El Campo de Cebada

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Text by Denis Kolesnikov
On the last day of our visit to Madrid, the “Follow the Money” team visited the unusual and inspiring “El Campo de Cebada” project, at the heart of the city’s La Latina neighbourhood. After several days of critical discussions relating to the negative impact of the economic crisis on the city, this refreshing encounter with a citizen-initiated project that speaks critically against the indifference of the top-down urban planning tactics of property developers, gave us an opportunity to reflect on what positive implications the economic crisis may have had for the architectural profession and showed us new ways in which we can all shape our own urban environment.

Formerly the site, Plaza de la Cebada, had been a public square and one of the oldest markets in Madrid, which in the 1875 was covered by a graceful metal structure to make an indoor market, and the centre of social interaction for La Latina neighbourhood. In 1968, the decline of public markets and the city’s ever increasing obsession with hygiene meant that half of the square was transformed into a municipal sports centre which took up the last free space in the square. At the start of the 20th century, the Madrid city council proposed a new plan for the site, which would see both the covered market and the sports centre rebuilt and privatized. After the demolition of the sports centre in 2009, the economic crisis left the site empty and unable to find an investor for constructing a replacement. So in the very heart of Madrid, the 5,500sqm space which had been occupied by a large public swimming pool, was left as a bare cement sunken area surrounded by a fence, awaiting better times.

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In a way, El Campo de Cebada started as a spontaneous response of the citizens to an unusual situation resulting from the collapse of the country’s construction industry. After one year of inactivity, in September 2010, the empty site once again came back to life. For the annual event of La Noche en Blanco, which aims to fill the main streets and public spaces of Madrid with life and reinvent our relationship with the city, the architects Exyzt took over the vacant lot to organize ‘City Island’, a temporary installation which included a swimming pool, a bar and a concert space. For 10 days, the neighbourhood of La Latina once again had a public space where they could meet and relax. As the event was coming to a close and the ‘island’ was being dismantled, the locals began to ask questions about the future of the site. Did the site indeed have to return to its former useless and inaccessible state, awaiting the vague promise of redevelopment? Or could the space be reclaimed by the community, making it again a functioning public space in the city? This is how the El Campo de Cebada initiative started to grow – people of all ages from the neighbourhood, together with young architects, came together to imagine what the space could be used for temporarily, until work began on the new sports facility.

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They started a website offering information and discussions, and organized weekly meetings in a nearby bar to gather ideas, with the intention of making a formal proposal to the local authorities. On 18th February 2011, a temporary cession of the vacant lot was signed by the city council, and El Campo de Cebada opened its doors. Proposals for activities started to be collected, with members of the local community suggesting artistic, cultural, social and sportive projects with which to inhabit the site. A chalkboard was placed at the entrance to catch ideas of passers-by and to communicate future events. From then on, work on the square began, making use of volunteers and people offering their skills in their on specific trades. Basic equipment, such as electrical power and sports-court for local tournaments was quickly constructed. Slowly, the monotonous concrete turned into lively colours, painted by local artists, and the lot began to fill with objects: mobile seats made from re-used wood, a metal structure with recycled fabric to provide shade, and gardens were planted in large boxes on wheels. An extensive programme of lectures, plays, open-air film screenings, sports events and concerts all transformed the square into a new public space where everyone was welcome, and everyone’s opinions and contribution was valued. But most of all, it became a meeting place where the community could discuss the problematic situations regarding the future of the neighbourhood.

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Since its creation, El Campo de Cebada has become a process committed to participation, transparency and sociability, an example of cooperative place-making between citizens and local authorities, that shows what the urban space of the 21st Century might look like. Because the regular economic growth had stopped, citizens were able to find new possibilities of deciding how they wanted to build their own urban space. It reflects the concept of non-authorship, where people work together to ‘take care’ of their own urban space, and by taking common decisions and by taking part manage to reverse the old-fashioned top-down model of city planning. As Zuloark, the architects behind the project say: “the only author of Campo de Cebada is Campo de Cebada itself.”

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