.
The Salón as realized was a hippodrome in shape, with monumental fountains in the center and ends, dedicated to pagan gods -- Neptune, Apollo and Cibeles, now representative symbols of the city. The shape was taken from Rome's Piazza Navonna, although from the beginning the semi-circular ends were overrun by the intersections with San Jerónimo and Alcalá. Today the fountains of Neptune and Cibeles, encircled in traffic, have been rotated to face these avenues, looking inward towards the Puerta del Sol.
At the time of Wellington's occupation in the early 19th century, the Salón was lined with wicker armchairs, set in summer shade or autumn sun. It was as crowded in the evening as a theater, reports Theodore Gautier in his Voyage en Espagne of 1845, the aristocracy in their carriages, others paseando: circulating, observing, greeting, conversing, while roving vendors sold cups of fresh water, chilled in porous, half-baked clay botijos or amphoras by the effect of evaporation.
The special quality of the Salón can perhaps be sensed in the gardens of the nearby Prado Museum, built at the same time for Carlos III by Juan de Villanueva as a Gabinete and Academy of Natural History. The elegant forecourt between the Museum and the trees along the Paseo del Prado, its walks, benches and lawns, are occupied in the evening by elderly couples, families, dogwalkers, playing children. The long and narrow space, like the Museum itself and Villanueva's adjacent Botanical Garden, is similar in plan and circulation to the racetrack shape of the Salón, representing in each case the formal trajectory of the paseante, his destination nowhere in particular, his route a narrow elliptical orbit around the two sides of a boulevard.
The diffusion of the evening city extends into the countryside, as we see in Goya's Pradera de San Isidro, a festival encampment of the court in the shady late-afternoon meadows of San Isidro across the river from the city. The more fantastic arcadian scenes Goya painted for court tapestries at the beginning of his career had their corresponding models not only in the royal parks that encircled the city and the promenades such as that of the Prado and the Paseo de las Delicias, but in the countryside itself, in roadside fondas and tree-lined lanes and streams.
The automobile magnifies this diffusion. The highways leading out of the city are lined with outdoor discotecas and restaurants. A typical Saturday evening can begin at eleven with a drive to Barajas to eat lambchops beside the highway, under the wings of landing planes, racing back to the city at one or two to sip blanco y negros on the Castellana, among the bien dispuestos and bizarrisimas of the modern night, a rite which continues for the most intrepid in the all-night discos of the industrial periphery, and with a daybreak breakfast of churros and chocolate in a neighborhood bar.
The city in its evening dissolution becomes a social, not a physical entity. It exists wherever people are, it becomes its people, and its forms and institutions are social in character. Its structure is composed of the moving lines and fixed points of the paseo and the tertulia, the twin social rituals that dominate the evening's diversions.
In provincial towns such as Lugo or Segovia the paseo retains its 19th century character, a Sunday evening congregation: the inhabitants, dressed in the finest clothes of the season, stroll up and down the principal street, past the elegant illuminated windows of the shuttered shops, in route to and from the cafés of the Plaza Mayor. In Madrid the paseo is less defined by day or manner. The Sunday stroll survives in the parks, especially the Retiro, where an afternoon visit to the grandparents ends in the cool of the evening along its leafy boulevards, while the children feed the ducks in the estanque; or on the Gran Via with its first-run movie theaters and sidewalk cafés, where crowds throng the wide pavements before showtime. In the rest of the city, rush hour traffic and the modern rhythms of work and shopping have somewhat obscured the regular evening migration out of doors; instead, a gradual change of dress can be detected on the busiest sidewalks, from work and street clothes to more elaborate evening wear, until eight o'clock when the traffic thins and all the bars are full.
The tertulias of the 19th and early 20th centuries, held in cafés such as El Gijón and El León where the intellectuals and politicians of a generation met and talked, have become the popular figure for the event that Madrid's bars and terrazas were built to contain, the passionate conversations where the enchantment of speech is practiced in its original Homeric sense, a form of narrative discussion that appears as well in taxicabs, in the sobremesas of radio and television and in the newspaper columns dedicated to imaginative speculation on the day's events. The irresistible force of the flow of words, the tension and competition of exchange, overcome self-awareness and the demands of the present and future. Hours pass before the empty glasses of the first round of drinks, the rising butts in the ashtrays marking time. When the possibilities of the evening seem utterly exhausted, someone at the table stirs and orders another round.
The tertulia is the culmination of resistance to the day, the height of daily tardiness -- late rising, late dining, long siesta, late supping. The name of the afternoon itself is late, tarde, a word that should not be pronounced if possible before six or seven in the evening. The extension of the evening is ideally infinite, that is, infinite in denial, of the morrow, of light, of duty and time, a denial maintained with fierce sacrifice by the young professionals who go directly from the bars and discotecas to work at eight, sleep from three til nine, and return to the evening rounds.
The vehemence of this denial is difficult for a newcomer to understand. Something of its originating fury can be sensed perhaps in an incident recounted by Theodore Gautier, a late-night scene in the Calle Mayor of a crowd fleeing before the solemn candlelit procession of the Holy Host, traveling in a carriage with full honors from a church to someone's deathbed, the passersby fleeing so as not to have to stop and kneel as it slowly passes.
In sympathy or warning, a rare forgiving monument to the Fallen Angel was erected in the Retiro at the end of the last century, the winner of a Beaux Arts prize. The dark winged figure is depicted falling backwards from his pedestal over our heads, while a ring of sad dwarf demons around the base regard us with a resigned officiousness.
But perhaps there still is time to order another horchata before the gates of the park are closed....
|El Ángel Caído (The Fallen Angel), Retiro Park. © Martinez Bustillo|
At night, from the windows of a modern office building above the rooftops of the Plaza Benavente, old Madrid is a dark cold shadow under the sky, an arching shape, like the back of an enormous animal breaking the surface. Its broad mound is eroded by the illuminated crevices of the streets, which widen as they descend with the falling terrain to the south. To the north, the oversized allegorical figures that crown the tops of early 20th century buildings on Alcalá and the Gran Via ride spume and wave like their mythic ancestors. The surface is opaque, its depth implicitly profound. We imagine the layers of earth below, the geological ages of sedimentation, and the furrowing and tunneling just below the surface -- subway and train tunnels, brick-lined corrientes of water and springs, underground garages, flybys and pedestrian passages, or the secret tunnels, rumars of history, that issue from convents and palaces, or those that undercut the walls of the Moorish city, remembered in the street names of Cava Alta, Cava Baja, and Cava San Miguel.
The houses of Toledo are rooted to their fortified hill like old teeth. Their storied galleries, descending through Islamic, Visigoth and Roman foundations to underground cisterns and the river, are the inspiration for tales of secret dungeons, treasure rooms, sanctuaries of forbidden cults. They are the setting for the inquisitional torture chamber of Edgar Allan Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum, whose singing sinking blade we can almost hear as we descend from the town through relays of dim staircases to the cavernous old parking garage at its feet.
The roots of old Madrid are modern. The surrounding city is steadily undermining it, evacuating its earth inch by inch, sifting the dust for bits of the Moorish wall, broken crockery, prehistoric bones. The oldest part of the city under the Plaza de Oriente, in front of the Palacio Real, is being excavated for a parking garage, like the garages and roadways already under the Plaza Mayor or among the multi-level foundations of new apartment buildings. The old city lies above the new like a worn carpet. Its depths spill outwards, horizontally into the present. We emerge from an underground speedway onto the multi-lane boulevard of a night stained by the glare of sodium vapor lamps, the roar and odor of combustion, the raw texture of battered concrete.
Something of the morbidity of underground Toledo clings to these garages and passageways, and seeps into the surrounding city, joining the dusty improvised capital of Felipe II and the equally improvised working class barrios which followed the Civil War. The rationalist housing blocks of the 1940s Colonia Virgen del Pilar, located where the Barcelona highway enters the city, bring to mind the barracks-like 17th century convents off the Calle de San Bernardo, or the dry stucco palaces of the old aristocracy along the Calle del Sacramento. Even the luxury apartment buildings of the 1960s along the upper Castellana, with their Miami Beach balconies and white Fifth Avenue brick, recall the grim stucco blocks of stables and court apartments around the 18th century royal seats at La Granja and Aranjuez, their gaiety of color and decor cracked and faded by the sun, stained by dust and rain, their frivolity threadbare, as transient as a skim coat of plaster.
These buildings seem to share a certain austerity or spiritual avarice, the conviction that nothing should be wasted on the present, that decadence and decay is simply the prelude to eternity. It is as if the last stop on the deeply-buried outer subway lines of the 1960s and 70s, with their monumental stations and tortuous underground boulevards, was intended to be the Valley of the Fallen, Franco's underground basilica hewn out of solid granite by defeated prisoners of war and lined with the bones of 14,000, in crude imitation of the burial crypt and rotting chamber of Felipe II's nearby Escorial.
The morning returns in a pale shock of light. The air is fresh, the streets damp and clean. While thousands wake and dress, the quiet of the street is interrupted by a passing car, a trashcan wheeled into a portal, by the first muffled hammer blows of a nearby renovation.
The houses are old, but every block has a newly-painted facade, a building enveloped in scaffolding, containers heaped with demolition debris, chunks of broken plaster, tile and brick, old wooden windows, doors and beams, broken toilets and discarded furniture. Tiny apartments facing tiny patios are stripped and refitted with sliding aluminum-framed double paned windows, fully-enclosed kitchens, tiled baths with gold-plated fixtures, dropped ceilings, recessed halogen lights, built-in closets and living room cabinets finished in endangered tropical woods. Building cooperatives replace old pipes, wiring, and sewer connections, install natural gas lines, and reset their irreplaceable old roof tiles over new waterproof membranes and flashing. Sagging, cracked walls are trussed in wood or steel props, decrepit old buildings are gutted behind their facades, vacant lots fill with new constructions that copy the proportions and appearance of the old. The child or newcomer encounters a city that seems permanent and eternal, but the city is also of the present, maintained by constant effort against the pull of time.
In the market, trucks have unloaded fish rushed fresh overnight from the cardinal points of the coast, and the fruit and vegetables of the Levante, Andalucia and closer gardens. Freshly-prepared platters of tapas have been passed through the kitchen window to the mostrador of the corner bar, the coffee machine is primed and loaded, and the bakery has delivered its round plastic hampers packed with bread. The stage is set. Heavy metal store shutters rumble open. Footsteps clatter down the stairs behind a slamming door.
© David Cohn
|David Cohn & Melchor Sarasketa circa 1991|