MADRID – In the heart of Madrid, builders have put the finishing touches to one of the most ambitious and luxurious tourism projects in the Spanish capital.
When the Canalejas complex – a € 600 million or $ 712 million development – opens this month, it will house a five-star Four Seasons hotel, a shopping gallery, and two dozen luxury loft apartments .
The project shows Madrid's growth as a European tourism hub. But it has also become a test of the city's ability to weather the effects of the coronavirus crisis, as Madrid has once again become the center of the pandemic in Spain since the summer.
Despite the added pressure, developers are moving forward, hoping to lure visitors to Canalejas, the former location of Madrid's financial hub, which has largely moved to the outskirts of the city since the beginning of this century. The seven large buildings that were joined together to form the Canalejas complex once belonged to banks and insurers. Some of the buildings were built when Spain was still a colonial empire.
Canalejas responded "not only to the commitment to preserve the cultural heritage of this city, but also to the clear desire of many tourists to feel like they are enjoying classic buildings with a lot of history," said Carlos Lamela, the project's chief architect during one Tour the site.
The facades of the buildings have been preserved, Lamela said, and 14,000 of the original interior parts have been preserved or recycled, from door handles to boardroom wooden panels and marble columns. Hotel guests check in at counters that were once used by depositors, while some of the massive doors that protected the vaults were reused to decorate the passageways.
The district was developed in the late 19th century to demonstrate the power of Spain. However, the most striking of its seven buildings was part of New York’s financial expansion into Europe. The main building was inaugurated in 1891 and is known by the locals as El Palacio de La Equitativa. It was built by Equitable Life Assurance, the American insurance company.
Edward Rath, an architect for the company, was sent on a six-month tour of Europe to ensure its subsidiaries had buildings worthy of the insurer's Manhattan landmark (which burned down in 1912 and rebuilt three years later). The final design of the building that now houses the luxury hotel was designed by a Barcelona architect, José Grases Riera.
The Spanish banks gradually left Canalejas, initially towards the north of the city, but more recently towards the outskirts. This transition was accelerated by mergers.
For example, as part of its merger with Banco Central Hispano in 1999, Banco Santander tore down the walls between two of the Canalejas buildings. Five years later, Santander moved its employees to new campus-style headquarters in Boadilla del Monte on a green suburb golf course, a strategy similar to corporate movement in the United States.
“I really see Madrid as one of the most American cities in Europe in terms of the city model, especially now that so many of our corporate headquarters have moved to the suburbs,” said José María Ezquiaga, professor of architecture and former dean of the association who architects from Madrid represents.
Mr Ezquiaga said Madrid is also following the example of European cities like London and Paris that have turned former business districts into tourist venues. Another comparison is the overhaul of the district around the old stock exchange in Amsterdam.
At the same time, part of the Canalejas neighborhood, particularly Puerta del Sol Square, could also be compared to Times Square in New York, “an area that has gone through ups and downs that people actually avoided when I was young but that has now been revived significantly, ”said Ezquiaga.
The Four Seasons chain opens its first hotel in Spain, just a few minutes' walk from Madrid's three main painting museums: the Prado, the Reina Sofía and the Thyssen-Bornemisza. Across the street from the Prado, another centuries-old luxury hotel, the Mandarin Oriental Ritz, is hoping to reopen this year after a major renovation and a delay due to the coronavirus lockdown.
The Four Seasons is expecting its first guests on September 25th, but will initially only open 50 of its 200 rooms. To address coronavirus concerns, the hotel plans to sanitize rooms daily and public areas every hour. The gym and pool are open, but the spa doesn't currently offer massages and other treatments.
The stores will be launched over a period of several months, starting with the inauguration of a Hermès fashion store in October. Almost all the apartments were sold before the pandemic spread to Spain.
The Canalejas project was unveiled by the Madrid authorities in 2013, shortly after the Spanish construction group Grupo Villar Mir completed the purchase of the buildings. Ownership changed hands in 2017 when an investment company owned by Mark Scheinberg, co-founder of the online gaming company PokerStars, bought 50 percent of Canalejas for 225 million euros.
Along the way, the project suffered cost overruns and delays. In 2015, a left-wing politician, Manuela Carmena, was elected mayor of Madrid. One of her first decisions was to suspend the building permit for the project, fearing that it would violate the safeguards for Madrid's heritage. After lengthy negotiations, Villar Mir agreed to downsize his project slightly.
Last year, construction work also had to partially close one of Madrid's most important subway lines for a few months. The city's subway authorities are demanding compensation of EUR 1.2 million from the Canalejas owners for the damage.
The Canalejas project is an important addition to Madrid's tourist offer, which complies with Spanish heritage protection regulations, argued architecture professor Ezquiaga. But he acknowledged that "there are examples of hotels in Italy and elsewhere where more has been done to preserve the identity of the interior and, with that in mind, I think that in Spain we are still lacking a bit of cultural sensitivity. "
Mr Lamela, the project's architect, said it was understandable that such a large tourism project had sparked intense debate, but he also argued that it was important to think about what would have happened to Canalejas if it had been left as such would be a row of former bank buildings.
"Without a major hotel project, the future of these beautiful buildings looked very complicated," he said.