Living Museums

Madrid’s Human Beehive

26 October 2020

During lockdown, the nightly applause for healthcare workers here must have been epic. Thousands of people opened their windows onto their wide, windy boulevards and, for a few minutes, clapped as one giant entity within Spain’s biggest human beehive.

Located just over the massive M30 motorway from Madrid’s Neo-mudéjar bullring, the colossal colmenas (beehives) could not be architecturally further from this era.

The conception of this 10-block housing estate in Barrio de la Concepción began in 1958 to house Madrid’s migrant workers brought in from all corners of Spain during the capital’s construction boom heyday.

The ‘new town’ of Barrio de Concepción © ABC

The huge estate dwarfed its older one-storey neighbours until the crumbling 19th-century homes were finally demolished.

Las Colmenas, 1974 © Historias Matritenses

The ‘beehive’ remains a traditionally working-class area of Madrid and is reportedly the most populated housing complex in Spain. It contains around 20,000 people in 8,000 homes, and there are a further hundred or so commercial premises on the ground floor.

The idea was to create an autonomous city, fully independent of Madrid, where it wasn’t necessary to go to other neighbourhoods to buy anything – just to work. This concept echos Spain’s traditional barrio spirit and is very much the way in which Madrid was – and often still is – built.

Las Colmenas c. 1980s © Historias Matritenses

You can see from the air that the estate’s geometric layout echos that of a human-managed beehive, and up close, standing on the ground in front of the buildings, the individual flats overwhelm you with their unique detail. Some maintain balconies while others have integrated the terrace space into their indoor living space.

The awnings are generally green, but some are open and others are closed. On the balconies that remain, drying washing hangs like bunting, creating organic patterns across the facade.

Step under the building and into the interior tunnels, which gift the best perspective for just how tall these horizontal structures are.

They’re like cruise ships parked along the side of a riverbank, which is actually the ancient Abroñigal stream which runs beneath the M30 motorway. The 15-lane tarmac beast sits neatly in the shallow valley carved out by the Abroñigal, which is also the same invisible border that cuts Puente de Vallecas off from the city of Madrid.

Even if you have never visited Madrid’s Human Beehive, you may have seen it in one of Pedro Almodóvar’s films. ¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto? (What have I done to deserve this?).

A screenshot from ¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto? © Todo Almodóvar

Almodóvar’s films often feature working-class housing and romanticise Madrid’s famous neighbourhood spirit. And it’s this spirit of community that Madrid’s Covid-19 measures are increasingly bringing us back to due to neighbourhood lockdowns and nighttime curfews. With unprecedented focus on our immediate surroundings, now is a moment to reflect on the original layout of our neighbourhoods and their social and economic purpose.

Is it possible to acquire everything you need within a 500-metre radius? Certainly in terms of food, clothes, homewares and healthcare, it seems so – like a basic requirement of a new estate. However, this is not the case for family and friends in the barrio – something once taken for granted.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, Spain’s unregulated property ‘market’ has fuelled 12 years of gentrification and speculation, causing the displacement of communties and separation of families and friends throughout the country. But as the property market stagnates, we now have the time to build long-lasting connections with our neighbours without the fear of suddenly losing them.

This organic support network may be an accidental side effect of Madrid’s strict pandemic measures, but it paves way for a convivial future once archived to the past.

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