La Casa Encendida (The Incandescent House—hereafter, La Casa) showcases a charity institution’s transformation into a vibrant cultural centre for shaping society—its temporary art displays working to shape attitudes, counter stereotyping and address human rights. Opened in 2002 in an early twentieth century former pawnshop, this dynamic activist space was to empower marginalised groups to spread socially purposeful narratives.
To test this vision’s endurance, the study followed the subsequent staging of Mundo Extreme (Extreme World) in 2013-14. The exhibition aimed to reveal the hidden creative world of artists with intellectual disabilities in the wider visual-arts arena.
Principal access interventions :
- The imposing main stair, a later addition, was replaced with an open reception area at street level to welcome passers-by directly into the heart of the complex.
- A new main stair and lift were introduced without compromising the original heritage building’s structure.
- Neutral, artificially-lit exhibition spaces anticipated temporary displays permitting rapid responses to evolving social issues.
- Site-specific art interventions in common areas reach new audiences by making art part of daily life when they drop in to use other resources.
- A range of workshops, studios and resources facilitate local communities’ participation in cultural production.
- The roof terrace was converted into an informal accessible open-air community space.
La Casa is situated in Lavapies, a relatively modest and multicultural barrio commencing at the southern tip of Madrid’s prestigious ‘Art Promenade’ (fig. 1). The latter forms a cultural axis through the city’s wealthier northern districts and is the address of many major museums such as the Prado, the Reina Sofía, the Thyssen and others. The project’s marginal siting just outside this cultural core was considered favourable for embracing Madrid’s southern disadvantaged communities and exerting a dynamic transformative influence upon these areas.
Formerly the pawnshop of Spain’s oldest savings bank, known for facilitating social credit since 1702, today La Casa is a contemporary cultural centre known for social action. Philosophically it stands at the edge of traditional ideas about what a museum is and does. Nonetheless, it holds lessons for museums seeking to enhance their social agency.
Find out more :
- La Casa Encendida’s website (new tab, english)
- The Cultural Management Consultant’s website (new tab, english)
- The Architect’s website (new tab, spanish)
- The ‘Outsider Art’ Group exhibited in Mundo Extreme—see ‘Talleres’ for workshops in La Casa and ‘Exposiciones’ for the exhibition catalogue (new tab, spanish)
- The Exhibition Designer for Mundo Extreme (new tab, spanish)
This case study is one of a three part series exploring inclusive design responses to a common dilemma in heritage museum buildings:
How to bring stories to life in museums’ heritage spaces to engage today’s diverse audiences?
The study extends inclusive design thinking to embrace three nuanced interpretations of social inclusion drawn from the museum world. The case studies of three venerable cultural institutions’ efforts to reinvent themselves demonstrate these aspirations:
- Showing Fair Representation at the Navigation Pavilion (new tab)
- Sharing Dialogue at the Ashmolean Museum (new tab)
- Shaping Society at La Casa Encendida (this case study)
Together they reveal an inclusive symbiosis between storytelling and design strategies. Simply put, storytelling held broad human appeal while designers made stories more comprehensible and meaningful for diverse audiences.
The research portrays the Museum as Storyteller, highlighting socially inclusive opportunities of rescripting museums’ heritage spaces as compelling vehicles for narrative to rival other popular storytelling media forms.
Michelle Moore · School of Architecture · The University of Queensland
This case study is distilled from, and includes extracts of, Moore’s PhD thesis—The Museum as Storyteller: Designing socially inclusive narrative environments. Publication details of the thesis with bibliography will be available at the following link (new tab).
Heritage significance and attractiveness
Coming into being in 1910 as Casa de Empeños (Pawn House), the original Casa was designed by architect Fernando Arbós in the Neo-Mudéjar style. This movement began in late nineteenth century Madrid, later spreading to other Spanish regions. It is a revival of Mudéjar architecture of the Spanish Reconquista, combining traditions of both cultures as Christian states expanded at the expense of Muslim states. In La Casa today, typical Neo-Mudéjar features are still in evidence, such as the corner turrets, abstract brick ornamentation and planning around an interior patio (figs. 2-6).
The following recognitions and reactions attest to La Casa’s enduring significance:
- The original structure is listed by Madrid City Council as a Level 2 heritage building of maximum historic and artistic interest
- By 2017, the fifteenth anniversary of reopening, the cultural centre had received over ten million visitors, the vast majority from local and recurrent audiences
- It won the 2018 Universal Accessibility Award conferred by the Spanish Committee of Representatives of People with Disabilities (CERMI).
Access challenges i
Beyond physical access challenges presented by the heritage building, the project team identified an ideological shift in the older client institution as the most important contribution to increased social access and inclusion. This change of attitude stemmed from early debate over the project’s fundamental social purpose.
The cultural management consultant and architect argued that the best investment in any society’s future was to focus on the cultural development, social commitment, environmental awareness and education of its youth. For the client, Fundación Montemadrid (hereafter, Montemadrid), the proposal represented nothing short of a “generational renovation”.
This philosophical tack meant that instead of providing “a container” for presenting mediocre, externally-produced material to older spectator audiences, the team focused on creating “a dynamic project” where cultural content of a high standard would be actively created within the centre by occupants and users of all ages.
What follows are socially inclusive design approaches gleaned from interviews with two creative teams: the project team who created La Casa; and the management and collaborators behind the temporary ‘Outsider Art’ exhibition Mundo Extreme.
The Cultural Management Consultants ii
Alberto Fesser, founding partner of La Fabrica (The Factory), was appointed by the client in parallel with the architect. La Fabrica established four themes under which they structured the design brief and defined the target audiences’ potential interests:
These themes and associated moral ideals were defined in La Casa Encendida: Dictionary for Use, a collection of illustrated micro-narratives quoting one hundred potential users’ “voices”. The anthology reflected a vision of La Casa as a meeting place of people bringing different, even conflicting views to the four pillars. It became the guiding “script” for the centre’s functions, activities and spatial planning.
The Architect iii
Participants viewed the project’s development phase as exemplary, not least because there was no attempt by architect Carlos Manzano to play the starring role. The team’s shared disregard for spectacular museum architecture was due to two factors:
- First, creating an architectural landmark would risk contravening the building’s heritage-protection requirements
- Second, the architect was determined that architecture was to serve the project, rather than the project serving the architectural expression
Manzano’s respectful treatment of the heritage building saw La Casa develop into an ambiguous and adaptable narrative environment (figs. 7, 8 and general view above), qualities the architect attributed to the building’s intrinsic character:
When all dividing walls along with the functions they defined were stripped from the building, what remained was a flexible and ambiguous structural module capable of accommodating diverse spaces, activities and audiences.
The Management iv
Jose Guirao, La Casa’s founding director, described how the four thematic pillars corresponded to four departments whose activities shared certain ethical principles:
- Many exhibitions, workshops and events involved collaboration between La Casa and other cultural or social institutions, community groups or individuals
- Curatorial strategies provoked exchanges between artists working in distinct social, cultural or disciplinary arenas
- A non-hierarchical distribution of space, time and resources worked to dismantle barriers between “high” and “popular” culture or “famous” and “emerging” artists
The ‘Outsider Art’ Group v
Lola Barrera and Luis Sáez, respectively founding and programme directors of Debajo del Sombrero, stressed that their aim had never been art therapy or access rights. Rather, they focused on the creative expression of people with intellectual disabilities and their rich contribution to the visual arts. Two factors differentiated collaboration with La Casa’s ‘Solidarity’ area from the group’s other relations:
- La Casa not only provided workshop space, funds, resources and exhibition opportunities but cultivated artist-to-artist interactions with established artists (fig. 9)
- ‘Solidarity’ took centre-stage; frequently dismissed as a social cause in mainstream art-scenes, at La Casa, Solidarity was an active force in cultural transformation
The Exhibition Designer vi
Sculptor Álvaro Matxinbarrena’s exhibition design for Mundo Extreme sought to distance the ‘Outsider Artworks’ from a “false accessibility”, explained as follows:
The design anticipates that many visitors will bring prejudiced attitudes towards people with intellectual disabilities, subconsciously looking down upon them as pobres chicos (poor unfortunates) and expecting to see artworks that are child-like and easy to intellectually access and understand. The glassless cabinets of the sculpture gallery and exaggerated deep frames of the drawings gallery will create a “room” for each piece, reinforcing its intimacy while warning the visitor to “Stop and reconsider—you can view this piece, admire it or study it, but it is not of your world”.
By setting up an invisible barrier to the spectator, augmented by a deliberately sober colour palette (figs 10 and 11), Matxinbarrena hoped to provoke visitors’ self-reflection, forcing them to re-examine any mistaken assumption that these artists and their works lacked depth and complexity.
The old Casa de Empeños
Transforming the old Casa de Empeños required a profound ideological shift on the client’s part—from dispensing charity to culturally empowering Madrid’s southern disadvantaged communities (fig. 1). By contrast, the architectural intervention was understated, respectful of the original heritage building’s decorative brick façade, austere interior and spatial distribution around a large central patio (figs. 2-4).
La Casa Encendida transformed
The following walk through La Casa transformed demonstrates equitable spatial production, occupation and exhibiting strategies aimed at creating an activist space for generating and conveying socially purposeful messages.
Open step-free reception—welcoming passers-by to drop in
An imposing grand stair, a later addition that dominated the main entrance hall, was demolished and replaced with an open reception area that formed a step-free link between the street and central patio. Across the patio, the removal of a vertical stack of small storerooms made the opening for the new main stairs and elevator without compromising the heritage listed structure (compare figs. 4 and 5, Old and New Ground Floor Plans). This strategy aimed at dismantling the physical or psychological impediments that prevented curious passers-by from entering by welcoming them directly into the heart of the complex (fig. 6).
Central patio—adaptable to diverse groups’ activities
Previously open to the elements, the four-story-high central patio was roofed over with a contemporary, streamlined canopy (fig. 5, New Sections). This new element retained the beneficial natural lighting of the patio while shading the roof terrace with its deep eaves. The patio was initially conceived as a circulation hub; however, modifications since executed by the centre’s management, including adding acoustic wall panelling, shading louvers and artificial lighting tracks, now enables the staging of exhibitions, concerts and other events in this flexible space (general view above). Beneath, the patio was excavated to accommodate two more dedicated exhibition spaces, a sixty-seat cinema and a two hundred-seat auditorium complete with dressing rooms (fig. 5, New Basement Floor Plan and Sections). The wide range of facilities permits intense events and activities programming by and for diverse groups.
Temporary exhibitions—responsive to changing social issues
Half a level up from reception, double-height spaces that formerly contained auction areas and storerooms were re-lined to seal external windows and create neutral, artificially-lit exhibition spaces (fig. 7). Such spatial ambiguity anticipated temporary displays that could quickly respond to evolving social issues.
Site-specific art in common areas—reaching new audiences
Management’s appropriation of common circulation areas as informal temporary exhibition spaces for experimental site-specific art aimed to offer emerging artists exhibition “practice”. The strategy simultaneously exposed non-exhibition-going audiences to art as part of everyday life when they dropped in to use other facilities such as the cafeteria, fair-trade shop or IT facilities (fig. 8).
Workshops—empowering users to create cultural content
On the upper levels, former bank staff residences were demolished and replaced with an array of workshops and resources for public use, including: art, radio and photography studios, IT facilities, classrooms and media libraries (fig. 5, New Sections, and fig. 9). These were crucial to realising the project team’s vision that conceived La Casa’s users not only as spectator audiences but also as active creators of cultural content.
Roof terrace—an accessible open-air community space
Visitors who continue ascending to the roof terrace find two small exhibition spaces within the building’s ornamental Neo-Mudéjar turrets (fig. 5, New Sections). Between these turrets, the roof terrace offers a popular open-air space for sustainable garden projects, outdoor exhibitions and film screenings or relaxation under the shade of the patio canopy eaves from where Madrid’s roof-scape can be enjoyed.
Mundo Extreme—bridging the divide between well-known and ‘Outsider Artists’
La Casa’s staging of Mundo Extreme in 2013-14 illustrated many of the above spatial production, occupation and exhibiting strategies in action. This temporary exhibition brought to light the narrative art of people often excluded, patronized or treated as inferior by society at large—adults with intellectual disabilities. It presented the results of a three-year collaboration between La Casa’s ‘Solidarity’ department and a Madrid-based ‘outsider art’ group: Debajo del Sombrero (Under the Hat—hereafter, Sombrero).
Sombrero’s choice of sculptor Álvaro Matxinbarrena as exhibition designer was a step towards their mission to bridge the divide between well-known and lesser-known artists irrespective of their intellectual abilities.
Matxinbarrena chose to convey a socially purposeful message through a provocative mimicry of a traditional museum space and structures. The formal museum-like mounting strategy and grey colour palette aimed to transform La Casa’s “white box” galleries into dark, solemn spaces, challenging those unaccustomed to seeing intellectually disabled artists as serious contributors to culture (figs. 10 and 11).
- Client: Fundación Montemadrid
- Cultural Management Consultant: La Fabrica
- Architect: Carlos Manzano Architects
- ‘Outsider Art’ Group in Mundo Extreme: Debajo del Sombrero
- Exhibition Designer of Mundo Extreme: Álvaro Matxinbarrena
The project’s inspiration grew from Montemadrid’s desire to recycle their heritage building Casa de Empeños. The early-twentieth century pawnshop was once filled with personal effects, such as sheets, mattresses or sewing machines, accepted in exchange for credit offered to the poorer classes who were unable to stake property or jewellery as loan guarantee. By the twentieth century’s close, the building’s dereliction due to disuse resulted in the local government seeking to confiscate it.
Believing a strategy for the building’s revitalization would cement their continuing ownership, Montemadrid approached the cultural management consultancy La Fabrica and Carlos Manzano Architects to find a new social use for it. The aim was consistent with the client’s charitable history of directing profits to social projects.
However, while Montemadrid previously provided centres where older people could pass the time playing games, doing craftwork or watching television, the consultants’ new proposal emphasised youth cultural facilities. Furthermore, it challenged the segregation and stereotyping of different generations by asserting that the centre’s updated offer would be open and appealing to all ages.
La Fabrica’s pre-design studies analysed the client’s objectives, the existing building, the locality of Lavapiés, the city of Madrid, international tendencies and, later, the architect’s approach. Talks with sociologists, university professors, community leaders, immigrant groups, other cultural institutions and potential users informed the project brief and proved invaluable to La Casa’s enduring social inclusivity.
The case study of La Casa Encendida suggests that rescripting a heritage building into a contemporary activist space for shaping society first requires recasting the institution’s ideology. Four lessons for equitable spatial production, occupation and exhibition design strategies to enhance the cultural institution’s ‘moral agency’ can be drawn from this lifecycle study.
Openly influencing ethical social change
Participants of each phase openly applied their professional influence and creativity to countering institutional and societal prejudices affecting marginalised groups. The project team reconceived users from passive charity recipients to active players in La Casa’s transformation and cultural content. Management’s non-hierarchical spatial occupation patterns reinforced this vision. Sombrero looked beyond disabled peoples’ health or rights to foster their creativity, believed forceful enough to overturn prejudice. Finally, Matxinbarrena’s sombre museum-like design for Mundo Extreme challenged anyone expecting a mediocre display of droll artworks from simple minds.
From neutral to socially purposeful storytelling
The collection of micronarratives contributed to by La Casa’s creators and potential users alike, worked as an ethical “script” for the project. Firstly, it guided the purpose and design of the building’s physical transformation. Later, it determined La Casa’s management’s structure and influenced its equitable spatial occupation. Ultimately, Mundo Extreme demonstrates the far reaching influence of such scripting upon a subsequent display with a socially purposeful message.
Involve professionals from different disciplines early in the process
The genesis of La Casa’s activist space lay in the client’s decision to involve La Fabrica and the architect in discussions before the existing building’s new purpose was even decided. This laid the groundwork for creative responses to take a major role from early on and also made possible a philosophical debate between the three players that would set the foundation for the project’s unique character.
Architectural design to encourage users’ ongoing adaptations
The architect’s understated approach to the development of spatial strategies resisted current museum architectural tendencies— to either deploy athletic form in the bid for attention, or impose an overriding built-in narrative upon imagined curatorial content. Ultimately, the cultural organization and collaborators were emboldened rather than intimidated by La Casa’s resulting ambiguous character; this has allowed them to take true possession of the building and adapt it to their specific and changing needs.
GENERAL NOTE: This case study is distilled from a chapter in the author’s PhD thesis that was previously published in Curator: The Museum Journal. Respective references are as follows:
Moore, Michelle. 2019. “Interpretation C—Case Study: Designing Activist Space at La Casa Encendida.” In The Museum as Storyteller: Designing socially inclusive narrative environments, 219-251. Brisbane: School of Architecture, The University of Queensland.
Moore, Michelle. 2015. “Creating Discursive Space for Intercultural Encounters: La Casa Encendida, Madrid.” Curator: The Museum Journal no. 58 (1):101-116. doi: 10.1111/cura.12101.
i ‘Access Challenges’ is based on analyses of transcripts of the author’s interviews with the project team detailed in note ii.
ii ‘The Cultural Management Consultant’ discussion is drawn from transcripts of two separate interviews by the author:
interview with Carlos Manzano at Carlos Manzano Architects’ studios in Madrid on 2nd August 2013;
and interview with Alberto Fesser at La Fabrica’s offices in Madrid on 20th August 2013.
iii ‘The Architect’ discussion is drawn from the two interview transcripts detailed in note ii.
iv ‘The Management’ discussion is drawn from transcripts of the author’s interview with Jose Guirao at La Casa Encendida in Madrid on 27th March 2012. Prior to his directorship of La Casa Encendida (2001-14), Jose Guirao served as Director of Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (1994-2001). In June 2018 Guirao was appointed Spanish Minister of Culture and Sport of the Sánchez government.
v ‘The Outsider Art Group’ discussion is drawn from transcripts of the following interviews by the author:
interviews with Lola Barrera during art workshop visits at La Casa Encendida and Faculty of Fine Arts (Complutense University of Madrid) in Madrid respectively on 30th and 31st May 2013 (prior to La Casa Encendida’s exhibition Mundo Extreme);
and a joint interview with Lola Barrera and Luis Saez at La Casa Encendida in Madrid on 4th February 2014 (after La Casa Encendida’s exhibition Mundo Extreme had concluded).
vi ‘The Exhibition Designer’ discussion is based on transcripts of the author’s interview with Álvaro Matxinbarrena via skype on 7th August, 2013 (prior to La Casa Encendida’s exhibition Mundo Extreme).
vii ‘Processes’ is based on analyses of transcripts of the author’s interviews with the project team detailed in note ii.
GENERAL NOTE: The researcher has colour-rendered the drawings and added/deleted annotations on images in order to highlight issues relevant to the research.
Banner M. Rodríguez, [La Casa Encendida post-transformation: a concert staged in the central patio], n.d., color photograph, provided for use in this research by La Casa Encendida 10 October 2014.
Fig.1 Research group “Drawing and Documentation of Architecture and City” (ETSAM-School of Architecture of Universidad Politéctica de Madrid), Madrid’s Art Promenade, 2011, map, in Javier Ortega Vidal, Ángel Martínez Díaz and María José Muñoz de Pablo, The Representation of the City between Plan and Volume: The Plan of Prado and the Scale Model of Gran Via (Valencia: Universitat Politècnica de València, 2012), 257, plate 1, accessed 21 August 2018, https://polipapers.upv.es/index.php/EGA/article/view/1447 .
Fig. 2 Bie Peeters, [Casa de Empeños pre-transformation: the heritage building’s façade], 2002, black and white photograph, in Luis Enguita and Bie Peeters, De Casa de Empeños a La Casa Encendida (Madrid: Obra Social de Caja Madrid, 2002), provided for use in this research by La Casa Encendida 27 March 2012.
Fig. 3 Bie Peeters, [Casa de Empeños pre-transformation: the open central patio], 2002, black and white photograph, in Luis Enguita and Bie Peeters, De Casa de Empeños a La Casa Encendida (Madrid: Obra Social de Caja Madrid, 2002), provided for use in this research by La Casa Encendida 27 March 2012.
Fig. 4 Carlos Manzano Arquitectos, [Casa de Empeños pre-transformation: Old Ground Floor Plan], 2001, technical drawing, provided for use in this research by Carlos Manzano Arquitectos 2 August 2013.
Fig. 5 Carlos Manzano Arquitectos, [La Casa Encendida: New Floor Plans and Sections for transformation], 2001, technical drawing, provided for use in this research by Carlos Manzano Arquitectos 2 August 2013.
Fig. 6 La Casa Encendida, [La Casa Encendida post-transformation: the Neo-mudejar façade], n.d., color photograph, provided for use in this research by La Casa Encendida 10 October 2014.
Fig. 7 Bie Peeters, [La Casa Encendida post-transformation: view of one of the neutral “white box” exhibition spaces], 2002, black and white photograph, in Luis Enguita and Bie Peeters, De Casa de Empeños a La Casa Encendida (Madrid: Obra Social de Caja Madrid, 2002), provided for use in this research by La Casa Encendida 27 March 2012.
Fig. 8 La Casa Encendida, [La Casa Encendida post-transformation: “100 metre bench” by El Último Grito in the central patio], 2007, color photograph, provided for use in this research by La Casa Encendida 27 March 2012.
Fig. 9 Teresa Isasi, [La Casa Encendida post-transformation: Visiting artist Pablo Genovés (left) with Debajo del Sombrero workshop participant José Manuel Egea (right)], 2013, colour photograph, provided for use in this research by Debajo de Sombrero 10 October 2014.
Fig. 10 Teresa Isasi, [La Casa and Sombrero’s exhibition ‘Mundo Extreme’: Drawings gallery], 2013, colour photograph, provided for use in this research by Debajo de Sombrero 10 October 2014.
Fig. 11 Teresa Isasi, [La Casa and Sombrero’s exhibition ‘Mundo Extreme’: Sculpture gallery], 2013, colour photograph, provided for use in this research by Debajo de Sombrero 10 October 2014.