Sunday, February 5, 2017

Upholstered in Skay, or The Moncloa Complex

On the representation of power: how much can we infer about Spain's political structure in the size and decoration of the Presidential compound at Moncloa?

Office of President Rahoy in Moncloa in 2013. Source ABC
In a column in El País yesterday (Feb. 4, 2017), the historian Guillermo Cortázar analyzes the Palace of Moncloa, an estate on the northern edges of Madrid that has housed the residence and offices of the Spanish Presidency since 1977. He sees the compound reflecting the character of the state that has emerged with the new Spanish democracy following the Franco dictatorship, comparing it to 10 Downing Street. Moncloa has about 2500 employees, he notes, compared to the 70 at home of the Bitish Prime Minister. With its 20 hectares of grounds and 58,000 square meters of built area, he sees it as "demonstrating a prepotency, status and visualization very superior even to those of the Zarazuela", the current official residence of the kings of Spain.

"In contrast, 10 Downing Street is a discrete, temporary residence and office for the Prime Minister. In parliamentary monarchies, it is understood that the Crown is the permanent representation of the nation as a whole, while the president of the government is only the temporary head of one of the three powers of state."

He goes on to assert that this size reflects the concentration of power in Spain in self-serving party structures, in which voters are poorly represented –in Spain one votes for a party in block, not for particular candidates– and in which the separation of powers and other controls are compromised.

But the comparison seems to me rather unfair, as Downing Street is a typically British idiosyncrasy. Though they are not constitutional monarchies, a truer comparison would be with the White House, the German Chancellery or the Elysée Palace, which I would guess are comparable in size and staff, if not much larger. It is also seems unreasonable to infer a structure of political power in size alone.

Gordon Brown receives Barak Obama at 10 Downing Street, 2009. Photo: Pete Souza / Official White House Photostream / Wikikedia Commons
 Cortázar goes on to note the striking differences in decor between Downing Street and Moncloa. He cites the memoirs of Margaret Thatcher as to the furnishing in the London residence, noting the Henry Moore and the paintings of Wellington, George II and other "heroes of Great Britain's history". He quotes her as saying, "in these works the continuity of history can be perceived. It seemed to me of great importance that when foreign visitors came to Downing Street they could contemplate part of Great Britain's cultural legacy." (DC translation from Spanish).

In the Palace of Moncloa, he continues, an aseptic modernity reigns, of giant glass tables, faux white leather furniture ("skay" synthetic leather, very 70s), white walls and abstract art –Miro, Tàpies, Guerrero, Barceló– a legacy of Felipe González's presidency (1982-1996).

His main source for this description is the author Antonio Muñoz Molina, who visited Moncloa during the presidency of the socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (2004 – 2011). In contemporary photos, under the current president, the conservative Mariano Rahoy, the decor tends to a more traditional wood and black leather, although it is equally bland and anonymous.

Conference room, Moncloa, no date given. Source: Intra Arquitec
 "It's a very 20th century, very modern language, as if trying to not signify anything in particular, nothing that could be susceptible to criticism, no narrative, no references to history. With absolutely no aesthetic ties to the past, the presidents of the government in Moncloa have inaugurated a new era, that of the Party State, initiated in 1977."

Pardo Palacce, residence of Franco and his wife, Carmen Polo, Palm Sunday, late in the regime. Source: Juan Cobos, Xavier Casals

Franco's last speech on the balcony of the Palacio del Oriente, no date given. Source:

I'm not sure the decoration of Moncloa says too much about the current structure of power in Spain either, but it does point to the chasm separating the representation of state power in comparison with the dictatorship, which wrapped itself in the "glorious" "imperial" history of Spain as an ideological self-justification.

This is not to say, however, that this supposedly "neutral" style does not end up signifying its own era, as Cortázar suggests – a condition that will become clear as soon as something else comes along.

As he points out, the role of making historical connections falls now to the monarchy and its structures of self-representation, the palaces and art and museums of the National Patrimony, including the Prado Museum, home of the former royal collections. The monarchy too was a victim of Franco, and thus can safely reclaim history and reinterpret the "glorious" "Imperial" past in its own manner, as seen in the controversy over the installations of the upcoming Museum of the Royal Collections (see below).

Audience Hall, Zarzuela Palalce, residence of the King of Spain. Photo: the of a new government in 2010. Source:
Speaking in another context, about the vogue for museums of contemporary art in Spain, the art historian María Dolores Jiménez-Blanco said in El País last October, "For a long time we only wanted to look ahead, and culture is a perfect emblem of that. And especially contemporary art. But now we've left behind Francoism and we see ourselves with greater serenity."

The passion among Spanish politicians for commissioning iconic works of architecture over the past 25 years is a perfect reflection of this condition – shall we call it something like an architectural / representational PTSD (Post-Traumaitc Stress Disorder)?  -- It's a variation on Walter Benjamin's Angel of History: our backs to the past, our revulsion propels us blindly forward into the unknown. I had thought at the time that I was witnessing the construction of a new present, but that seems hopelessly optimistic now.


The Moncloa Palace was entirely rebuilt and transformed after its destruction in the Civil War. In the early 20th century, the presidential residence was located in a palace on the Paseo de la Castellana near the Plaza de Colón. President Suárez moved it to Moncloa ostensibly for security reasons, due to the political instability of the transition period and the threat of Basque terrorism.


Guillermo Gortázar
"El complejo de La Moncloa"
El País, February 4, 2017

Javier Rodríguez Marcos, Ferran Bono
"Una conversación en el Museo del Prado"  
El País, Section Bableia, October 29, 2016, p 16-19.

Javier Arnald
"Involución en la museología: El Museo de Colecciones Reales, que tardará en abrirse al menos dos años, hará un discurso sobre el legado de la monarquía"
El País, December 12, 2016

Representing the Crown

On this last source, I wrote in Facebook on January 18 the following:

Museum of the Royal Collections, Madrid. Source: BEAU 2016

El País announces that Mansilla and Tuñón's Museum of the Royal Collections, completed last year, will not open for another two years as its owner, Patrimonio Nacional, put together its program and collections.

The article, by art historian Javier Arnaldo, comes with a very critical analysis of the planned exhibit program, which will be organize around a vindication of the "achievements" of Spain's three monarchic dynasties: the Trastámaras, the Hapsburgs and the Bourbons – in other words, an ideological program in defense of the monarchy as an institution.

"…se propone servirse de las colecciones para establecer un discurso sobre el legado histórico de la monarquía española. Prevé una traza museográfica fija que daría cuenta de los logros de las dinastías de los Trastámara, los Habsburgo y los Borbón, a cuya representación se rendirían las piezas expuestas, en conjuntos cuya composición sería susceptible de cambios para hacer rotar partes de la colección."

"Imaginemos que el Museo del Prado, cuyas principales colecciones, como es bien sabido, pertenecieron, como las de Patrimonio Nacional, en su día a la Corona, buscara inspiración para su plan museológico en la bóveda del Casón, en la Alegoría del Toisón de Oro pintada allí al fresco por Lucas Jordán; la involución y disfuncionalidad de la pinacoteca quedarían garantizadas."

Patrimonio Nacional is a state institution that owns and manages all the former properties of the Spanish Crown, but it's administration is largely controlled by the current King, with input from the government in office and public financing.

It seems to me that the problem is as much about having a monarchy in the first place, and an insecure monarchy at that, and allowing it to remain in charge of these things. Maybe a republic would handle this better. Though an ideological use of the sumptuary trappings of power is hard to evade, one way or the other, from the Imperial Palace in Beijing to the White House in Washington. Arnaldo reminds us of the role these objects played in the "spaces of representation of the Crown", and that role is hard to shake off, whether for the glorification of the present state or the glorification of its conquerors and revolutionary usurpers. Hence the cache of a Louis XIV chair, or am I missing something?