Work gets underway
In October 1926, work started on the Telefónica building on Gran Vía following the construction system of American skyscrapers, its skeleton of riveted steel struts rising up in the midst of Madrid. It was completed in record time: in 1928, the switchboard was already operational to connect the first transatlantic call between Madrid and New York, which was attended by King Alfonso XIII and the senior management of ITT and CTNE.
The work was officially completed on 1 January 1930. The head office of Telefónica, intended to “seduce the shareholders”, as Sosthenes Behn put it, astonished the people of Madrid. The country’s first skyscraper and the tallest building in Europe at that time would from then on be the headquarters of Telefónica.
A stalwart building
In 1936 the country would be plunged into a Civil War that would last for three interminable years. Madrid, on the Republican side, would be besieged until its total submission. The Gran Vía became known as the Avenue of Shells… and as its highest point, the Telefónica building rose up above all the other Madrid buildings and served as a perfect target to guide the shots of the Nationalist army.
Cárdenas tirelessly visited “his Telefónica”, keeping a record on a map of the artillery hits which left traces all over the building, especially on the façade on Calle Valverde. The building managed to withstand the artillery and inside the switchboard continued operating. The foreign correspondents, holed up in the former Hotel Florida de Callao, used to come to its offices to send their war reports.
The architect fell ill in 1938 before the war ended. Tuberculosis forced him to move his family to the Haute Savoie region in search of a cure. Cárdenas was still in Savoie when the end of the Civil War was announced. However, the country’s situation and his own circumspection made an immediate return unadvisable. He spent a few years in France, finally returning in 1944 once he was sure of his safety. Even so, he was punished with “perpetual disqualification from public office, management positions and other positions of trust, and disqualification for five years from the private practice of his profession.”
Cárdenas did not return to work at Telefónica but joined the construction company Gamboa y Domingo and designed various projects with his nephew, Gonzalo de Cárdenas. These included the Bancaya building, built between 1947 and 1953 and popularly known as the Iberia Building due to the illuminated sign on its roof. Other projects, such as No. 63 Calle Zurbano, would follow, and in the 1960s he became the municipal architect of El Espinar, in Segovia, where he died in 1979.
The relationship between Cárdenas and the building did not end with the Civil War. The extension undertaken in the 1950s was done following his original plans and in 1955, at last, the building stood on Gran Vía just as he had designed it. A skyscraper in the American style, “imposing, strong and majestic.” And from its 89.30 metres it has dominated the city of Madrid ever since.
The building always filled him with pride, as he recorded in his notes in 1970:
“71 years already! […] After all these years, I remember very few things that made my heart beat as strongly! I remember how excited I was for a few moments […] perhaps the view of Madrid from the train on that 13 June 1944, when I returned from France with a rookie cop at my side… and to see my Telefónica building had held firm against all the disasters of war.”
You can visit the exhibition Ignacio de Cárdenas, a pioneering architect on the second floor of the Espacio Fundación Telefónica between 22 March and 18 September 2016.