As General Francisco Franco’s life ebbed away in the closing months of 1975, the dictator could rest at ease knowing his cabal would see out their days in a comfortable new inner-city homestead. Completed under his watch, the fortified Edificio Princesa apartment complex was a seemly tribute to the military establishment that helped prop up his regime.
It is perched on the northern corner of Madrid’s Conde Duque district. History is not just cemented into the walls and foundations but also present in the trove of tales shared by its ageing residents. Now, as a new wave of young Spaniards begin snapping up properties, renovating the apartments and even filling the commercial spaces below, this conservative community is gradually being disrupted by the inevitable march of change. The vainglorious signature of Spain’s diminutive dictator is still very much present on the Madrid skyline. Edificio España – Europe’s first skyscraper – towers above the surrounding terracotta-tiled rooftops, while the straight, symmetrical structures of Franco’s government ministries are dotted throughout the city. Edificio Princesa, however, stands as an anomaly. Lacking the characteristic pomposity of most megalomaniac monuments, it was designed for the military regime, not by it. Visionary architect Fernando Higueras imagined a sturdy cement structure entangled with vines and plant life, creating a pioneering example of 1970s sustainability that was erected when the word had hardly entered into the lexicon.
A free-spirited painter and musician who was punished for his rebelliousness during compulsory military service, Higueras was an unlikely candidate as project architect. However, when the head of the Military Housing Agency – forward-thinking General Medrano – entrusted his son’s university with selecting a suitable talent, the bohemian Higueras was the resounding choice. At the time he was overseeing the construction of what is now Spain’s Institute of Cultural Heritage, a bold and futuristic design that was likened to a crown of thorns.
“When the military rang to deliver the news, Higueras refused to take the call,” says Lola Botia, president of an eponymous foundation established after the architect’s death in 2008. “He was almost expecting a late subpoena for insubordination.” When he realised the nation’s military wanted to enlist him to design their new digs instead, the iconoclast set to work in 1967, encouraged by the degree of artistic liberty afforded to him by Medrano. On the site of the Spanish Inquisition’s first trial, a crumbling hospital was demolished to make way for 257 new homes and 25 street-level shops. With so much at stake, Higueras incorporated fellow architect and friend Antonio Miró into his team but challenges soon mounted. A decree by the city council saw a road split the complex in two, forcing Higueras to jettison plans for a private central plaza. The initial budget, measured with military precision down to the last céntimo (at 658,323,016 pesetas – nearly €400,000), was also hampered by cost overruns, meaning the original interior designs were never fully realised.
The block-like forms of exposed cement jarred with the neighbourhood’s traditional vernacular, provoking a mixed reaction from Madrileños – many of whom dubbed it “The Bunker”. With a barracks nearby and the prestigious War School further down the road, the area was already under strict watch; an apartment complex filled with generals, colonels and their families attracted an added share of unwanted attention. At a time when Basque separatist group eta was stepping up its bombing campaign, armed soldiers were assigned to patrol the complex around the clock and a van filled with reserve troops was permanently posted between buildings.
“Security was always tight,” says Paloma Gómez Borrero, a sprightly, immaculately dressed octogenarian who recently moved into her mother’s old apartment after relocating from her home in the Vatican. “I forgot to lock my car door once and was subjected to questioning from the police and the bomb squad.”
Concerns about security also kept the commercial spaces empty for more than 20 years. Today, despite the downgraded threat level, this sense of caution endures in the small team of doormen, who seem alarmed at the presence of strangers. As the newly occupied street-level shops steadily increase pedestrian traffic around the complex, the ever-watchful guardians – as well as many of the reticent elderly residents – are confronted with plenty of fresh faces. The Soto Mesa Music School attracts swarms of violin-toting tots; budding advertising executives attend classes at the Miami Ad School and a subterranean gym is a beacon for local brawn. The Juguetronica robotics store is the most futuristic addition: a space usually buzzing with mechanical toys and hovering drones.
While the diverse, expanding community of commercial tenants is slowly transforming the dynamic, not long ago any menace to the status quo was met with stiff opposition. Neighbours’ meetings, held every six months, would quickly descend into conflict as the various factions of recalcitrant retired generals shouted down any new proposals. Moves to build a pool on the site of a playground were torpedoed, while calls for extra parking met a similar fate. The Residents’ Junta (in Spanish the word junta is not an explicitly military word but a term for “the board”) was stymied by similar political tensions. The community, populated by the battle-hardened ranks of the Spanish military, made for uneasy communal living.
“You know Tejero lives here, right?” says one neighbour, who – like many here – wishes to remain anonymous. The elderly resident talking to monocle in a dimly lit stairwell is referring to the infamous General Antonio Tejero Molina. In 1981, perturbed by the diminished role of Spain’s military during the transition to democracy, Tejero stormed parliament in a hail of gunfire with 200 civil guard troops behind him. He and his cohorts held MPs hostage for a tense 22 hours in what was ultimately a failed coup d’état. He served 15 years in jail for his efforts but today Edificio Princesa is home; not the ideal neighbour if you’re planning an ambitious reform agenda.
Nonetheless, the recently elected new building president, Pablo Valdés, is charging forward with his efforts to bring greater transparency and efficacy to the administration. The 39-year-old IT professional has been modernising outdated procedures; all proposals are now put to a vote via a digital ballot, while early conflict resolution is a priority.
Residents such as Angel Cazorla welcome the changes. The architect bought his apartment a decade ago, attracted by the building’s heritage and groundbreaking design. “It’s a modern interpretation of the traditional Spanish patio residence, adapted to the needs of the city,” he says on his verdant balcony. Working from his home office, Cazorla spends more time here than most and hopes the years of structural neglect are over. “Things are improving,” he adds.
Three floors up, Alejandra and Iván Lequerica are getting their two sons ready for Sunday lunch with the grandparents. The couple arrived here five years ago, contracting Iván’s architect sister Cristina Manene to refit the apartment interior. Iván’s parents, José Ignacio and Mari Aurora, recently bought their own apartment from the family of a deceased Major General.
“It is like a Mediterranean enclave plucked from the coast,” says Alejandra. “Relations with the neighbours here are cordial and there’s plenty of in-built privacy.” The business-culture consultant and her husband, a telecoms engineer, personify the cosmopolitan residents coming to dominate the complex.
While military widows still wander the walkways and the military top brass of a bygone era see out their twilight years, a new cast of civilian residents is poised to write the next chapter in Edificio Princesa’s strange history. The optimism of this younger demographic seems certain to shape the evolving narrative – perhaps one day even making room for that elusive swimming pool.
Meet the residents
This native Madrileño set up his acg Arquitectura studio inside his self-renovated home where he is currently working on a new HQ for the Red Cross in Madrid’s north. Cazorla also collaborates with local universities to help budding architects visit the structure. “Anything that helps preserve the building and its legacy is worth the effort,” he says.
Paloma Gómez Borrero
One of the more high-profile residents, Gómez Borrero was the first female foreign correspondent to grace Spanish television, reporting from the Vatican for 12 years. She describes the relationship with her new neighbours as “splendid”, many of whom recognise her from TV talk show Amigas y Conocidas.
The Lequerica Family
Bilbao native Iván and his Valencian wife Alejandra were attracted by the capital’s cosmopolitan atmosphere. They even convinced Iván’s parents to relocate to the building, which is conveniently custom-fitted for senior citizens. Ivan’s sister was given carte blanche to renovate both family apartments.
Pablo, security guard
One of the more affable security personnel, Pablo watches the comings and goings of residents from within the confines of his glass office, where a monitor beams a live feed from security cameras. He says of the older residents, “They chat a little about the day-to-day battle but mostly keep to themselves.”
Mariano Mayo Muñoz
From his vantage point on the building’s corner, news vendor Mariano has seen it all. The 62-year-old has been here since he was nine and saw the Hospital Princesa torn down and the military residences erected. He and his wife Pilar secured their own apartment in 1985, when civilians were first allowed to buy.
José Antonio from delicatessen Don Finardo
Jamón specialist José Antonio is one the commercial tenants, skilfully slicing Iberian cured ham for many of the neighbours – including the infamous General Tejero. “He’s a loyal customer,” he says, adding quietly, “If anything, he was a scapegoat.”