Madrid Sur
Bauwelt 28, July 25, 1997, cover, pages 1,580 - 1,587.

Direct government management of private housing development, as it is practiced on a large scale in the Madrid region today, began in the 6,980 unit Madrid Sur project of 1987-1994.(1)  Madrid Sur was the outgrowth of a singular government action, the Palomeras developments of the late 1970s and early 80s, but it provided the management model for 15 large scale housing projects that followed, from Valdebernardo to Loranca, Leganés North and others.  It also established the building typology that remains the main point of reference for later developments, the so-called patio-block.  And it was one of the first large-scale projects to give owners' cooperatives a central role in developing buildings, in an attempt to displace conventional real estate developers.  

Madrid Sur is located on the southeastern periphery of Madrid, at the outer edge of the working class neighborhood of Vallecas.  It is limited to the south by a commuter rail line, and not far to the east by Madrid's second ring highway, the M-40.  The 100 hectare site wraps around a steep hilltop, one of the terraces above the Manzanares River that define Madrid's topography, which is crowned by Torres and Martinez-Lapeña's singular 14-story tower.

Since the late 1940s, the site and a large area to the north had been occupied by a shantytown housing roughly 20,000 people, one of many that sprang up around Madrid over the next two decades, and which were the main object of government housing programs in the Franco years.  The problem of the outer Vallecas settlements was not fully addressed until the mid 1970s, however, in response to pressures from local residents' associations in the politically mobilized atmosphere of the transition to democracy.  Charging that rising land values and speculative developments were forcing existing residents out of the area without compensation, the associations managed to win from the central government the Palomeras program, with designs by some of the best architects of the period, creating 11.000 units of public housing over the next decade.

Madrid Sur was set into motion in 1987 to occupy the last land vacated by the Palomeras developments.  Worried that another massive input of public housing in Vallecas would create too great a concentration of poverty, the regional government of Madrid, which had inherited responsibility for housing from the central government, decided to make Madrid Sur a pilot program for private development of subsidized housing for the working class.

The housing at Madrid Sur was thus built under existing legislation as VPOs or Viviendas de Protección Oficial (Officially Protected Housing), where state-subsidized financing for unit buyers is exchanged for a set of housing quality standards and maximum prices.  Qualifying buyers must have a family income of less than 2,5 times the minimum wage, currently about 2,3 million pesetas (27.000 DM).  In Madrid Sur, VPO units typically have 70 or 90 square meters of usable space, with 2 - 3 bedrooms, 1 - 2 baths and optional garages.  Prices were roughly 9 - 12 million pesetas (107.000 - 142.000 DM), depending on the project.(2)  Prices for similar housing in nearby areas are typically more than double.

Private developers had abandoned the field of subsidized VPO housing during the 1980s for the lucrative open market, in a period during which market prices soared.  Madrid Sur provided the model for a deliberate government response to the failure of the market to produce affordable housing, a response conceived from the political left (at the time, state, regional and city governments were in Socialist hands).  On the one hand, the government entered the development business directly, through the acquisition, preparation and sale of buildable land.  On the other, non-profit cooperatives of qualifying buyers, organized by the principal unions and smaller groups of professionals (taxi drivers, school teachers, etc.), stepped into the void left by private developers.  They were soon followed by private promoters as well, attracted by government guarantees and falling demand on the open market.

A consortium of the state, regional and city governments was thus organized in 1987 to develop Madrid Sur.  The regional government provided the land, ceded by Palomeras residents in exchange for their new homes.  The state provided financing through the Ministry of Public Works, and the city built basic infrastructures.  The cost of urbanization, about 5.000 millon pesetas (60 million DM), was recovered by the sale of lots to qualifying cooperatives, who competed for parcels on a point system based on economic viability and experience, buyers' qualifications, and the overall quality of their proposal.  Over 22.000 families competed for the first 4.300 units in 1989, a measure of the pent-up demand.(3)

Madrid Sur also marked the debut of the nation-wide cooperatives of Spain's two major unions, the PSV (Promoción Social de Viviendas, or Social Promotion of Housing), founded in 1988, of the socialist UGT; and the less-ambitious VITRA (Viviendas para Trabajadores, Housing for Workers) of the communist Comisiones Obreros (CC. OO.), who together won development rights to 40% of the parcels.(4)

The Special Plan for Madrid Sur was designed in 1985 by the regional government under the direction of Antonio Vázquez de Castro.(5)  Its patio-block typology, which first appeared in later phases of Palomeras, reflects a now-dated ideological revindication of traditional urbanism over the high rise and garden city typologies of Modernism.  With its square five-story blocks of 72,5 x 72,5 meters and 40 x 40 meter courtyards, separated by 20 meter wide streets, it recalls the 19th century ensanches or extensions of Madrid and Barcelona.  Each block, however, is an individual building, with a gated courtyard used as community garden and controlled play space.

The streets around the blocks (named for movies such as Cleopatra, La Reina de Africa, Romeo y Julieta, Viridiana, Cenicienta...) also differ from 19th century models, using a branching rather than a through circulation system.   Through vehicular streets alternate in a weave with pedestrian thoroughfares and cul-de-sacs for parking and access to garages.  The occupation of ground floors by windowless garages and the limitation of commercial spaces to the principal avenue and a large shopping center, now under construction, give most of these public ways a deadening residual character.

The urban design thus has the strange effect of turning 19th century planning inside-out, concentrating life on the sealed interior of the block and draining activity from the street.  The inversion is typical of our era, projecting an image of civic openness while retreating into the secured realms of private space, and thus making public space all the more insecure.  Not surprisingly, crime has proved to be a particular problem since the development opened.

The quality of the architecture at Madrid Sur is far below the level of developments contracted directly by the regional government.  Outside public administrations, architecture is simply not an issue among builders or home buyers.  Designs had to meet certain conditions set by the urban design, such as red brick finishes and arcades lining the principal street and square.  The housing featured here shows the potential of the urban design, particularly the building by Álvarez, Rubio, & Ruiz Larrea, with its crisp and fstately bearing, which fronts on the Plaza del Cine.

The Colonia San José, Torres and Martínez Lapeña's hilltop tower with two-story linear blocks, is one official's protest against the monotony and rigidity of the patio-block formula.  Built largely at the urging of Eduardo Mangada, pioneering head of the regional planning office, it responds to a need overlooked by the cooperatives, providing 364 rental units for residents less than 30 years old, as well as common social spaces and low-rent commercial spaces.(6)  It also asserts the continued viability of alternate building typologies, making a convincing case for variety and flexibility in large-scale development.  And the design, winner of a limited competition, demonstrates that design controls are no substitute for architectural quality.


Figures unless noted are from Los Consorcios Urbanisticos en la Comunidad de Madrid: Una fórmula de gestión de suelo para los años noventa, published by the regional Comunidad de Madrid, 1995.
Although most of the housing was completed in 1994, many city services. which are developed through conventional channels, are still pending.
El País (Spanish national newspaper), Madrid April 17, 1994.
El País, 7 July 1989.
Villanueva, Alfred, Madrid-Sur: "¿La Nostalgia del Ensanche?", in MD Intervenciones, Nº 2, July 1991.
Sardina, Serafín, "Madrid Sur (1981-94)", Geometría 17 (Málaga), 1994, p. 32 - 41.
El País, 12 May 1994.