Monday, June 1, 1992


Madrid Public Housing in the 1950's
Published in Deutsche Bauzeitung, June 1992, pages 95 - 100.
© Deutsche Bauzeitung, David Cohn 1992. All rights reserved.
 Caño Roto -Broken Spigot is the closest translation- is the most evocative of names for one of the most evocative of housing projects in Madrid's long and distinguished history in the field.  It probably dates to the postwar shantytown the project replaced, a collection of chabolas, shacks built clandestinely in a single night by families emigrating from the hungry, jobless countryside of Extremadura and Andalucia to the job-rich, housing-poor capital, in a Spain still internationally isolated and economically crippled by the Civil War.  In the name we see the settlement, crowded around a single source of water, on a high point of the treeless meseta southwest of Madrid, beside the existing suburban town of Carabanchel.

Today Caño Roto and the other housing experiments that preceded it are surrounded by the uncontrolled development of the city like fossils in sediment.  Arturo Soria's Cuidad Lineal or Linear City, laid out from 1898 to 1911, still snakes along the heights above the M-30 highway, its houses with their gardens replaced by commercial centers, offices and apartment buildings, its trolley cars replaced by multi-lane traffic.  The Garden City-inspired worker's colonies built with state financing between 1918 and 1936 are still scattered through the residential districts of the eastern half of the city, pockets of single-family comfort and wealth amid the masses of middle class apartment blocks.  The houses of Rafael Bergamín's modernist Colonia El Viso (1933-36) are only blocks away from the most expensive office space of the Paseo de la Castellana, a situation symptomatic of the city's unforeseen and rapid growth.

All of these prototypes shared a model of urban growth based on satellite towns and green belts, a model built into Pedro Bigador's postwar General Plan for the city but quickly superseded by events.  Caño Roto was one of the last housing projects that took the satellite town model as an implicit formal premise; it was also one of the first consciously built on land reserved for Bigador's green belts.  It represents a last moment of idealism amid the deluge of immigrants that doubled Madrid's population in the 1950s, from 1,096,000 in 1940 to 2,177,000 in 1960 and nearly 3,000,000 by 1980.

Caño Roto is the most outstanding of a total of seven housing projects begun in 1956 under the Poblados Dirigidos program.  Its designers, Antonio Vázquez de Castro and José María Iñiguez de Onzoño, had just graduated from the Madrid School of Architecture in 1955.  They were the youngest members of a new generation brought forward by the poblados, the nucleus of the group that J. D. Fullaonda later called the School of Madrid: Alejandro de la Sota, Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oiza, Javier Carvajal, José Antonio Corrales, Ramón Vázquez Molezún, José María Garcia de Paredes, Luis Cubillo, José Luis Romany....(1)

In his book on the poblados, La Quimera Moderna, (2) Luis Fernández-Galiano documents the political situation that gave rise to this remarkable program.  Once again, an important event in the history of architecture depends on the vision of a singular public official.  Julian Laguna, architect and head of the Comisería para la Ordenación de Madrid (Headquarters for the Urban Design of Madrid) developed the poblados program from 1954 to 1957 in a personal crusade to eradicate the shantytowms of the city's periphery, a campaign in which Franco took an active interest.  An idealist and a man of action closely involved in the populist Falangist Movement (then part of the government), Laguna formed an unusual alliance with a group of young architects who, in Corrales' words, had seen something of Europe and the United States and "considered ourselves modern." (3)

Luis Valero, head of the Instituto de la Vivienda (IVA) or Housing Institute of the Ministry of Work, provided the financing for Laguna's program under his 1954 Ley de Vivienda de Renta Limitada (Limited Income Housing Law), a five-year plan to build 550,000 units nationwide.  Laguna provided the land and the architects, and pushed the program into action.

Many of the architects he found, including Sáenz de Oiza, Cubillo, Romany and Manuel Sierra, were already working for the Hogar del Empelado (The Worker's Home), a church-based housing program.  Laguna preferred these younger architects for their energy and round-the-clock commitment (he was known to call meetings for two in the morning), their lack of preconceptions, and their willingness to begin at once, improvising as necessary.

The Poblados Dirigidos were part of a four-stage program, of which only the first two parts were realized. In the first stage, the Poblados de Absorción or Settlements of Absorption, existing shanties were replaced on an emergency basis by planned housing.  On the Caño Roto site, 582 units were built by the architect Luis Laorga in 1956.

Franco's visit in July 1956 to the completed Poblados de Absorción of Fuencarral A and B (by Sáenz de Oiza and De la Sota respectively) gave Laguna the go-ahead for the second stage.  In the Poblados Dirigidos or Directed Settlements, new immigrants were to build their own housing with state financing and direction.  Six poblados dirigidos were begun that summer, but Laguna was out of office before they were completed, confirming the sense of urgency with which he launched the program.  His Nuevos Núcleos Urbanos (New Urban Enclaves) and Barrios Tipos (Type Neighborhoods), in which the planned settlements were to be organized into self-sufficient communities, were never begun.

The Construction of Caño Roto

It was in these circumstances that Vázquez de Castro and Iñiguez de Onzoño were called by Laguna in 1956 to design Caño Roto. They had come to his attention through a competition sponsored by his Comisería. At first an experienced developer, José Luis Durán, was appointed to manage the project, but he quickly tired of Laguna's frenetic pace. The young architects set up their office on the site, seeking the participation of the future residents -their official clients- in the design of the unit prototypes, although in the end, reports Vázquez de Castro, "whatever you suggested was all right with them."  The Women's Section of the Falangist Movement did the "sociological work," interviewing families to determine who would get the housing, with four or five thousand applicants for the 1,600 units.

The most unusual feature at Caño Roto and the other poblados was the "auto-construction" concept, an idea Valero had developed in his housing work of the 1940s, as Civil Governor first of Ávila and later of Navarra.  Under the Rentas Limitadas law, the "promoters" of the housing -the future residents- were to pay 20 to 25 per cent of the cost, depending on the class of dwelling.  The rest was financed by a 50 year interest-free loan, "essentially a gift," says Vázquez de Castro, and a minimal monthly fee.  Most of the families did not even have the 12,000 to 28,000 pesetas required for their payments, and so it was provided that they would contribute their share of the cost in labor, working every Sunday - their only free day of the week- on the construction of the settlement. 

The housing at Caño Roto was thus divided into low-rise units designed for auto-construction and multi-story blocks built by small contractors for those families who made their payments in cash (the irony of this was that the best units in terms of space and private gardens were low-rise).

The construction process was organized around the Sunday work day, with professional builders organizing materials and work for the weekly effort.  It took two years, or a hundred Sundays, to finish the first phase of the project, from 1957 to 1959 (a second phase was completed in the 1960s). Although work on the American air base at Torrejón had brought heavy construction equipment to Madrid, recalls Vázquez de Castro, all earth moving and foundation work was done with pick, shovel and wheelbarrow to maximize the available work. Women and children joined the effort, hauling materials and laying bricks. (4)  In a typically Falangist anti-capitalist gesture, contracts for the multi-story blocks were awarded to about 20 small construction companies, including many formed by future residents of the settlement, who had to be taught the basics of reinforced concrete and other techniques.
The other major factor in the making of Caño Roto was the effort to minimize costs. The budgeted cost was 1,000 pesetas per square meter of constructed space, or 50,000 to 96,000 per unit, an extremely low figure even for that time. Actual costs were 1,200 per square meter, with a total expenditure of about 200 million pesetas.

Valero's technical specifications called for functional designs without embellishment, and an effort was made to standardize elements such as doors, windows, hardware and plumbing.  Iron was still scarce, and aluminum unavailable. The oversized silica-lime bricks were cheaper than conventional clay bricks, and no cavity walls were used.  Certain elements such as the sliding exterior shutters were under-detailed and deteriorated quickly.

Vázquez de Castro today regrets that more money was not spent on the construction, especially considering that the economic boom of the early 1960s was just around the corner.  But in its rough-textured simplicity, with its crudely-cast exposed concrete frames on the multi-story blocks and the misshapen, muddy bricks with their wide, roughly pointed mortar joints, Caño Roto is an accurate reflection of the penury of its times.

Housing Types

Vázquez de Castro and Iñiguez de Onzoño developed six basic prototypes for Caño Roto, three low-rise and three multi-story, a variety which contributes to the richness of the total project.

The most economical unit is the "Type S" rowhouse, designed to the standards of the IVA minimum dwelling: 56 square meters of built space on two floors, with a 4 x 7 meter footprint on an east-west orientation and a 4 x 7 meter rear garden.  There are three bedrooms, one less than 2 meters wide.  A slightly larger (and wider) rowhouse with a south-facing garden has 74 m2.
Four patio houses. Lower level, left; upper level, right.

Caño Roto's most famous housing type is the patio house.  These L-shaped units, of three or four bedrooms and 80 or 96 m2, concentrate their openings around an interior court measuring 4 x 6 meters.  They are arranged in rows that descend the north-sloping site for consistent exposure and privacy.  Vázquez de Castro and his family lived in one of the patio houses for two years, and its interior, furnished in tubular metal modular units, was widely published.
Patio House occupied by Vázquez de Castro.
The multi-story types include a four story linear block designed for east-west exposure, a six story linear block with north-south exposures, and a six story point tower with a handsome asymmetrical plan and massing.
Linear block. South elevation and typical bedroom level.
The most innovative of these types is the six story linear block, which features 80 m2 duplexes distributed along two exterior galleries, as in the Smithson's street-in-the-sky concept.  Bedroom floors are staggered above and below the living floors and galleries.  As in other multi-story blocks, there are no elevators.

The architects also designed a prototype for the commercial spaces, which with its long sloping roof and portico recalls rural forms.  The commercial spaces were located around the periphery of the site and concentrated on a high point at its center, where a church, an auditorium-cinema, and a supermarket were located. This civic center. which does not appear in any of the original photographs, was replaced by additional housing and a school in 1973.  Its location on the interior of the settlement, away from traffic arteries, doubtlessly contributed to its obsolescence. Vázquez de Castro and Iñiguez de Onzoño also projected schools along the edges of the settlement in the remaining green zone, which were built in the 1960s.
Site Plan

 In their brilliant development of the difficult north-facing slope of the site  -the least desirable land in the area-  the architects broke with conventional street and block urbanism, a break implicit in the prototype unit plans with their strict orientation in the cardinal directions.  As in most of the other poblados, cars were kept on the periphery of the settlement -few residents had cars- and the pedestrianized interior spaces were fully terraced with steps and retaining walls.
Typical pedestrian street between patio houses.
The density of Caño Roto is 86 units per hectare.(5) Multi-story units screen the low-rise units on the northern and western edges of the site, while the point towers are generally used to create a permeable edge to the south and east, where the site adjoins the Poblado de Absorción. The staggered placement of these perimeter blocks follows the irregular angled site boundaries, and is carried through in the layout of the remaining units, producing oblique access to the site from the perimeter and closed interior vistas -  views from one group of units generally terminate in a non-axial elevation of a different type.

The staggered interior circulation tends to pinwheel patterns, with open centers and orthogonal spokes. Because the low-rise units are focused on interior patios and gardens, circulation between them can be extremely narrow, while the larger open spaces in front of the linear blocks suggest urban plazas, an effect reinforced in the east-west blocks by a miniature arcade with commercial spaces on the western exposure. The richness and variety of the open spaces are greatly enhanced by the rough stone block retaining walls and broad staircases of the site terracing, and an active planting campaign launched by the Women's Section once the project was completed.  The original abstract sculptural play equipment by Ángel Ferrant, one of Vázquez de Castro's professors at the School of Architecture and a veteran of the Republican-era avant-garde, has since disappeared.

Place in Postwar Architecture

The picturesque qualities of Caño Roto's layout have little to do with pre-war Spanish Modernism - still reflected, for example, in the subsidized Colonia Virgen del Pilar, built in Madrid in the 1940s by Gamir and Olasagasti, with its repeated perimeter block type and classicizing symmetrical massing.

The vernacular-influenced architecture of Arne Jacobsen and other Northern Europeans was highly regarded at the time Caño Roto was built, reports Justo Isasi.(6)  But like Italy, Spain had developed its own vernacular-based expressive modernism by the 1950s.  The new rural settlements of the Dirección General de Regiones Devastadas (Devastated Regions Administration) sought to blend rural forms and details with modern planning, as in the Vegaviana settlement (1954) by José María Fernández del Amo, or Alejandro de la Sota's Esquival near Seville (1953-56).  De la Sota, who was at the same time designing the uncompromisingly modern Gobierno Civil of Tarragona (1954-57), saw his rural vernacular references at Fuencarral B reduced by budgetary minimalism to little more than stucco walls, tile roofs, and a picturesque site layout of small plazas and narrow passages.

The more functional aspects of Caño Roto can be traced through Sáenz de Oiza's Poblados of Fuencarral A and Entrevias, which reflect his admiration for Hilbersheimer and Mies' American period. We also see, as noted elsewhere, the influence of the Athens Charter and other currents of Modernism's second generation - to which, it must be added, Caño Roto makes a unique contribution. The well-known contemporary critic Carlos Flores was surprised by the maturity of the architects' work, the lack of youthful overdetermination (7) -  a maturity to which the architects' direct involvement with the residents surely contributed. The combination of primitive construction and rational planning with the evident sympathy and generosity of the architect's work is rare in the annals of public housing.

The Legacy of the Poblados

In 1957, a major shift in the governmental ministries substituted the Falangist-based idealism of men like Valero and Laguna for the more technocratic administration of figures belonging to the secular religious order Opus Dei. In housing policy, this change meant that direct government construction programs like the poblados were replaced by state aid to private developers. Subsidized housing became a big business. But the state's commitment to affordable housing as a basic public service continued through Franco's succeeding administrations, assuring a large supply of inexpensive housing and holding down prices in the private sector until (ironically) the Socialist's liberalization of the real estate market in the mid 1980's. And publicly-assisted housing construction continues to be a major element of social policy in Spain.

Eduardo Mangada, a junior architect in the poblados program who became the influential chief of territorial planning for the regional Socialist government of Madrid with the democracy, has criticiñed the paternalism of the poblados program, the high price the Sunday builders paid for their houses in the name of the Falangist's romantic ideals. The lack of general city planning of the program can also be criticized. But today Caño Roto is still a successful community, despite the poverty of the construction and the modest incomes of its inhabitants. All of the low-rise units in particular have been maintained and improved, giving the settlement more of the popular rural flavor that Vázquez de Castro and Iñiguez de Onzoño originally rejected in favor of flat roofs, exposed brick and metal sashes. Caño Roto remains as an essential reference for contemporary housing and urban design, a model which still offers lessons for the present.


  1. J. D. Fullaonda, "La Escuela de Madrid," Arquitectura (Madrid), Nº 118, October 1968, pages 1 - 20.
  2. Luis Fernández-Galiano, Justo F, Isasi, Antonio Lopera, La Quimera Moderna - Los Poblados Dirigidos de Madrid en la Arquitectura de los 50, Hermann Blume, Madrid, 1989.
  3. This and other quotes, La Quimera Moderna.
  4. Oral account by one of the first residents, April 1992.
  5. Luis Moya González, Barrios de Promoción Oficial, Madrid 1939 - 1976, Colegio Oficial de Arquitectos de Madrid, Madrid, 1983.
  6. La Quimera Moderna, page 109.
  7. Carlos Flores, "El Poblado de Caño Roto," Hogar y Arquitectura (Madrid), Volume 54, September-October 1964, pages 16 - 38.
 Period photos from La Quimera Moderna, Hogar y Arquitectura and the 2010 exhibition Los Brillantes Años 50 in the Arqueria of Madrid. Most are by the great Madrid photographers of the period, Kindel and Pando. Site plan from a Madrid students' crib page; unit drawings from Los Brillantes Años 50.

New Source (added January 2014):
Cánovas, Andrés, Caño Roto. Vazquez de Castro / Iñiguez de Onzoño, Ministerio de Fomento, Madrid, 2013
    ISBN/ISSN: 978-84-7790-545-5
    EAN: 9788477905455

Update 04.26.11
Below are some pictures from the blog La ciudad viva of Vázquez de Castro`s patio house in Caño Roto, featuring his own tubular furniture designs, and of the playground designed by his teacher and friend, the artist Ángel Ferrant, known for his kinetic sculpture and one of the few direct contacts for the architects of the 1950's with the prewar avant-garde. The source is Hogar y Arquitectura 54, September-October 1964. Vázquez de Castrp attributes the playground photos to Kindel (Joaquín del Palacio). The pictures of his house are his own.

In the article, Vázquez de Castro recounts that he lived in the house only a short time, to be closer to the project, and moved out when the project was finished. He also mentions his disappointment at not being able to convince many of the residents to use his furniture designs.
He recalls that Ferrant's wooden playground equipment was stored every night to keep it from disappearing, a detail that helps explain its portability.

Blog entry La inocencia perdida by Beatriz Villanueva Cajide + Francisco Javier Casas Cobo (bRijUNi arquitectos).

Further documentation: here are elevations of the patio houses, together with the plans, from Los Brillantes Años 50: