Text by Mikas Kauzonas
After our Seseña visit, we moved to to Vallecas – a neighborhood of Madrid composed of two districts: Puente de Vallecas (population 240,917) and Villa de Vallecas (population 65,162). Vallecas was an independent village until 1950 when it became part of Madrid. During the 60s, many Spanish immigrants to the Madrid conurbation settled in Vallecas, forming the largest slum area around Madrid.
In the last years, the district of Vallecas Villa experienced an important enhancement with about 25.000 new flats and houses called “PAU de Vallecas” or “Ensanche de Vallecas”, one of the biggest new areas in Madrid. This was a pure reflection of the housing boom happening all over the world due to easy loan plans for the investors. However it was Spain and Madrid especially where this was the most evident. After the financial crash a lot of new developments could hardly be finished in the area and even if they were, potential buyers of the properties could not get the loan so easy so majority of the apartments stayed empty raising depravation levels in the new region of Madrid.
During our visit to Vallecas we went to see a quite unique project by a local office Ecosistema Urbano. Their brainchild “eco-boulevard” was a green street in-between the newly built housing blocks. It was to create social and “bioclimatically controlled public space” for the local residents. However due to the lack of the actual residents in the area the project was never pushed to act to its full potential. The public space structures in reality looked very different from what we saw in the renderings of the innovative architect’s office. There were literally no people in the boulevard not to mention the lack of maintenance in general.
Of course it was hard to judge the overall design when it wasn’t really used the way it was planned. However we had our doubts whether the design would have worked even if the residents were actually living in the area. One can easily get the feeling that everything was over-designed. To the eyes of most of the residents the “bio-climatic public space” would just be an empty space surrounded by the metal structure. And to be honest that all there is to the actual boulevard. It’s a gravel pathway with three metal structures along its way. Why not add an actual playground for the local kids to play inside? The designers really wanted to emphasize the monumental contemporary design elements so much that it seems they forgot the essence of what good public space actually is. The same thing could be said about the facades of the housing blocks that face the boulevard. The extensive detailing on them was very “eye-catching” but at the same time often irrational and unnecessary while general quality of the surrounding built environment was not that high.
“The renovation of the boulevard started out from the realisation that the best climatic conditioning of an urban space subject to this kind of high-temperature pressure had to come from tall, dense tree cover. However, the young trees planted along the length of the boulevard – which have been supplemented with new examples – will take another fifteen or twenty years to give the desired degree of shade and moisture. Hence, almost the entire effort of the project has been focused on a temporary installation along the thoroughfare’s main axis of three large bioclimatic pavilions called “air trees” – publicspace.org
“On the basis of the argument that the most sustainable architecture is that which is not constructed, the honesty of their much-vaunted ecological qualities is put into question, the cost of their execution is decried as excessive or the artificiality of their marked character as constructed entities is criticised. Whether or not these charges are justified, it is not unusual for controversy to go hand in hand with urban elements that are as surprising as these “air trees”. – David Bravo Bordas, architect
During our few hours in the boulevard we really felt like being in a perfect “playground” for an architect. Surrounded by colorful blocks of flats and no people to destroy that perfect image of initial architectural elements. This obviously did not work that well on the public spaces. We were struggling to find an activity in the boulevard but finally managed to find a café and were served exclusively in the middle of the boulevard. We guessed to have been a largest group the owner had in a while.
All in all we agreed that it is necessary to explore other ways of using urban space and that this type of development definitely shows the “out of the box” thinking. However even when living in a financially vibrant period, building a controversial experiment like this right at the edge of a large city would be questionable.