Architectural Record webpage
Posted April 12, 2004

Longtime readers of Architectural Record will recognize Madrid's Atocha Railroad Station, scene of one of the four brutal bomb attacks that killed 190 people and injured over 1,600 on March 11. Designed by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, it was featured in our July 1991 issue (pages 222 - 229). The station was built as the Madrid terminal of the high speed train line to Seville, and it also houses a busy commuter hub. In the days following the attacks, the station has become a point of encounter for thousands of Madrileños wishing to offer their personal homage to the victims. Mourners have surrounded its entry rotunda with a ring of votive candles and flowers, and covered its glass walls and brick columns with handwritten testimonials. At any hour of the day, this improvised memorial is crowded with people lighting candles or standing in silent contemplation. Moneo set the freestanding rotunda in the center of the station's entry plaza, where it stands like a Renaissance tempieto, an iconic presence amid the otherwise fluid horizontal spaces of the station. (Inside, more candles and messages are uncomfortably grouped on a lower mezzanine; the rotunda itself lacks a sizable floor, as it functions as a vertical circulation axis and light well to the station below, frustrating people's efforts to convert it into a temple-like interior).

For those able to observe the growth of Spain's young democracy over the past 25 years, Atocha is full of symbolic resonance on another level. The station is the gateway to Madrid's working-class southern suburbs, communities of drab apartment blocks lining narrow, treeless streets, which were built with little planning and few basic services during the population explosion of the 1950s and 60s, and which have been the recipients of enormous pubic investments in recent years. The Spanish capital's modernized and expanded commuter train system is just one element in a large network of improvements, which include subsidized housing, highways and mass transit, parks and recreational facilities, schools, libraries and universities, medical clinics and hospitals.

Visits to many of these modest communities are a must for anyone interested in Spain's vibrant public architecture: to Entrevias, one station south of Atocha, to see the Miesian rowhouses that architect Francisco J. Sáenz de Oiza built in the 1950s for homeless rural immigrants, a pioneering example of modernism in postwar Spain. To "El Pozo del Tio Raimundo," the station where one of the trains exploded, to visit the Palomeras housing of the 1980s by the De las Casas brothers, Junquera & Pérez Pita and others, and the contemporary planned community of Madrid Sur, with its patio-block apartment blocks on streets named for famous movies – "Cleopatra," "La Reina de Aftica," "Romeo y Julieta." To San Fernando de Henares, whose town hall, by Madridejos & Sancho, and public swimming pool, by Mansilla & Tuñón, were featured in Record's July 2000 issue (pages 114 -123). To Abalos & Herreros' new public library in Usera, Cruz & Ortiz's Olympic Stadium in Canillejas, López Cotelo & Puente's School of Pharmacy in Alcalá de Henares, the planned communities of Valdebernardo, Leganés Norte or Loranca. And so on.

The people killed and injured in the bomb attacks were the beneficiaries of this collective generosity: university students on the way to classes from their parents' modest apartments, new immigrants from around the world in search of a fresh start, people who get up early in the morning every day to go to work or bring their kids to school. The terrorists' bombs were not directed at any obvious symbol, as was the case with the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York, but they were in fact a direct attack against the hope of a better life for everyone that Atocha and all the new works of public architecture behind it represent. It is hard to imagine in these difficult moments a more dramatic illustration of the cause of architecture, the ideals that it stands for, and the forces arrayed against those ideals.