Does the Puerta del Sol need another refit?

The last remodeling of the capital's emblematic square lasted from 2005 to 2009 But the regional premier is calling on citizens to have their say about future changes

One of the Puerta del Sol's many street entertainers.
One of the Puerta del Sol's many street entertainers. ÁLVARO GARCÍA

Do you think that the Puerta del Sol in downtown Madrid needs a makeover to improve the quality of this public area? You may answer yes or no. Would you like the Puerta del Sol to have an area for sitting or resting? Yes or no. Do you feel that there should be more shady spots in the Puerta del Sol? If so, please select the preferred type of shade: vegetation, awnings, marquees and/or parasols.

This questionnaire, which is available online (http://cort.as/688t), is allowing Madrileños from all walks of life — whether born and bred there or recent arrivals — to participate in a project to reform the popular square, the scene of massive sit-in protests in 2011. The initiative is the brainchild of the Madrid Architects' Association, with support from the local and regional governments, both governed by the Popular Party (PP). However, authorities have yet to pledge financial support for the plan, leaving things very much at a preliminary stage for now.

If there is anything that Sol has had its share of over the years, it is remodeling. But something must have gone wrong somewhere down the line, if the Madrid regional premier himself, Ignacio González, feels that only a few times in its long history has the venerable old square been "less attractive than it is today."

Although the history of Sol goes back to the 15th century, when traveling salesmen plied their wares in the area, the first modern refurbishments of any great importance took place in the 19th century. The chronicler Pedro Montoliu wrote in his book Madrid, Villa y Corte that "while in London each inhabitant had a surface area of 112 square meters, residents of Madrid and Paris had only 28. The nearly 300,000 Madrileños who lived in the city around 1860 were concentrated into fewer than 9,900 houses."

The premier failed to mention that the region will not pay a penny to the cause

The job of refitting Sol — just one of many projects undertaken at the time to expand and improve the city — fell to Lucio del Valle; before that, the square had been paved with cobblestones to facilitate the traffic of 3,950 carriages and 1,414 horses that passed through each day between 8am and 9pm, adds Montoliu. Madrid's first traffic light was installed in 1926, on the corner of Alcalá street and Gran Vía.

Between 1854 and 1858, a good number of the existing buildings in Sol were demolished, including the church and hospital of Buen Suceso, whose remains were rediscovered last summer during construction work for the future Apple Store. Also gone was the city's oldest, most elegant hotel, the Hotel de París. The renovation work was completed in 1862, and new buildings went up in the space of six years.

"The remodeling also eliminated the streets known as Zarza, Duda and Callejón de Cofreros, besides necessitating an investment of 63 million reales," explains Montoliu. It was then that the city gained the famous clock that rests atop the regional government building, and which rings in the New Year. The 20th century brought with it a complicated web of streetcar tracks and overhead cables, the first subway line between Sol and Cuatro Caminos, the conversion of a small tailor's shop on Preciados street into the department store behemoth El Corte Inglés... and more.

In 1950, the architect Manuel Herrero Palacios eliminated tramway lines to make space for cars; he also planted twin fountains in the square and lay down the well-known "Kilómetro 0" plaque on the ground, to mark the geographical center of the country. Some years later, the statue of the bear and the strawberry tree, the city's symbol, was put in place.

It must become an exclusive spot for international and domestic tourists"

In March 1985, the architects Antonio Riviere and Javier Ortega presented the Architects' Association with a project for new refurbishments that met with some opposition. It was approved nevertheless, and Socialist Mayor Juan Barranco inaugurated the new Puerta del Sol in December 1986 after two years of construction work and a six-million-euro investment. Traffic lanes were reduced from five to three each way, and the pedestrian area constrained to parts of Preciados, Carmen and Montera streets. Yet the best-remembered anecdote from that time was the popular revolt against the 80 "suppository-style" street lamps that Barranco eventually had replaced with more traditional boulevard-type lamp posts, against the architects' wishes.

That particular project kept the square shut down for two years. But the next remodeling took twice as long. Between 2005 and 2009, while construction work for a new train station was underway, traffic was restricted to two lanes between Mayor street and Carrera de San Jerónimo. What's more, the city has since managed to paint a bike lane into this reduced space. The entire project cost 4.6 million euros.

Yet the regional premier said last week that it is "very urgent to take back the Puerta del Sol and make a square out of it, this being the most important square in Madrid because of its downtown location."

González added that the latest remodeling should be undertaken "by professionals, with the aim of turning it into one of Madrid's most attractive squares, able to compete with others in the world, and making it an exclusive spot for international and domestic tourists. That's what the Puerta del Sol needs."

Despite this "urgency," the premier failed to mention that the regional government is not planning on contributing a single euro to the cause. Neither is City Hall, even though it was the trigger for talk of a new project after announcing in 2012 that it was planning to set up a 300-square-meter street café in the square and plant 100 trees there. The trees were the first casualties of this idea, as city planners admitted that there is not enough earth under the cobblestones to keep vegetation alive. And the street café has been on hold since the Architects' Association convinced the city to begin a brainstorming session that would be open to citizen input and call an international competition to reorganize what's already there, before adding new elements. In order to ramp up the debate, in October and November the association will organize two rounds of talks with politicians, engineers, historians, business owners and other professionals to hear their opinions.

The association argues that there is no need to rush into the reforms, and that there will be enough time over the coming years to make the project a reality. Anything to prevent things from turning out the way Ángel Fernández de los Rios described in his 1876 Guía de Madrid: manual del madrileño y del forastero (Madrid Guidebook: a manual for Madrileños and out-of-towners), in reference to the 19th-century reform: "After endless projects, glowing reports, extensive dissertations and hard-fought controversies, the final work fell rather short of the proportions it had been given, either in beauty or in shape or in comfort for the public."

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