[Originally published in Bauwelt 14.2022]
With a current average life expectancy of almost 84 years, Spain’s is one of the longest in the world; a significant improvement from the late 19th century when the average Spaniard could not expect to live much beyond age 30. The explanation behind this great leap forward lies in an enviable public health care system that is a product of Spain’s post-dictatorship modernization, a Mediterranean diet, and a “slow” lifestyle that includes plenty of siestas and paseos.
The obvious effect of this rapid increase in longevity, which coincided with a rapid drop in the birthrate, is a visibly aged population. Spain’s current demographic pyramid bulges at 45, with significantly more people aged 60 than 30. The combination of a high life expectancy rate, low birthrate, and the mass-emigration of youngsters searching for work (thanks to the 2008 to 2014 “Great Spanish Recession”) has led to many elderly persons living all by themselves today; especially in bigger cities such as Madrid. Day centers for the elderly, which serve the lengthening stage of life between retirement and the old-age home, have thus become increasingly necessary in contemporary Spanish cities.
The Antonio Mingote day center for the elderly, by Mariluz Sánchez Moral and Padilla Nicás Arquitectos, is a municipal facility situated in Madrid’s popular inner-city neighborhood of Chamberí, a barrio with a high concentration of elderly persons. Combining both old and new construction within a dense perimeter block, the center exemplifies how architecture that is carefully integrated within its urban fabric does exactly the same for its users, integrating elderly persons, in this case, within the local community. This complex construction, part adaptive reuse and part urban infill, creates a social space that is both a part of the city as well as a space apart from it, an urbanistically integrated place of belonging.
The architectural program of a day center is similar to that of a school, except there is no ringing of bells, and attendance is voluntary. There is a library and reading room, a computer lab, an art studio, a music studio, a divisible multi-purpose assembly space, a physical fitness space, a cafeteria, and an outdoor yard. In this case, there is also a hair salon as well as a podiastrist’s consultancy, while the cafeteria resembles more a typical Spanish bar, and the yard contains seating and a garden rather than a playground and football pitch.
The architectural project is a very unusual amalgam indeed, combining a wing appropriated from a large, century-old disused orphanage on a corner of a large city block with a new and modern urban infill building, the result of which is an L-shaped facility whose new wing extends toward the middle of the block interior. The day center is neighbored on the north by the remainder of the disused orphanage, which is now a separate residential care center for minors, and on the south by a primary and secondary school that also dates from the early twentieth century. A municipal market is conveniently situated across the street from the day center’s main entrance, while a theater that is popular with students of the nearby Universidad Complutense is situated around the corner from the older component of the center. The facility is thus situated at the center of a cluster of institutions serving various age groups from different walks of life.
The street presence of the Antonio Mingote day-center is an assemblage of two contrasting components joined by a recessed upper-floor façade gap. The entrance, situated in the new component, is indicated by a recessed double-height porch of brick and glass that leads into a similarly tall foyer with windows providing glimpses of both the old and new parts of the day center, permitting its L-shaped spatial organization to be understood at a glance. Beyond the reception desk, the two most informal and therefore most important social spaces beckon: the bar and the courtyard that it opens onto, a patio sheltered from the afternoon sun by a prominently cantilevered upper-floor volume.
One of the most admirable qualities of the day-center is precisely the amount of outdoor space that complements indoor spaces, allowing life to spill outside when the weather is pleasant, which is often the case here. Along with the bar, the art studio, the music studio, the office area, and the single-loaded corridors on both floors all enjoy a direct, barrier-free access to adjacent outdoor terraces from which greenery in the block-interior, the neighborhood, or children playing in the schoolyard next door can be seen. The project is an intricate weaving together of relational spaces both old and new, indoor and out; all within a complex urban context. “One of the principal challenges lay in fusing diverse horizontal surfaces together so that they would be smooth and seamless,” explains architect Juanma Nicás; “details that are invisible yet very important to elderly persons.”
Although joined smoothly at their floors, the old and the new components of the center nevertheless form a pair of complementary opposites, both in terms of program distribution as well as construction. The center’s more technological and specialized requirements were sensibly incorporated into the new component, enabling the old one to be treated more “archeologically” by exposing steel roof trusses and masonry vaults previously hidden by suspended ceilings. Similarly, the new component’s concrete structure is left exposed on the more informal rear façade, while this is not the case at the front, where brick and glass feature more prominently. Insulated polycarbonate exterior wall panels that are slightly translucent are used throughout the upper floors of the new component to curious effect.
Far from being flippant, willful, or conceptual, the day center’s complexity is the result of carefully considered architectural responses to a complicated site and program. The result is no architectural “object of perfection”, but this is also its virtue, as it is precisely what makes the Antonio Mingote day center user-friendly, humane and life-like. When there is a meeting place that is this welcoming, even heaven can wait.