More from Madrid - Day 2 of the Monocle Quality of Life Conference

Greetings all,

It's been another incredible day in Madrid with the team from Monocle and the 160 delegates from around the globe coming together to explore the stories of revival and determination that have brought Madrid from the desperate to the delightful.

Today the focus shifted to the physical as we wandered the streets of Madrid to discover and learn about the barrios (neighbourhoods) that are coming alive thanks to Madrid's distinctive retail and architecture gems.

Read on to discover how the Madrilenos are reconnecting with the local in order to build their profile on the global stage.

Building better cities: the gospel according Jan Gehl

One of the most important urbanists of our generation, Jan Gehl is known around the world for his people-centered urban design. His life's work has been to 'make cities for people' - which is a rarer goal than you may first expect.

Ever loyal to his hometown - and for good reason - Gehl points to Copenhagen as the beacon of hope and the city currently best designed for its people.

"In Copenhagen, it's not just about infrastructure which supports cycling and walkability, it's also about public space and making a city that tempts you out of the private sphere and into the public spaces. When this works, you're out in the streets and squares, you meet each other face to face - this human-centric design is good for the climate, good for social inclusion, makes a safer city and is good for democracy. This was our strategy in Copenhagen over 10 years ago!"

Anyone who has visited the nearly perfect Nordic nation can certainly attest to the streets filled with healthy, happy-looking citizens.

Waving the magic wand of "Density"
A buzzword in urban and residential design, greater density is essential to building more sustainable cities. But does it come at a cost to quality of life? Challenging the 'pack and stack' high-rise mentality of smaller apartments and taller buildings, in the hands of the right designer, density can indeed be the magic ingredient to better cities and happier citizens.

Jan Gehl warns us sternly: "The tower is the lazy architect's answer to density. It takes much more work to achieve density at lower heights through clever design. What’s wrong with Paris? Barcelona? Madrid? Nothing! They achieve great density with a maximum of 6 or 7 stories only." 

And while in Australia we see the trend for millennials and creatives to take an early "sea-" or "tree-change", quitting the cities and moving to rural or semi-rural areas, this is not the most sustainable answer to overcrowding in our cities, says Gehl.

"I tell Governments always that we should be happy that people are moving into our cities. We can organise cities and the necessary waste, reuse and services much better than we can in the regions. Overall its better for the climate and more sustainable to develop and adapt our cities. People moving into cities in the developing world is actually a really good opportunity to increase their standard of living."

Visit to Torres Blancas: A timeless vision of better living from post-Franco Spain

Granted rare access to Torres Blancas, Monocle's Madrid correspondent Liam Aldous led us on a discreet tour of the eccentric building that punctuates Madrid's otherwise monotonous skyline.

As the Franco regime came to a close and Spain was increasingly self-conscious of her international image, the building was proposed as a means to put Spanish architecture on the map. Completed in 1969 by architect Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oiza, this homage to brutalism sits at 74 metres tall, soaring above its neighbours.

The high-density housing complex was leagues ahead of its time and continues to divide the opinions of the Spanish and international design community. One of the most heavily protected buildings in Spain, there is an air of mystery that envelops the building  - largely due to the closed off nature of its residents. Visitors are rarely allowed, we are told multiple times, and even while we are quietly admiring the view from an upper floor, several complaints from the residents trickle in.

While the physical space remains a beacon in the city, Sáenz de Oiza's vision for the community paradigm never fully took root. His ambition for the building to reflect a microcosm of society - to include residential space, restaurants, pharmacies, flower shops and a school - more closely resembles community-focused developments like Melbourne's Nightingale Model and London's Barbican precinct, demonstrating the Spaniard's advanced thinking which emerged out of Spain's darkest era.

Retail reigns supreme

Whilst Sir David Chipperfield observed how 'pleasingly unremarkable' he found the skyline of Madrid, if you venture out at street level there's a delightful surprise around almost every corner. Retail has well and truly regained its status as an art form in Madrid.

Customers now demand experiences, so savvy shopkeepers are delivering up destinations. Offering experience and opportunities to meet, share and communicate is now top priority.

For former editor of Vogue Italia and founder of 10 Corso Como, Carla Sozzani, retail provided the opportunity to create conversation.

"In 1991 when I started, there was no internet. As the Editor at Vogue for 19 years, I wanted to understand who was reading those pages, so I made my own living magazine. Instead of pages there was rugs, mugs, fashion and food - every ingredient added in a natural way based on creating a enjoyable experience."

Communication and sharing were fundamental for 10 Corso Como's success (both in Europe and the US). 

"Even today, this is true. Its important to meet, to look each other in the eyes, and to share experiences", says Sozzani.

Who we would back: the startups changing Spanish retail

Sustainability and provenance are two consistent factors amongst the next generation of retail leaders influencing the Spanish high street.

Shining the spotlight on local talent, we traversed the streets of Madrid to meet a series of clued in entrepreneurs campaigning for good and improving the lives of those around them.

Highlights included:

  • Antonio Roig, founder of menswear company Mews, created his empire around values of personality and excellence: "Its a personal choice - a cherry picked assortment. We go to work every day with our passion. We think carefully about the fabrics, which products we choose and also limit how many pieces we produce. The world is made of plastic. We need to go back and do things with our hands and with excellence. We’ve found success this way and people are shining a light on us."
  • EcoAlf was founded by Javier Goyneneche in 2009 with a mission to create fashionable, recycled products: "We had to start developing our own materials because none of the existing ones were cool enough. We created an upcycling oceans program which pulls waste out of the ocean - so far more than 400 tonnes near Europe this year. We recently started working in Thailand too, and we extracted 7.5 tonnes of plastic from the ocean floor in a single day." 
  • Opening at 8am is considered early and is unusual enough in Madrid to put Hola Coffee on the radar of many. What keeps it there is the founding pair's commitment to creating a spirit and experience unique to their location: "We met while studying and on graduating during the peak of the economic crisis in 2010, we couldn't find jobs in architecture or product design and so we instead found hospitality and coffee. We wanted to create a place that would provide not only quality, specialty coffee, but also the spirit of the place that is unique to Madrid. No minimalist design or posh baristas here! Madrilenos are friendly. We like the feeling of belonging to our place - like you do a football team or your favourite band."

Led by keen consumer sensibilities and disruptive young founders, bigger retail players are also getting in on the act for sustainable shopping. Selfridges of London has strict design policies for sustainability - which all channel partners and suppliers must also adhere to. In Spain this month, global giant Inditex (parent company to Zara, Massimo Dutti and Pull&Bear) launched a formal working group and management commitment for a more sustainable supply chain.

The wrap
So after an inspiring couple of days, what is it that resonates most for us as we talk about how to improve our quality of life?

Firstly, believe in the power of relationships, and particularly, in the value of meeting face-to-face. Human connection makes us happier, so we'll be looking for more ways to connect with our colleagues, clients, family and friends. Stop ordering from an app or sending an email and step out of the private and into the public realm once in a while.

Be considerate and intentional. Whether its managing your 'peoplebase', swapping social media for social hour, or expecting less so you can appreciate more, there are so many opportunities for us to make little tweaks to our lives that have immeasurable impact. 

And finally, in the words of EcoAlf founder Javier Goyneneche, "What you do is not enough anymore - how you do it matters more. Anybody can make a t-shirt, develop software or start a brand, the problem to tackle now is how you do it."

Whether you tap into your 'why', or you're building a business based on a sensibility, personality or pride of provenance, finding higher meaning in what you do is a surefire way to feel ultimately more satisfied.

We hope you've enjoyed a few highlights from our time in Madrid. We're looking forward to sharing some further insights soon as Melia heads to RISE in Hong Kong.

See you in Melbourne soon.


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