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November 21, 2017
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Some of the beautiful architecture inside the Matadero Madrid building. Source: Tectonicablog.com.
modern matadero madrid slaughterhouse
Inside the old slaughterhouse, Matadero Madrid.
Source: Javier 1949 at Flickr.com.

Returning to Madrid after leaving three years ago, I was surprised to see the level of creativity that has sprouted around the city despite (or, perhaps, because of) the pressing economic situation in SpainSmall businesses and independent designers are finding new, collaborative ways to run their businesses, attract new customers and boost profits. 

Related: Madrid sees a creative surge by independent designers and small businesses.

On a larger scale, Madrid has seen the rapid completion of several large-scale public infrastructure projects that seek to reinforce the city's position as one of Europe's top cultural destinations.

With public programs and social services being cut across Europe in a bid to curb government spending, it's hard to believe that Spain has recently completed several of these projects - many of which have been in the pipeline for several years.

Take, for instance, Mercado de San Antón, which re-opened in May 2011. Located in the trendy, gay friendly neighbourhood of Chueca, the revamped municipal market, divided over four floors, attracts a hip, young crowd - many of whom are foreigners.

Visitors can stroll through clean and colourful market stalls, indulge in an array of high-quality tapas, take in the views on the terrace and sip on wine. A grocery store is also located on the bottom level. However, the majority of visitors are not here to stockpile their refrigerator. Instead, a trip here is about being seen and enjoying yourself along the way - an attitude that resonates throughout the neighbourhood.

San Antón has existed in many forms over the years. Although it began as a bustling street market - originally intended to serve recent arrivals to the city - its heritage is a far stretch from the chic, enclosed atmosphere that characterises its latest incarnation.

Related: Sussing Out the SoHo of Madrid.

The market suffered its worst stretch from the 1970s to 1990s due to urban expansion and commercial decline in the neighbourhood. In 2002, the municipal government finally came to its rescue. The city formulated the "Plan de Modernización y Dinamización de Mercados Municipales," which identified several public markets in Madrid that needed a facelift in order to adapt to changing times. Now, 11 years and 14.75 million euros later, the neighbourhood has its market back.

 Although many of the projects started before the current economic crisis first hit Spain, it's a miracle that such rapid progress has been made during the recent, more turbulent, few years, and that the projects have actually been brought to fruition.

Taking advantage of another municipal structure, Matadero Madrid lies in the Legazpi neighbourhood and is quickly making the zone more attractive to a younger generation. Built in what was once an abattoir, constructed in 1911 and operating until 1996, the 85,184 metre square space has been converted into an urban centre for contemporary cultural production.

The cultural centre is free of charge and offers a wide range of activities such as concerts, theatre and dance shows, restaurants, cafes, bookshops, a writing centre and open air spaces. The municipal website explains, "It is hoped that this unique and beautiful setting will become one of Madrid's cultural symbols, complete with new facilities and cultural activities for citizens and a new icon to help promote the Madrid brand abroad."

The ambitious Madrid Rio project, which also passes through Legazpi, brings new life to the neglected, industrial corridor on the outskirts of the city - once home to a 1970s motorway. The four-year project, which reportedly cost US$5 billion dollars, was opened to the public in December 2011.

The public now enjoys a completely transformed 10-kilometre stretch along the Manzanares River making the waterfront (one of Madrid's few) a desirable destination that has the strength and resources to compete with the popular Parque del Retiro, located east of the city centre. Skateboard parks, a zip line, bike rental stations, children's playgrounds, stylish wooden benches, elegantly designed bridges and plenty of greenery bring a vibrant, youthful feeling to the area that is transmitted by the young and old alike.

Related: Public Art - The Saviour of Cities?

Several other of Madrid's aging buildings have also been given a chance to adapt to contemporary needs. An old potato warehouse has been converted into an enormous greenhouse that serves as yet one more attraction and stopping point along the route. The National Dance Company and the Spanish Ballet also share headquarters at the river's edge. Housed in former stables adjacent to Matadero, both centres take advantage of the original layout of the warehouses. The spatial layout of the slaughterhouse, which was once meant to facilitate industrial processes, now serve to as a tool to connect interdisciplinary cultural exchanges.

Of course, beyond the latest additions to Madrid's cultural infrastructure, the classics such as the Museo Nacional del Prado, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza serve as striking reminders of Madrid's enduring cultural strength. The Reina Sofía currently features a temporary exhibit highlighting the life and work of Dalí that draws blockbuster crowds with tickets selling out every day, despite the entrance fee being roughly twice that of standard temporary exhibits.

Related: An Iron Fist on Public Art (Vancouver).

modern madrid rio project cultural facelift
The Madrid Rio Project. Source: Archinect.com.

Although many of the projects started before the current economic crisis first hit Spain, it's a miracle that such rapid progress has been made during the recent, more turbulent, few years, and that the projects have actually been brought to fruition. Cultural redevelopment for an iconic tourist city has the potential to attract global attention, but it also requires a long-term, supportive infrastructure and an economically prosperous population to support its ongoing programming and maintenance.

Related: Street Seats - Urban Seating Reinvented.

While some locals and many tourists engage with these shiny, new cultural icons, I can't help but wonder when the returns from such huge investments will once again reach the people they are evidently meant to serve. Public service is an important aspect of any progressive society when it can realistically be supported. But to see such mega-structures evolving as the population continues to lose some of the many basic benefits that distinguished Europe from other parts of the world is troubling and, quite frankly, leaves little time or spirit to enjoy such indulgences. Although, as a historic empire loses its economic footing, some might say it's better to go out with a bang.

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