From ruin to monument: Madrid recovers the visible and invisible traces of the city imagined by Sabatini | Architecture | ICON Design


In the final pages of The horde (1905), a novel by Blasco Ibáñez that portrays life in the popular neighborhoods of Madrid at the turn of the century, the protagonist, a disgraced writer, contemplates the city center from what is now Paseo de Extremadura, at the other side of the Manzanares. “Madrid, seen from there, looked like a marvelous capital, an imposing metropolis”, reflects the narrator. “Between the blue of the sky and the green of the trees lined the most solemn manifestations of his life, his most powerful grandeurs.” Among those monuments, Blasco Ibáñez mentions the headquarters of the Montaña del Príncipe Pío, the Royal Palace and the church of San Francisco el Grande: perfectly aligned representations of military, monarchical and religious power, easy to catch at a glance. “Nothing was missing: it was the complete image of the nation; everything seemed to have been concentrated in this monumental face of the great town ”, he concludes.

The image that impressed the Valencian novelist is still partially visible today, with the exception of the barracks that until the beginning of the 20th century were in the vicinity of the current Plaza de España. And this panorama was not the result of chance, but of a meticulous design carried out in the second half of the 18th century by Carlos III and Francisco Sabatini, the Italian architect who, since his arrival in the then imperial capital in 1760, undertook a ambitious series of urban and monumental projects that go from the Puerta de Alcalá to the wall of the Casa de Campo. It is precisely this vision of the city that is the main theme of Sabatini’s Madrid. The construction of a European capital (1760-1797), the exhibition that can be visited at the Fernán Gómez Cultural Center of the Villa until next January 30, and which is one of the pillars of the Sabatini year celebrations programmed by the City Council.

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The monumental ensemble of the Poniente cornice, in the graphic reconstruction carried out by Ángel Martínez Díaz and his team for the exhibition.
The monumental ensemble of the Poniente cornice, in the graphic reconstruction carried out by Ángel Martínez Díaz and his team for the exhibition.

“Sabatini is not a genius of architecture, but a very effective architect for a very effective power, which is that of Carlos III”, describes the researcher José Luis Sancho, attached to the Directorate of Properties of the National Heritage, an expert in the field and co-curator of the show. In it, the historical documents and works of art that add museum weight to the project: original plans, materials, books, period paintings and other works that, although not directly linked to Italian, do allow us to understand the context in which they arose. and the role they played. Along with Sancho, the other curator of the exhibition is Ángel Martínez Díaz, doctor architect and professor in the Department of Architectural Graphic Ideation of the ETSAM, who has assumed a fundamental aspect of the exhibition: graphic reconstitutions, from a meticulous process of research and data collection, of buildings in their urban environment. “We try to soften the difficulty of exhibitions of the history of architecture for the public,” explains Martínez. “The challenge has been to conceive unique images of each building that allow us to understand it from the outside, inside and in its urban context.”

In the sample, the graphic reconstitutions of Sabatini’s buildings and of areas of the city provide clarity and, above all, delineate the differences between the original projects, their evolution and their good or bad fortune. Some, like the convent of San Pedro de Alcántara, were never built; its space was occupied by the Cuartel de San Gil, which until 1906 occupied the space where the Plaza de España opens today. Now, backlit drawings and a three-dimensional reconstruction allow to recover this building that shows that Sabatini was not as boring an architect as they say. “When you read the plans, you see that it is a curious building, with a more or less conventional church in an equally conventional volume. But, by gutting it, what comes to light reflects a much more powerful interior complexity, with a very brilliant way of fitting representative and functional spaces, and very complex circulation systems ”, explains Martínez. “In this case, the reconstruction consists of getting an image of how the convent would have been, and it is not easy: there are four work drawings left, they are not coherent with each other because they belong to different phases and, furthermore, it was not finished. That is why we have to base ourselves on objective data and maps that are as reliable as possible, and project the past from there ”.

Longitudinal section of the church of San Pedro de Alcántara (1786).
Longitudinal section of the church of San Pedro de Alcántara (1786).
Graphic reconstruction of the convent of San Pedro Alcántara.
Graphic reconstruction of the convent of San Pedro Alcántara.

This projection of the past allows us to understand the present of the city. In the last section of the exhibition, a sequence of three shots shows the Madrid that Sabatini received, the one he dreamed of and the one he left to posterity. Thus, the visible and invisible city, the one that has disappeared and the one that never came into being, overlap and open up new questions. For example, it is tempting to think that, in a way, the current urban development of the riverbank would not have been possible if, in the 18th century, Sabatini had not devoted so much effort to projecting the western cornice of the capital. “As they are well thought out and have a logic, Sabatini’s actions help further development,” explains Sancho. “For example, Sabatini proposes the imperial walks, south of the Puerta de Toledo to the river. I don’t think that at that time it crossed his mind that the city was going to develop in that direction with houses, neighborhoods and industries. At no time did they propose an extension, and not because they were not modern enough, but because they found a very deficient city. The first thing they did was clean it up and then they gave it clear limits and made them more pleasant, livable and monumental. It’s like creating a clean object and putting it on a tray ”.

Martinez is in the same line. “This type of intervention denotes a power behind it, a political support that knew very well what it wanted to do. And what he wanted was to turn Madrid into a dignified and clean city, pragmatically monumentalizing it. You could not change the entire city, but you could act affordably in certain areas, almost always on the edges, where there was more land available, and more opportunity to do things quickly. And Sabatini, who was an honest civil servant and a disciplined military man, tried to carry it out. “

Graphic reconstruction of the General Hospital.
Graphic reconstruction of the General Hospital.

However, the impulse of Sabatini – and of the despotic reigns of Carlos III and Carlos IV – waned after 1808, when the Napoleonic war and the beginning of the decline of the colonial empire altered the symbolic dimension of the city. “In 1808 Madrid stopped being the capital of both worlds and became the capital of the eternal civil war,” says Sancho. Some buildings, such as Sabatini’s interventions in the Royal Palace, took years to complete. Nor did the General Hospital reach the dimension dreamed of by the architect; The building that today houses the Reina Sofía Museum was just a small part of an enormously ambitious project that, had it been completed, would have radically transformed the appearance of the city. “Sabatini’s Madrid was limited, it started from a city with many deficiencies and its architects went as far as they could. But the program, which was a great program, was essentially fulfilled ”, adds Sancho, who also addresses the paradoxical bad reputation that continues to haunt Carlos III’s architect today. “The twentieth century showed little appreciation for Sabatini, there were many demolitions and many are absurd from today,” he explains. “For example, the work in Plaza de España will once again leave Bailén street as wide as it was before 1930.” On the eve of the inauguration of these renovation works – where, in addition, the remains of the palace that Sabatini built for Godoy have been unearthed – the tangible Madrid continues to settle accounts with the invisible Madrid. And neither one nor the other can be understood without the figure – nor the elongated shadow – of the Sicilian architect.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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