We’re in a surreal time in Madrid, somewhere between crisis and post-crisis. With the economy in motion again, the city’s charming madrileño hum is being shattered by the crash-bang-drill-beep of construction work and, for a brief moment, a peculiar phenomenon is appearing.
Ghost buildings are haunting imprints of torn-down buildings on the sides of their surviving neighbours. They reveal a bygone Madrid – and sometimes, when a building is demolished, it exposes a smaller ghost from further back in time. Many of these vanished buildings date back hundreds of years and often leave only their gable-roofed outline in place, but sometimes they reveal a lot more.
The four-storey apartment building that once stood here at Calle Embajadores, 13 was demolished just two years ago. Its removal exposed some funky retro wallpaper that’s now fading and peeling with time, and you can also see the partitions between rooms and floors, as well as the stumps of wooden joists jutting out from the neighbouring building.
A main feature of ghost buildings is the exposure of part of their skeleton, and it’s not always what you’d expect. The timber frame of the building below, for example, has been exposed due to the demolition of its neighbour, and we can now see that it was built like a Tudor skyscraper.
Narrow patios – the lifeline for interior living so typical of Spanish buildings – now look even smaller in 2D. For a brief moment, at least, the demolition of this building’s low-rise neighbour has shed new light (literally) onto the remaining building’s lower floors.
As the new, cosmopolitan Madrid overlaps with the older, traditional Madrid for a brief moment in time, the outstanding difference between generations is cast in stark perspective. The truth is, we’re witnessing the biggest difference ever between the old and the young.
Just before the buildings above were demolished and entered the realms of limbo, we got a shot of one of them in its final weeks.
Very occasionally you can see parts of old chimney stacks, such as in this cute little ghost building fossilised onto the side of its much bigger neighbour.
One of the most exciting ghost-building discoveries is when multiple ghosts occur in the same place – ones that had previously been exposed and then built over again.
Here’s a double ghost, where the demolition of a three-storey building has exposed an older, two-storey ghost. You can see that its windows and doorways had been sealed up before the more recent ghost building was built, and its perfectly preserved bathroom tiles are now visible from the street, leaving you excitedly imagining where the sink was.
Below is an empty plot in El Rastro where three ghost buildings can be seen at once. The most recently demolished building was the same size as its surviving neighbour, and the second most recent was just three storeys high.
The chimney stack to the right of this ghost building stems from a third ghost, which you can distinguish by the different size and colour of the bricks as well as its low-rise structure.
If you look through the keyhole into the abandoned site, you can see a staircase from ghost #2 or #3, which sits upon an even older stone wall belonging to a potential fourth ghost!
GHOST BUILDING ARTWORK
Ghost buildings don’t go unnoticed by urban street artists, and are often incorporated into their artwork.
GHOST BUILDING SCARS
Sometimes, when buildings are demolished, they leave behind a scar rather than an imprint, and so the ghosts have to be sprayed with orange foam insulation to protect their neighbours from exposure to cold winters.
Still, you can bet there’s some funky wallpaper and vintage bathroom tiles underneath.
MADRID’S ENDANGERED ARCHITECTURE
Madrid’s ghost buildings are beautiful, nostalgic and satisfyingly elusive, but they also symbolise a vulnerable side of Madrid. Ghost casas bajas (bungalows) are the most common form of ghost buildings, as they’re some of Madrid’s most endangered structures.
Madrid’s population decreased during the darkest years of the recent crisis, but it’s now expected to grow once again as Spaniards return from abroad, new immigrants arrive, and life expectancy continues to rise. Casas bajas are sitting on sought-after real estate that could be used to build six or more storeys, and they go from being a home for one little old lady to housing several families.
Naturally, this architectural evolution makes sense, but it leads to the extinction of an older Madrid – one that has done remarkably well to survive until now. We’re talking about the quaint rural farming towns whose winding cobbled streets were lined with little white bungalows – each of them unique in some way. Many of these old single-storey cottages can still be seen in parts of Madrid’s conurbation, but that’s an article for another day.
Once you’ve spotted a few ghost buildings, you’ll find yourself becoming a little obsessed. And, just think, perhaps the building you’re inside right now hides a ghost – an old Madrid entombed between walls, where the city of Cervantes survives.