Madrid – Observations by Stepner

Mike Stepner, Faculty Coordinator at NewS chool, is spending 5 weeks at the Universidad Europea de Madrid in Madrid, Spain (both UEM and NSAD are part of the Laureate International Universities network). NSAD encourages students to consider international opportunities during their academic careers, and Mike shares with us his perspective of learning abroad in these occasional reports from Spain:

The city of Madrid has a population of about 3 million people with another approximately 3 million in the metropolitan area.  Like San Diego it has experienced rapid growth since WWII, and, like San Diego, much of that growth has gone to suburban areas–in a “leapfrog” pattern.

But that is where the comparisons stop. Madrid and its suburbs are very intensely built-up–6-8 story mid-rise residential development. San Diego is mostly single family houses.

[On a side note, another direct connection that Madrid and San Diego have is the Law of the Indies. This was the city planning directive that King Phillip of Spain decreed for all the Spanish Colonies in the “New World” – and San Diego was laid out in accordance with these rules. The street pattern in old town which still exists and can also be found in parts of Midway and Mission Hills, including the location of the plaza and the Governor’s house, which all follow this pattern.]

Development in Madrid in some ways reminds one of parts of the residential areas of Manhattan, but not quite as tall. The 6-8 story buildings line every street, all built to the sidewalk line, and the ground floor of every building includes a commercial aspect. The commercial portion could be something like the Albertson’s near school, but the same building could also include small shops not much bigger than my office. It could also include an auto dealership and a gas station–with the pumps located at the edge of the sidewalk- so you parallel park and fill your tank or drive on the driveway into the building where your car can be worked on.

Parts of the city, while at the same scale, bear more resemblance to Manhattan’s upper east and west sides next to Central Park. One of the things that make the intensity of development work is the public realm, the small and large parks, the small open spaces formed by the diagonal streets cutting through the street grid and the wide sidewalks lined with trees and street lights and benches.  This is due in large part to the culture. Madrid is a walking city. People stroll and then stop for a coffee or a beer or a sangria. Every restaurant and bar has a sidewalk café – not as formal as in San Diego, just chairs and tables set out on the sidewalk. Some have umbrellas and some have temporary shelters, but most are just aluminum tables and chairs that get set out at lunch–after 1pm and get stacked up after the dinner hour–about 12am.

All the bars are “bar-cafeteria” serving coffee and Spanish breakfast in the morning–Coffee con Leche, pastries, tomato salsa and olive oil on toast and the ubiquitous ham and cheese sandwich–which along with olives comes with every glass of beer or wine.  At lunch and at dinner the bars all have their own variety of Tapas.

Another factor in the workability of the density is the provision of infrastructure. The Metro bus and subway system are extensive, crisscrossing the city making it easier to get anywhere in a short period of time. The stations are clean, open and airy and safe. You do not feel like you are going into a basement like you do in lots of cities.

In the 1980′s the city of Madrid like many European Cities followed the lead of the U.S. and started designing for the car, freeways were built and some of the older Boulevards were adapted for the car. But this was accompanied by expansion of public transit and pedestrian improvements. To accommodate the car and the need for parking, some of the narrower streets were modified to allow diagonal parking on one side, parallel parking on the other, ten foot sidewalks on both sides and ten foot travel way for cars and trucks–an American traffic engineer would have apoplexy.

Historically the Rio Madrid was the edge of the city and became an industrial area. With the post WWII growth the city expanded to the other side of the river and the industry moved to outlying areas. Following the American model the city built a freeway along the river’s edge on both sides of the river. [I-5 was originally proposed to replace Harbor Drive in San Diego] Ten years ago a new mayor made part of his platform the undergrounding of the roads-like Boston’s “Big Dig” and cover it with a park like Chicago’s Millennium Park. This has been completed and on Friday I am to speak to a design class that has been working with this project about how they do infrastructure in the U.S.

Universidad Europa de Madrid

The world is changing, over half the world’s population lives in urban areas. Demographers predict that this will increase to 75 or 80% in the next 20 years and architects, landscape architects, urbanists and others involved in the design of the built environment will have to approach the issues differently than we have up to now.

Providing the opportunity for students to study abroad and to see the good, the bad and the ugly and apply the lessons learned to the urban situation is critical. Madrid and U.E.M. are good places to start.

On Friday I joined and architectural history class with Prof. Alberto Garcia Garin who was at NSAD last spring. He was taking his class on a tour of the old city and showing them why it came about and how it evolved into the modern city. A tour not unlike I have given downtown–except he covered 500 years where I only have to do 150.

And like other classes at U.E.M., the class was in English. I had thought up to then that the reason the program was in English was because of the dominance of the English language as the international language of business, which is true. But there is another reason.  The UEM degree is recognized throughout the European Union, and when architecture students receive the diploma for the Masters Degree, the also receive an architectural license which allows them to practice anywhere in the E.U. So UEM gets students from all over the EU and the world, all speaking many different languages. The one language they have in common is English and UEM requires incoming students to get a passing TOFEL score.

After the tour on Friday, Alberto gave his students their mid-term exam. Traveling back to the campus to give the exam was not practical, the campus being 20 miles away. It was about 7:30 p.m., a time we might equate with about 4:30 p.m. in the afternoon, so Alberto decided to give the test at a restaurant that would be almost empty at that time of day–happy hour not starting until 8pm and early dinners until 9 pm.

He took the students to the nearest McDonalds. The counter where you order looked much like any McDonalds, but the rest of it did not, no plastic chairs with Formica tables, no high fluorescent lighting to make you eat fast–the place looked like something out of the latest issue of Metropolis Magazine on high end restaurant design. We are not asking for enough from these places.

Some other things to consider:

—Studios. The students do not have places to work 24/7. The studio is a room where there are large tables, but it is only used for discussions with the instructor, desk crits, pin-ups and places for the students to collaborate. The students work at home. The faculty is envious of our situation.

—Class Hours. The students have the same requirements as our students for work outside of class: for every hour in class two hours outside of class. How they accomplish this is something I have to figure out. Classes start at 8:30 am and run until 8:00 pm in the evening, giving people time to get home for dinner. They do take a two hour break for lunch from 1-3 pm [stores close from 2-5 pm] and this may count for the outside of class time and many do not have classes every day–yet they have more contact hours in their program than we do.

—General Education. Most European schools do not have GE as part of a professional course of study. And there are only requirements for Professional Electives in the Masters Program. This could be a big gap in the program and students may not get the background about what shapes architecture and community.

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