Living in the United States, one isn’t really used to the idea of plazas as being the center of cities, towns, or suburbs. Plazas or really, anything that is similar to the concept of plazas, are absent. America is instead seen as the country of strip malls, parking lots and highways. But, in Spain, especially in Madrid, Plazas are a significant area for the community. They represent a “return to center” approach; the need to organize public spaces around plazas that invite people, culture and life to come to. In order to create a sense of place, a public area needs to have distinct aspects of it (usually structurally). By doing so, the area reverses the idea of ordinary perception to simultaneous perception. In America, most public spaces only induce ordinary perception from individuals, which causes the action of shutting out the environment around you. But, simultaneous perception invites the individual to take into account what is going on around them. It forces a person to walk a little slower, maybe talk to some people or listen to the music occurring in the area. Simultaneous perception happens when the public space is open, has green space, some culture and historical aspects to it, and when it is in the middle of a busy area. With this, a plaza is born. A plaza creates a central place for people to come and meet, even if its just for a little while.
In Spain, its public spaces provide a direct links with parks, squares and promotes tolerance among people. While in Madrid, I visited three main plazas: Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol, and Plaza de España. Each of these areas have their own distinctive identity.
Plaza Mayor is an enclosed space that blocks any automobile traffic. From the start, it is strictly a pedestrian friendly space. It has three main red ‘clay’ buildings, with one covered in beautiful paintings. It has many small circular areas for seating and the streets are all cobblestone – no pavement. It has eight archways with exits into smaller streets, filled with markets and restaurants. In Madrid, it has become the place that defines the city.
Puerta del Sol is the complete opposite of Plaza Mayor. Its intensity is its main highlight. Constantly filled with people, advertisements, music and performers, it is the place to be to fully take in the “city life.” This space is less of a leisure one and more of a rapid movement area, has it only has one seating area. Its quite big and flashy, meant to attract tourists, and those not necessarily part of the Madrid identity. It bridges the gap between residents and tourists.
Plaza de España is a mixture of the other two plazas. It can be very touristy, as it is located on the Gran Vîa street, a major one. Its main centerpieces are the statues of Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. There are various places to sit, whether it is near the fountain, in the shade, on the steps and so on. The Plaza itself is a roundabout; it is surrounded on all sides by buildings, shops, hotels and so on, but it has kept many of its architectural integrity Two famous skyscrapers – Edificio España and Torre de Madrid, also surround it. Regardless of all these imposing factors of the success/job driven world, the place remains inviting and warm. Its visitor’s are both residents and tourists and creates a mixed space for both to interact. It promotes unity within diversity.
These three main plazas, though very different seek to create spaces for individuals to interact in, whether its personal or impersonal. It helps form a sense of place of the plazas, in the greater context of the city and the country. These plazas are important for any individual who wants to really experience Madrid. Plazas are the public spaces of which all countries should aspire to be. Their meaning in establishing a sense of place is important to all of the individuals it serves.
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