How Madrid lost its mojo

A great capital with fine museums and a lively vibe is grippedby an identity crisis

Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, a favourite with location with tourists, but visitor numbers to the city were down 22 per cent in August compared to the same month last year.

Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, a favourite with location with tourists, but visitor numbers to the city were down 22 per cent in August compared to the same month last year.


It sits, grey and unpainted, just outside central Madrid, on the city’s northeastern industrial outskirts. With one side of its semi-circular roof tilting skywards, it could be a massive, unfinished concrete spaceship.

La Peineta stadium was supposed to be at the heart of Madrid’s drive towards economic recovery and renewed global recognition. But since the International Olympic Committee’s decision last month that Tokyo should host the 2020 Games, it has become just another symbol of the city’s faded lustre.

The building will, one day, be home to Atlético Madrid football team. But it was also meant to be Madrid’s Olympic Stadium. It stands opposite the uncompleted skeleton of the Centro Acuático, which would have hosted the games’ swimming competitions.

Madrid’s third consecutive failure to stage sport’s biggest event was a devastating blow. But it’s not the only reason that Madrileños feel their city has lost its mojo.

“People feel very down at the moment,” said Sandra Astete, a lawyer. “Madrid needs to do something to improve its identity – politically, socially and culturally.”

Sonia Felipe Fernández, a fashion designer, agrees. “There’s a feeling nowadays that we’ve lost the excitement we used to have,” she said. “We had a lot of that 20 years ago, Madrid was a very exciting city. But now it’s becoming calmer, more normal.”

Economic devastation
This is perhaps inevitable, given Spain’s ongoing economic crisis. On October 23rd, the Bank of Spain announced that the country had finally emerged from a two-year recession. But the recovery is weak and unemployment remains at 26 per cent. Yet Madrid seems to have suffered more than most and it is now in the red to the tune of €7.5 billion.

Cinemas, theatres and music venues have also been closing. The annual Madrid jazz festival, which over the last 30 years has drawn artists such as Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman to the Spanish capital, has just been cancelled, only weeks before it was due to start.

A very public spat between local authorities and the promoters of the event over venues and money played out just as Barcelona’s own jazz festival was getting under way, reflecting how that city seems to be thriving in comparison.

“Madrid lacks a coherent, attractive cultural agenda and what’s more, it seeks to privatise venues and apply market rules to the field of culture. It wants to get rid of anything that isn’t profitable in
economic terms,”

noted jazz critic Carlos Pérez Cruz wrote on his blog.

Madrid has never boasted many major landmarks, but its plethora of museums, restaurants and bars have traditionally made it an atmospheric, lively and enjoyable place to visit.

But 1,500 bars and cafes have closed down in Madrid and the surrounding region in the last five years and visitors are not coming in the droves they once did. The Richard Rogers-designed €6 billion Terminal 4 at Barajas airport is not seeing the kind of traffic that was hoped for when it was completed in 2006, and Barcelona airport has surpassed the capital’s as the nation’s busiest.

Meanwhile, the Prado museum, home to some of Goya’s and Velázquez’s greatest works, expects to see visits down by a quarter this year.

All of this prompted El País newspaper to run a feature titled “Madrid’s slump”, pointing to poor political management and massive spending on infrastructure in recent years which has failed to transform the city or give it a recognisable skyline.

The Spanish capital, the article asserted, “is a city without a project, without an image, without a narrative”.

“When you come to Madrid from outside you don’t see any signs promoting tourism or anything else here,” says Victor Ortiz, a businessman who works in central Madrid. He is sitting in a bar just off the Plaza Mayor, one of the city’s main tourist attractions, and is furious at how his city fails to sell itself.

“We have the best art museum in the world – the Prado – but I’ve never seen it advertised,” he says. “We have historical monuments, we have so much history here it’ll knock you off your feet. Lots of foreigners know that Toledo was once the capital of Spain, and yet they’re not even sure if Madrid is the capital now!”

The most recent Olympic failure has reminded Madrid’s people of sporting venues built for previous bids to host the games which have been underused. The “Magic Box”, for example, a state-of-the-art, €300 million sports complex in southern Madrid which was built with the 2012 Olympics in mind, stands empty most of the year.

The mood hasn’t been helped by the city’s biggest soccer team. Real Madrid’s expensively assembled squad have yet to set the world alight this season, despite the arrival of the world’s most costly player, Gareth Bale. As it emerged that his involvement in the early part of the season would be limited due to injury, it raised the question: was this just another white elephant, albeit a €100 million Welsh one?

As Real Madrid’s former glories suggest, history hangs more heavily on Madrid than most cities. In the 1980s, it went from being the capital of the right-wing regime of Francisco Franco to the hub of a newfound liberalism and artistic freedom, spearheaded by the “Movida” movement.

“Those were different times,” says Marilo Ruiz de Elvira, a retired journalist who has lived in Madrid all her life. “People always seemed to be opening bars, bookshops, organising gatherings.”

Comparisons with that golden age are always likely to be unfavourable, especially in times of austerity.

But some experts believe their city still has plenty to offer, although changing the skyline isn’t the answer. Enrique Espinosa, a member of the PKMN collective of architects, says encouraging neighbourhood projects, rather than big spending, could be the solution.

“The image of a city, or the landscape of a city takes decades to build,” he says. “But trying to change just the image of the city or just the landscape of a city with no connection with reality – I think that’s much more difficult.”

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