Pictured above is my favourite space in La Tabacalera Promoción del Arte. It’s the old bathing quarters, a rarely used corner of this 225-year-old industrial building only occasionally opened up for exhibitions.
The facilities, which comprise around 20 basins, 10 showers and, interestingly, a breastfeeding room, have been updated again and again throughout the years. The latest refurb before the building was abandoned, however, left behind a beautiful collection of art deco features, and the public now has access to every nook and cranny of this stunning space.
A BIT OF HISTORY
La Tabacalera began churning out cigars and cigarettes in 1792. After 100 years of unrivalled success, it provided work for just over 2% of Madrid’s population. Almost all of the workers were women (known locally as ‘las cigarreras’), and the bathrooms were built to accommodate their specific needs, including a breastfeeding room called ‘la sala de leche’ (‘the milk room’).
Behind the distorted glass of the saloon-style doors below is the possible location of this former ‘milk room’…
La Tabacalera was intertwined with most people’s lives in Madrid – everyone either worked here or knew someone who did. It brought wealth and prosperity (even if it didn’t exactly bring good health), and was one of Europe’s greatest examples of the industrial architecture of the time.
The factory was also the stage for many riotous mother-daughter-grandmother protests for workers’ rights, and another dark part of its history came in 1808 when Napoleon’s army kicked all the women out and briefly used it as a base.
If even just the factory’s bathroom walls could speak, they would have us enraptured for a lifetime. La Tabacalera has a rich soul, has never lost its powerful presence in Lavapiés, and has stood the test of time structurally, even after recently falling into disrepair.
FROM ABANDONED TO THRIVING
The tobacco factory was privatised in 1999 and left to peel and crumble for most of a decade but, like so many abandoned buildings in central Madrid, the sturdy four-storey factory became an illegal okupa.
The south wing of the building is still run by the same group of people that originally occupied the space for the local community. After being recognised as an important cultural hub, it was eventually taken out of private ownership and handed back to the citizens of Madrid.
La Tabacalera is now the nerve centre of Lavapiés’s subversive creative scene, doing justice to the building’s tenacious female ancestors.
La Tabacalera is a labyrinth of rooms: some are used year-round for exhibitions, while others are rarely open to the public. The factory’s old bathing quarters are the most detailed and well-preserved part of the building and, for the next two months, we can safely say they’re also the quirkiest art gallery in Madrid.