Like a Darwinian mutation, the process will be long but unrelenting because the decision has already been taken and there’s no going back: cities will not belong to the private vehicle. It sounds like an advertising slogan and yet, without a doubt, is already a reality, one that has been gaining strength for over a decade. Not only through administrative measures or penalties, such as parking meters or traffic restrictions in certain neighbourhoods, but also through the physical transformation of the city itself. In other words, town planning and architecture — the same players that have shaped the city over the past century and a half, turning it into a highway — are now, quite literally, expelling the car. The private vehicle, at least.
Interventions, at times, are both symbolic and practical in nature. In London, they’re building skyscrapers without parking spaces; in Paris, there’s to be a drastic reduction in the number of traffic lanes in squares and roundabouts, elements that are intrinsic to the city’s urban layout; and Madrid-Río, the most significant infrastructure development the Spanish capital has seen in the last 50 years, was conceived with the idea of sending cars underground and, in exchange, creating a park.
Now, and also in Madrid, this movement is about to take a giant step forward with building work on the new Plaza de España scheduled to begin next year. The project is the brainchild of Madrid-based firms Estudio Guadiana and Porras & La Casta, with a team made up principally of students and graduates from Universidad Europea de Madrid and a small number of students from other universities. It proposes a radical redistribution of the urban landscape, removing the spaces reserved for motorised transport in favour of trees and pedestrians.
The proposal is conceived from a macroscopic vision of the urban environment, which gradually hones in on the smaller, more sensitive decisions directly linked with the city’s residents as the square’s genuine end users. “Our starting point is an understanding of the city as a geological feature and, from there, we arrive at the material components, the basis for any architectural intervention,” says Fernando Porras-Isla, one of the architects responsible for the project. In a general sense, then, it can be summed up as the creation of a new park. A large pedestrian and cycle-friendly area connecting Parque del Oeste with the Jardines de Sabatini and the Palacio Real, at the same level and in a natural manner, right through to the end of Gran Vía and the start of Calle Princesa. And with the new Plaza de España at its heart. New, because the square will also undergo a complete transformation: from the replanting of thousands of trees to the redesign of the formal gardens, the introduction of sports, rest and leisure areas dotted along the route, or the architectural restructuring of the transport hub, providing it with natural light from the surface.
To ensure that this space can be enjoyed to the full, the existing road tunnel will be extended from Calle Bailén to Calle Ferraz, so doing away with the viaduct and eliminating the square’s former axis, marked by the access route from the Extremadura highway and ending at Edificio España. As Lorenzo Fernández-Ordóñez, head of Estudio Guadiana, says, “It’s inconceivable to us that this construction should be of central importance because it’s a horrible building, Franco-era in the worst sense. It could be excused if it were the headquarters of an institution but, to make matters worse, it belongs to a developer. That’s why we’ve changed the way of viewing and experiencing the square.” “The architectural world is emerging from an era of starchitects, keen to leave their mark on the landscape,” he adds. “In contrast, our approach is artisan-inspired, let’s say. It’s not a question of keeping the public happy, it’s just that we only understand architecture if its objective is to create the best possible space and experience for the user.”
And in the new Plaza de España, for sure, that user doesn’t travel by car. Porras-Isla explains: “From the geological perspective, we take the level for this new project to be the Sabatini gardens.” It all makes sense. That’s why the proposal conceives a continuous walkway, including overpasses that enable pedestrians to stroll among the gardens’ treetops. Users will no longer have to descend 10 or 15 metres to experience this area; it will now form part of the overall route.
But there’s more. According to the proposal agreed with the city council for the new Plaza de España, Gran Vía will become an area with priority access just for residents. “In this way, there’ll be terminating rather than transit traffic. Vehicles will only be able to access residences, hotels and car parks. It’s a huge change, a decrease in traffic of almost 33% in the first year,” highlights Porras-Isla. He concludes, “It’s a political action because we think that architecture is a key tool for political agency.”
It worth reflecting on whether such a radical overhaul will be welcomed by the public. After all, whenever traffic restriction measures are introduced, they invariably end up mired in controversy. But that’s not likely to occur in this case. In the final stage of the public competition to carry out this project, the winning proposal was selected exclusively by popular vote. According to Fernández-Ordóñez, “It has been a shared creative process. From the competition terms, which were set out based on proposals from the city’s residents, through to the team, formed three years ago at the Universidad Europea de Madrid and still working today.”
For sure, the best way to transform a city and even its lifestyle approach is not through glittering architectural landmarks or ostentatious openings, but through the participation of all its inhabitants, pedestrians and creative talents alike.