Science Fiction / Banco de España

Banco de España, Madrid

Walking down an unassuming side street in Madrid earlier this month, I encountered this slightly threatening yet rather wonderful futuristic medallion on the side of a grand but unmarked building. Diving down the rabbit hole of the internet, this is what I later found out about it.

The medallions (a word that itself required a fair amount of searching/asking to remember!) are on the outside of one corner of the Banco de España (National Bank of Spain) headquarters, while the rest of the building is covered in more conventional architectural ornaments. It turns out that that corner (the one on the right of the photo below – the bank covers the entire block) is an extension (the third of three: 1927, 1969, and 1978-2006) to the original building, which was inaugurated in 1891. The third extension has a slightly more convoluted history, with the idea to take over the entire block originating in the 50s, the original architectural plan being stillborn in the late 70s, with construction finally starting in 2003 and finished in 2006.

[above: image from the Bank of Spain,]

The history of the extension, from the official site of the Bank of Spain:

In the 1970s the Bank decided to extend its headquarters yet again to include the corner of Calle de Alcalá and Calle Marqués de Cubas, closing the whole block and thereby guaranteeing the security of the Bank. With this in mind, the Bank had already acquired the adjacent building on 2 February 1950. On 25 September 1978, a design competition was held to undertake what would be the last extension of the Bank to date. […] chose the proposal presented by Rafael Moneo and commissioned him to design the final project. However, work was unable to begin at that time because the building was listed.

The Madrid Municipal General Ordinance Plan, which lifted the protected status of the existing building, was approved in 1997. In 2003, by virtue of an agreement signed between the Madrid City Council and the Banco de España, work began on the last stage to close the block as defined in the project revised by Moneo himself in 2002. In 2006, coinciding with the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the name Banco de España , the extension was inaugurated.


So it’s an extension to the Bank of Spain, built in 2003-2006 but initially designed in 1978-9 by architect Rafael Moneo (Pritzker Prize bio, Harvard GSD bio), to a building from 1891, designed by Eduardo Adaro Magro. The ornaments themselves are by sculptor Francisco Lopes Quintanilla.

What I find so wonderful is that the extension might have gone completely unnoticed, had it not been for the subtle, modern/futuristic flourishes. The bulk of the exterior is a perfect match of the existing building, using the same materials, continuing the same lines, and in most cases, continuing the same architectural style and details. A few of the ornaments, notably the medallions and other heads/crowns, are in a wonderful geometric, pre-cubist style.

In line with the approach of mimicking the existing buildings, even these surprisingly radical decorations actually match the originals in size, shape, frame, material, and even content – compare an example of an original medallion with one on the extension, below.

[above: original medallion]

[above: medallion on the modern extension. flickr]

A feature/article from On Diseno 291, specifically about the extension, is available online in a flash-wrapped pdf, in both Spanish and slightly awkwardly translated English (starting on page 139), with many more details and text, diagrams, and models from the original proposal and renewed report from 2003, and interior and exterior photographs of the final building.

A couple of excerpts:

What we sought with the project was to complete the block of the Bank of Spain in its most literal sense. It is therefore understood that the materials are the same as those used on the facades of Adaor’s building. […] insofar as possible, to approach the construction systems used when the bank was erected. This means that stone was used with powerful sections and not as cladding, and that the ironwork sought to maintain the forging that we see today in the crowning and railings of the bank.

A caption in the original proposal also reveals that the “ornamental details of the building are sculpted from carrara marble by Francisco Lopes Quintanilla in a pre-cubist and geometric aesthetic.”

The impact of the extension and the (newly) whole building on the wider “urban backdrop” was also a major consideration in accepting this proposal:

The Bank believes that this proposal will considerably improve the Bank of Spain as a monumental building characteristic in the image of the city, given that in occupying the whole block it becomes free standing, integrated, and complete, and results in a better urban backdrop. The result of the intervention would make itself felt on a wide radius and the effect of the corner build according to the proposal can be completed from many points of view, calle Alcala, Gran Via, and Marques de Cubas.

[above: architectural details, new and old. From On Diseno/Moneo Architects]

I find it amazing how little there is on either the building, the extension, or even just the ornaments, online. I would have expected at least a reasonable collection of photos on flickr of these strange, mysterious faces that look like a better fit for a science fiction film than a national bank. The fact that there’s no plaque, no signs, mean that maybe they are out there, just not tagged or described in any way that google’s or yahoo’s search can find them (it wasn’t even immediately clear that the building was the bank of spain). The confused history of the extension mean that many of the articles I found are confused and contradict themselves: is the extension from 1978 (the competition call), 1979 (the acceptance of the proposal), 2003 (start of building) or 2006 (opening of the extension), or even one of the other, earlier, extensions? It doesn’t help that Moneo also designed a branch of the Bank of Spain in Jaen, Andalusia (Spain) in the 80s, as well as a different bank (Bankinter) in Madrid, which adds noise to any  searches.

[above: ornament on the modern extension;  from Carlos Viñas, on flickr]

Finally, my sleuthing led me to this article, in Spanish, from the newspaper El Pais, titled “La maestría inadvertida” (~“Inadvertent Mastery”)

The section that I enjoyed the most (via my very basic Spanish), was the final conclusion:
En la ciudad y en la vida nos cruzamos de continuo con obras y personas que pasan inadvertidas, no tanto por su bajo perfil como por su prudente subordinación a un contexto urbano o institucional. Es una actitud que demanda elegancia vital y maestría profesional: nadie ha dicho nunca que fuese fácil volar bajo el radar.

My translation:

In the city and in life we by chance cross with works and people not only because of their low profiles, but because of their deliberate integration into an urban or institutional context. It is an attitude that demands vibrant elegance and professional mastery: nobody has ever said it was easy to fly under the radar.




Main References:

Bank of Spain official history of it’s building: Link

On Diseno, 291 (04/2008) (English and Spanish), including text from the architect’s/bank’s 2003 proposal/report: Link

El Pais, (04/2006): La maestría inadvertida: Link


… and on an only slightly related note, my photos from my trip, on flickr.

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