A railway terminus becomes a tropical garden; a tropical greenhouse and an exhibition hall in a royal park become art galleries. Three buildings in Madrid demonstrate the dexterity and flexibility of nineteenth century cast iron structures.
Madrid’s first railway station, inaugurated in 1851 in the Atocha area, was largely destroyed by fire and a new station built in 1892 to designs of Alerto de Palacio Elissagne in collaboration with the engineer Gustave Eiffel, with a simple cast iron and glass structure in the form of an upturned hull 27 metres high and 157 metres long within brick facades. Unable to cope with the increased number of tracks, it was taken out of use in 1992 and converted by Rafael Moneo, who also designed the new station behind it, into a concourse with shops, cafés and a splendid 4,000 sq m tropical garden at its heart, including a pool that has been taken over by an expanding number of turtles.
A green haven in the centre of Madrid, the Buen Retiro Park (Parque del Buen Retiro) started life as a royal park, primarily laid out in the 1630’s, and came under the Municipality of Madrid in 1868. Subsequent additions include many monuments, statues and fountains, the most splendid of which is the Monument to Alfonso XII of Spain designed by the architect José Grases Riera and the creation of a large rose garden named after the Chief Gardener Cecilio Rodriguez who designed it.
Just as Hyde Park in London was used for exhibitions such as the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Buen Retiro Park played a similar role, with two buildings remaining from the decade before the Atocha railway station: the Palacio de Cristal and the Palacio de Velázquez, both designed by Ricardo Velázquez Bosco and both now used as contemporary art galleries by the Museuo National Centro de Art Reina Sofia.
The Palacio de Cristal with its 22m high cast iron frame manufactured in Bilbao was built in 1887 to exhibit flora and fauna from the Philippines. Influenced by the Crystal Palace in London and the Palm House in Kew Gardens, it now provides large daylit spaces for art installion and sculpural work, the current exhibition “The Rocket and the Abyss” by the Mexican artist Damian Ortego (born 1967) exploring the transitory nature of man-made monuments through his model of the Titanic, an upside down architectural tower which is a swinging hourglass and an installation of everyday items from the 1960’s and 1970’s which might have been used by the occupants of the Pruitt-Igoe housing development, hailed as one of the most significant housing developments in North America until the 33 buildings were demolished due to their poor condition – a comment on late 20th century mass housing.
The nearby Palacio de Velázquez was built a few years earlier in 1881-3 for the Exposición Nacional de Minería (and named after the architect) to display achievements in the field of mining, metallurgy, ceramics, glass-making and mineral water industries. It’s high volume spaces have now been converted to a new art gallery use, here more flexibly due to the amount of solid walls able to keep light out and on which to hang artwork, the current exhibition being “Questions of Perception” by the Swiss artist Remy Zaugg (1943 – 2005) who enjoys playing with colour, graphics and language.
Three projects which show the versatility of these nineteeth century buildings, as seen also in the conversion of the Musee de Orsay in Paris and St Pancras in London. It is a pity that such imagination was not used when Euston station in London was demolished a few years ago, to be replaced by an uninspiring modern terminus which has itself come to the end of its life.