A year ago, Chinese real estate conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group bought the Edificio España, a historic 25-story building located on Madrid’s central Plaza España, for €265 million from Banco Santander. The landmark site once housed a Crowne Plaza hotel as well as a shopping mall, office space and residential units. But since 2007, when the last tenant walked out, it has been lying vacant.
In 2014, under the previous conservative Popular Party (PP) municipal administration, the city reduced the building’s legal protection in order to facilitate Dalian Wanda’s plans to create a new mixed-use space that would include a new hotel, shopping area and luxury dwellings.
This is not a private matter, it’s a public issue between Madrileños and their city”
José María Ezquiaga, head of the Madrid Professional Association of Architects
There was only one red line: the main façade and side wings would have to remain intact.
But now, the new owners say that for safety reasons it would be impossible to demolish the skyscraper while leaving its façade untouched. Instead, Dalian Wanda wants permission to tear the whole thing down and rebuild the protected parts brick by brick, until they look exactly like the original.
But the request has come up against a wall of rejection from the new left-wing Ahora Madrid municipal government, which wants to hold a city-wide referendum on the issue. The request for a plebiscite was put to Mayor Manuela Carmena by the Madrid Professional Association of Architects.
“The main debate is whether the building must be removed, or whether Madrileños have a sentimental connection with the building that would make it advisable to preserve it,” said the association’s head, José María Ezquiaga. If so, “the building should be maintained the way it is to the greatest extent possible, without falsifying history by making it seem old when it’s actually modern.”
A €265-million building
Banco Santander bought Edificio España from the constructor Metrovacesa in June 2005, paying €389 million for the acquisition. It then commissioned the Norman Foster and Carlos Lamela architects’ studios to restore the building.
The building is 117 meters high and comprises 25 floors, with 67,400 square meters above ground, plus an additional 9,700 square meters below ground level. The banking group asked the city for permission to double the shopping space, while the hotel would take up 22,000 square meters and another 30,400 square meters would be given over to 300 luxury homes.
But when the economic crisis hit, real estate prices bottomed out, and in July 2014 Banco Santander sold the building to Dalian Wanda Group for €265 million.
According to Dalian Wanda, for buildings with partial grade three protection, as is the case here, local zoning ordinances exceptionally allow demolition and reconstruction using the same materials, shape and dimensions, when it is technically not feasible to carry out the work while preserving a designated element.
The Chinese giant, which owns over 200 hotels and luxury malls across the world, also invokes safety concerns.
According to the company, which is chaired by Wang Jianlin, China's richest man according to Forbes magazine, “the consolidation of the façade is not viable under safe conditions. There are no prior references or similar experiences relating to maintaining a structure of similar height and dimensions, which additionally lacks bearing capacity.”
“It is possible, however, to take it apart and later rebuild it, preserving its image and scenic value, something for which there are precedents and earlier experiences validated by architectural culture and heritage protection,” according to the Chinese group, which wants to preserve the lower part of the façade, and rebuild the rest using the same materials.
Edificio España was built between 1948 and 1953, during the Franco regime, by brothers José María and Julián Otamendi, following the style of the Chicago School. Once Europe’s tallest building, it originally housed a hotel and apartments.
According to Dalian Wanda Group, the building went up at a time when there was no access to quality materials, which means that its useful life is coming to an end despite restoration efforts carried out throughout the years. The company says new solutions are required to ensure Edificio España’s long-term durability and compliance with modern building standards.
It is not in City Hall’s plans to authorize the demolition of the façade. That’s not going to happen”
Madrid government official
It also warns that most of the bricks and artificial stone on the façade have deteriorated, particularly the stone, which covers 57 percent of the surface.
But municipal sources said it was “not in City Hall’s plans to authorize the demolition of the façade. That’s not going to happen.”
The Socialist Party, whose support was instrumental in getting Manuela Carmena invested mayor, also opposes the move.
The head of the Madrid Professional Association of Architects admits that Edificio España was built at a difficult period in Spanish history when there was little available steel. “And the façade is not a structural, resistant element: the building supports the façade, not the other way around as is the case with other historic buildings in Madrid; Wanda may be right about that,” adds Ezquiaga.
But that’s not the point, he says.
“We have a building that’s not historic, that does not have an intrinsic value derived from its age. And architecturally it’s not exceptional, either. But its image is sufficiently significant that Madrileños may feel that it is part of their memory and needs preserving,” he explains. “We architects need to learn that part of [conserving] our heritage means preserving our memory, maintaining a sentimental attachment to the past, to earlier generations.
“The question is not whether the façade may be torn down, but whether Madrileños feel attached to the building, whether it forms part of their memory, whether it is a Madrid icon. I wouldn’t feel comfortable without a public debate; this is not a private matter to be decided between the city and the developer, it’s a public issue between Madrileños and their city. It is up to citizens to say how much of their past they want to keep and how much they want that’s new.”
And the city government agrees with him.
English version by Susana Urra.