WHERE THE GRAN VÍA meets up with the Calle Alcalá in Madrid, there is a wonderful building which these days is known as the edificio Metrópolis. Designed by Jules and Raymond Février of France, it was built in 1911 for the Union and Fénix insurance company. The architects took advantage of the awkward but prominent site to create a landmark building for the company, one of the largest insurance firms in Spain. At the apex of its triangular site is a splendidly decorated round tower, originally topped by the Union and Fénix symbol of a phoenix with Ganymede.
An early view of the building.
Rising from a relatively plain ground floor, the sculpture and ornamentation increases towards its centerpiece at the tower’s fourth level and above. Allegorical statues of Commerce, Agriculture, Industry, and Mining adorn the façade.
In the 1970s, the Union and Fénix company sparked controversy among Madrileños when it sold the building to Metrópolis Seguros, another insurance firm, taking the phoenix statue with them to their new headquarters. Metrópolis replaced the nameplate of the old company with a very smartly done version of their own.
With the absence of the phoenix keenly felt, Metrópolis commissioned Federico Coullaut-Valera, the son of legendary sculptor Lorenzo Coullaut Valera and an accomplished sculptor in his own right, to create a winged Victory, installed in 1975. If you take the Gran Vía to its western end, you will reach the Plaza de España, where the elder Coullaut-Valera’s Monument to Cervantes, with its representation of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, was later joined, in 1957, by the son’s sculpture of Dulcinea.
The afternoon sun illuminates the buildings on one side of the Gran Vía, which had been renamed “the Avenue of the Soviet Union” during the brief years of the socialist republic before Franco’s liberation of Madrid.
Beginning at dusk, the building is artificially illuminated…
…which continues through the night…
…until the sun’s rays greet it the following morning.
Except for its street plan, the surrounding neighborhood looks quite like how Manhattan once looked, from beautiful earlier beaux-arts structures like the edificio Metrópolis to later art deco movie palaces and skyscrapers like the edificio Telefónica. Disappointingly, the confluence of continued prosperity and emerging tastelessness led to the destruction of most of New York’s handsome structures from the period. More happily, higher architectural tastes were preserved (like everything else) under Franco’s rule, and many of the fine buildings from that period were explored in detail in “The Other Modern: The Traditional City and its Architecture in the Twentieth Century”, an exhibit (with 520-page impossible to find catalogue) at the International Triennale of Architecture and Urbanism held in Bologna in 2000.