The announced change in the use of the upper floors of one of the emblematic buildings in the center of Madrid will signify a reform that will not be the first to undergo the current Fnac headquarters overlooking the Plaza de Callao. The intention of its owner, the French group Merlin, is to dedicate its upper floors to gastronomy by placing restaurants that will point to the square, which has become the emblem of the capital. Callao appears in vivid images of Almodóvar (“The Flower of My Secret”), Amenábar (“Open Your Eyes”), Alex de la Iglesia (“Day of the Beast”) and other filmmakers who were looking for an icon of the most popular place in the world. cities and confirm their symbolic success in the collective imagination.
Neither the Royal Palace, nor the Prado Museum, nor the Congress of Deputies are the emblems of modern Madrid. Gran Via, yes. And of its three parts, the junction of the second and third in the Plaza de Callao marked the maximum splendor of the brief splendor of modernity before the Civil War. At the beginning of the third section, the Carrión building appeared, which houses the Capitol cinema, considered the best among modern buildings in the capital. It was completed in 1933 thanks to the work of two young architects, Luis Martínez-Feduchi and Vicente Esed y Esed, who took a privileged position in the street where the great architects of their time worked. It was the birthplace of office buildings, premiere theaters and luxury shops, the new metropolitan hallmarks of a big city that did not complete its most representative street until it joined the Plaza de España in the 1950s.
In the same Plaza de Callao, there were already unique buildings such as the Callao Cinema (1926) designed by the architect Luis Gutiérrez Soto and the Palacio de la Prensa (1928) by Pedro Mugurus. Another valuable object, the current headquarters of Fnac between Carmen and Preciados streets, goes more unnoticed despite its slenderness. It is more interesting than it might seem at first glance, both because of its author, the chameleon Luis Gutiérrez Soto, and because of the features of the piece built in the 1940s. When Galerías Preciados opened its doors here in 1943, it became the apostle of a new architectural typology: department stores.
Its promoters borrowed the concept from the cultural realm of North America, as its capital came from Cuba, which was the continuation of the United States in the Caribbean. There, the El Encanto shops were a resounding success, and their manager, the Asturian César Rodríguez González, contributed to the birth of both El Corte Inglés – his nephew and successor was Ramon Ares – and Galerias Preciados, through the mediation of his cousin Pepin. Fernandez, who returned to Spain in 1934 to undertake various investments.
To accommodate the modern North American style department store, the block where the building is currently located was chosen, but only the end closest to the Puerta del Sol, bounded by Carretas, Rompelansas and Preciados streets. From there it will be extended to the Plaza de Callao, where a building of considerable height rises for that time. The project was entrusted to Madrid’s most prestigious architect of the time, Luis Gutiérrez Soto, whose links to the regime allowed him to develop his undeniable talent until he became the most prolific professional in five decades. He was responsible for many high-end residential buildings and for landmarks as diverse as the first Barajas airport, the old Barceló cinema, the Air Ministry in Moncloa, the Retiro tower or the solemn La Unión and Fénix skyscraper in Paseo de la Castellana.
Author of over 650 projects throughout his life, he was never particularly proud of this work, although it is of infrequent importance in modern Madrid architecture. The volume in the form of a high and long parallelepiped of small thickness shows a narrow facade of unusual harmony towards Plaza de Callao, which gives the smallest of its vertical faces the proportion of a small urban skyscraper with the same resource used. Raymond Hood at Rockefeller Center in New York.
The building was designed in 1940 and built in three stages, the first of which was opened in April 1943. The original block of Galerías Preciados consisted of only five floors. As the remaining houses in the block were acquired, additions were completed, culminating in 1956 when it reached a volume similar to the current one. Since then, his outspoken orthogonality has been appreciated, subtly related to Gutiérrez Soto’s pre-Civil War designs when he used rationalist formal language. It seems that in this case the architect did not feel compelled to cover his work with neo-imperial elements, such as those he used in other works of the same period, as a result of the success of the Air Ministry.
The very features of the project, with the imposition of transparent, long and narrow floors, which had to be pierced by elevators and stairs with maximum efficiency, prompted us to design a strictly functional building. Undoubtedly, the author would have preferred to mark the facades with solid metal and glass curtain walls, but in the end, either due to lack of materials or to mask the essentially modern building, the luminous glass walls were solved by dividing them into an orthogonal grid of elements massive, framing glass granite inside brick panels.
It is impossible not to appreciate the rationalist classicism of the building, especially considering that it was built in conditions of complete autarky, when the works were disguised with neo-imperial paraphernalia so desired by the regime. Galerias Preciados acts as an element of pure geometry that participates in a joint reading of the ideas of the European modern movement and the often ignored influence of modern architecture in the United States. The North American trading world was well known to the owners, who came from Havana and often traveled to New York on business before settling in Spain.
The old glamor of cinema and theater
The American influence on the architecture of Madrid and the Gran Vía of the time is little recognized, with the Callao Cinema (1926) modeled on North American film projection rooms and the nearby Telefónica building (1929) signed by Ignacio de Cárdenas. carries the ideas of Louis Seabury Weekes, the New York architect of ITT, who oversees his work. In a sense, the Galerías Preciados building is also in dialogue with the Palacio de la Preciados (1928), located on the other side of the square, which pays homage to Chicago’s Sullivan architecture.
In the early 1990s, when the French multinational company Fnac took over the building, a deep renovation was carried out under the direction of José Medina Rivo, in which the structure was changed and the overall appearance of the building was preserved. At the top, he added a crystalline cylindrical tower tip, a post-modern monument that attempts to establish a dialogue with the Carrión building and with the tholos, the pillared corner towers present in many of the surrounding buildings.
If the top floors of the Gutiérrez Soto building are now renovated to accommodate a multitude of restaurants, it will be proof that Gran Vía is becoming a place of leisure and tourism with little to no connection to the basic needs of society. The original operation of the Preciados galleries ousted residential buildings to install department stores selling consumer goods, later becoming a shopping center for leisure and culture. Now food tourism is monopolizing the upper floors to turn them into vantage points for a very human spectacle of a city’s entertainment artery, like New York’s Broadway or the Las Vegas Strip.
Change of use always occurs, sooner or later, in the life of buildings with history, but the architectural ideas they contain must not be betrayed. To avoid this, there are rules for the protection of such valuable elements that must be observed so that the memory of the origin of the building, which with its profile contributed to the definition of the metropolitan transformation of the city, remains.
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