Barracks, a water tower, a brewery, a power station, a postal and telegraph center, a tobacco factory, a bank, a slaughterhouse. What do they have in common? Well in the Spanish capital of Madrid, these functional buildings have all been reconditioned to enjoy a fruitful afterlife as cultural centers.
Include them in your Madrid itinerary and you’ll not only encounter some hugely impressive feats of architectural repurposing and a wide range of artistic offerings, you may also discover neighborhoods you wouldn’t otherwise visit. Grab a cheap ticket for the excellent subway service and spend some time getting to know some of Europe’s most exciting cultural spaces in six easy stops from north to south.
Sala Expo Canal de Isabel II
Metro: Alonso Cano
The first stop is the Canal de Isabel II water facility in the city’s north. With modern water pumping methods rendering the center’s 100-year-old water tower redundant, it has been converted into a highly atmospheric exhibition space concentrating on photography. Display areas are laid out over various levels until you come to the top, where the water would once have been stored. This is now a huge, ovoid projection room; with music ricocheting around the steel walls it’s a truly immersive art experience. Exhibitions are free but you’ll need a photo ID to enter the facility.
Museo ABC/Conde Duque
Metro: Plaza de España
Around the beginning of the 20th century, Mahou beer (still ubiquitous in Madrid) was brewed in the Conde Duque district. Recently the building has been converted and expanded to become Museo ABC, an art museum concentrating on drawings and illustration over several levels, including an extensive basement space.
Another first-class overhaul awaits just around the corner in the form of the enormous complex which gives the district its name. Conde Duque is one of Madrid’s most impressive buildings, starting life in the 18th century as barracks. There’s only the occasional decorative flourish to interrupt the monumental façade but on the narrow street it’s difficult to appreciate the huge scale of the thing. The interior has been restored at great expense and with stunning results, clean lines and smooth surfaces complementing the brick vaulting. There are two enormous courtyards, which sometimes host open-air concerts, and a range of other performance spaces and galleries. Even if the program doesn’t pique your interest, the building itself is not to be missed.
Palacio de Cibeles
Metro: Banco de España
Also on the must-see list is the Palacio de Cibeles. This building’s fanciful exterior has long been one of Madrid’s most prominent landmarks. It was built around the time of the First World War as a postal and telegraph center, afterwards serving time as a communications museum before its current role as Madrid’s City Hall.
Much of it is now given over to temporary exhibitions which concentrate on the urban experience. The interior was recently restored to spectacular effect, resulting in a soaring, uplifting space where ornate decorative plasterwork contrasts with cool glass and steel functionalism and surfaces seem to glow from within.
Conversions of industrial heritage sites are nothing new in the art world, but CaixaForum Madrid takes it to another level – literally. Architects Herzog & de Meuron crowned an original brick electrical works with a café and restaurant wreathed in a daring, angular structure, comprising a kind of rust-colored filigree. Meanwhile the lower parts of the building have been scooped out to leave the whole thing alarmingly perched. You ascend via a futuristic staircase, all gleaming metal planes, with another staircase of alabaster-like softness, at once sensual and monumental, forming the core of the building.
CaixaForum is the most prominent recent addition to Madrid’s cultural landscape, partly due to its location, within a few blocks of the “big three” (Reina Sofia, Prado and Thyssen-Bornemisza). While there’s no permanent collection, there’s a high-quality program of temporary exhibitions. What’s more it’s open every day (yes, even Mondays!), with free entrance. Don’t forget to gawp at the adjacent vertical garden by French urban landscape designer Patrick Blanc.
La Tabacalera/La Casa Encendida
This stop at the bottom end of the multicultural Lavapiés district is an intriguing contrast of shabby and chic. La Tabacalera is a rambling tobacco factory dating back to the 18th century, with a forbidding, prison-like façade. It’s now a self-managed art center, and on my visit much of the complex was given over to an exhibition of video art, whose cathode glows illuminated the labyrinthine gloom.
With further exhibition spaces and a bohemian café elsewhere in the building, this is an inspirational space with an edge reminiscent of post-reunification Berlin. Just a minute’s walk away, La Casa Encendida is much less rough-and-ready. Like CaixaForum, this arts center represents a spot of social engagement by a Spanish bank and, in fact, was once a bank. The exhibition spaces are slick and contemporary, and the roof is one of the best places to be in Madrid once the sun has set on a scorching summer day, with drinks, DJs and films all on offer.
Our southernmost stop is near Madrid’s neglected Manzanares River. The Matadero Madrid was once the city’s main slaughterhouse, now it’s a “center of contemporary creation” incorporating several huge buildings. Its rehabilitation is a work in progress but there’s already a cinema, theater, a design center and some enormous exhibition spaces. This evolving industrial landscape represents the kind of ingenious do-over which makes Madrid one of Europe’s most exciting contemporary art centers.
Read more: 5 Top Things to Do in Madrid
- James Conway