Matadero Madrid, Spain

Urban meat markets seem to survive long after commerce dictates that they should have disappeared. Their physical infrastructure appears to be somehow infinitely adaptable. New York’s Meatpacking District has become one of the city’s hippest hangouts (and subsequently one of its most desirable), while the old cold stores and warehouses around London’s Smithfield have become the centre of a clubbing and creative scene. It’s nothing new. The picturesque lanes of the Shambles in York, in the north of England, once flowed red with blood and guts as the centre of the city’s meat trade before the area became a quaint tourist attraction.

The Matadero Madrid, however, is something else. This was the Spanish capital’s meat market and abattoir, situated (built and expanded over the first three decades of the 20th century) on the southern edge of the city on the Manzanares river. It is a huge space, its yards resembling a military parade ground but its architecture surprisingly delicate, a Moorish-tinged, brick and tile city of slaughter. For almost a decade the complex has been undergoing a careful, thoughtful transformation into a huge municipal arts centre, its constituent buildings slowly emerging one-by-one as impressive cultural venues.

The process started to bear fruit in 2007 with the opening of the first two spaces, the Intermediae, a kind of visitor centre and lounge flanked by big exhibition spaces, and the Central de Diseño (design centre), a heavily used series of spaces which might house anything from shows and activist events to student displays. The adaptive re-use of industrial-scale space features the usual tropes of exposed concrete and iron and steel mesh as well as plastic butchers’ curtain strips and coarse brickwork, yet the buildings have been treated with rare finesse and an invigorating intelligence.

The front desk appears like a huge Serra or Judd sculpture, an oversized steel I-beam. The texture of the steel columns and concrete ceilings is coated in a horror-film patina of flaking paint and spalling concrete and rough repairs reveal the scars of use, wear and decay. The quality of the interventions (by architects Arturo Franco and José Antonio Roldán), the glass doors, lights and steel frames inserted into the windows, is exquisite, as fine as any I have seen. They set the scene well.

The exhibition halls (Naves) present what are, in effect, basilica spaces, soaring, clerestory-lit industrial rooms. The most recent, Nave 16 (designed by Alejandro Vírseda, José Ignacio Carnicero and Ignacio Vila Almazán) is a breathtaking space that challenges artists to fill it. And fill it they do. The young, radical and unpredictable programming, which has seen a series of carefully wrought responses to the financial crisis, has made this a forum for the articulation of discontent and critical alternatives.

There is the Casa de Música, a space that encourages community involvement in live performance and studio recording, and the Cineteca film centre (designed by Churtichaga + Quadra-Salcedo). The latter is another remarkable industrial space carved out of the site’s unpromising boiler block which uses the density and darkness of the brick structure to great effect. The spaces here are defined by shells woven from cheap plastic tubing that are back-lit, creating an eerie glow. The tubes are sculpted into complex forms, and the spaces they contain are occasionally reminiscent of Art Deco glam, occasionally steampunk wattle and daub and occasionally alien organisms. It is a spectacular effect achieved on a shoestring and it creates a real sense of the magic of film.

Most eye-catching of all, however, is the Casa del Lector (House of the Reader) designed by Antón García Abril. This huge volume connects three of the old meat storehouses together to create a complex devoted to words. It embraces everything from a nursery to an exhibition space and a library. Although the initial architecture is defined by the by-now familiar palette of brick and cast iron (leavened here with a few neatly designed neon signs and installations), the library and exhibition spaces envelop the visitor in a surprising and stunning cloud of white.

The basilica-shaped volumes, brilliantly lit from above, have been whited-out so that the structure almost disappears, except for a central steel staircase in a vivid red. Like a gash of freshly slaughtered cow, it flows through the heart of the building. Slender concrete catwalks link the volumes at higher levels, giving glimpses and views through the interior but also creating small suspended islands for study and reading. Bookstacks, vitrines and exhibition panels create a determinedly three-dimensional landscape of the written word. It is a curiously uplifting space that sits somewhere between the mountain-freshness of a Scandinavian Modernist Lutheran church, a slightly unsettling pharmaceuticals factory, a minimalist art gallery and a vision of a floating bibliophile heaven.

This being Spain, the Matadero is as much about the spaces outside as the interiors. The original network of covered walkways appears now as a series of arcades, with the industrial detailing of an elevated railway. They create leisurely verandahs and encourage hanging around, which is exactly what this complex is about. It is resolutely public and completely free. There are no barriers to wandering or relaxing and pensioners read papers amid groups of young arty types with laptops. The café is cheap, set into another cavernous interior and serves an espresso capable of propelling you well into the night.

Spain went through a period of bad press for the rash of extravagant cultural buildings built during its boom years, culminating in Santiago Calatrava’s insanely expensive and overscaled City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia. By slowly and thoughtfully reviving a fine existing place through the work of young, under-employed but hugely talented architects using cheap industrial materials and infinite care, the Matadero is the opposite in every way. If the developers behind London’s Smithfield want to see how this kind of thing should be done, it’s difficult to think of a place that does it better.

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