29 Sep 2012

Barajas: overlit, overheated, underused, underwhelming

No more can you judge a city by its airport, than a book by its cover.

But perhaps you can judge a Eurocrisis by an airport and if so, Barajas, is surely where you’d start.

And judgment commences even before landing at Madrid’s absurd,  bloated monstrosity – designed by Britain’s Richard Rogers.

From the air the still sun-parched high Spanish plateau is crisscrossed by empty, unfinished motorways, slip roads reaching out in hope across the dun terrain, only to end abruptly, nowhere.

Ghost highways take nobody to half-built groups of highrise flats. Around them, mantis-like, tall, silent, motionless cranes do nothing at all. Clumps of empty apartment blocks where the builders clocked off months and sometimes years ago.

Concrete apron
Barajas Airport itself, one giant folly to Euro-borrowing on a grand scale against a dream that has never come true. Quite probably never could.

The concrete apron so vast it is impossible to see the end of it at some points.

Arriving means a long bus journey over the concrete plain to a terminal so over-lit and underused it feels unreal. Passengers face a major hike however they come, long concourses merely bring you to several escalators up or down. They in turn will only deposit you at a transit train.

An ode to inefficiency
Then its a journey by train – perhaps a mile or more – and a two-way underground track, to another terminal. More long walks. More escalators. Lifts. More signs. Walk. And walk. Escalators again. Walk.

Then a colossal baggage reclaim area which alone would engulf a Heathrow terminal. I counted 18 carousels. Eighteen. You could fit several football pitches in here.

Waste of space
Overlit, overheated, underused, underwhelmed. And inefficient: the baggage has so far to come you’ve inevitably now got a long wait in this vast, empty place where the wasting of space on a massive scale appears to have been the central stipulation of the design brief.

Sound like I’m moaning?

Not a bit. I’m fascinated. In a country facing an almost inevitable bail-out for living beyond any notion of economic reality all this is a gift for any visiting reporter.

And they tell me on Twitter there are any number of equally pointless airports across Spain: Ciudad Real, Malaga, Castillon – all making wonderful architectural statements (whilst actually being punishment centres for human self-loading cargo).

No, you cannot judge a book by its cover but you can see the broken dream of the Euro in the gleaming ghost carousels of Barajas.

Tweets by @alextomo

8 reader comments

  1. Anne says:

    Loved the word pictures. Sounds like a good place to roller blade in! Or maybe rename the airport Los Barracas…

  2. Colin says:

    If you have been in Dublin Airport recently you will notice a similarity with the new terminal 2 building

  3. Rachel says:

    Talking of airports which symbolise ruin, have a look at Castellón. Millions of €uros wasted, no planes (that’s right, NO planes) but a 300,000€ statue of a corrupt politician.

  4. brunothebear says:

    As in the UK, these projects have been instigated to provide a big, taxpayer funded profit for private organisations, banks, which in turn has boosted stock markets and bond holders, the same people who, as in the UK, gained all from the ‘boom’ and are now calling for bail outs and cruel and unusual austerity for the extraordinary majority of the Spanish people, who are not being represented by government and who are now taking their future into their own hands through action. This extract froma report from The Instituto de Impressa Business School, Madrid – ‘Public Private Partnerships in Spain: Lessons and Opportunities’ published 2007 (an inauspicious year…) gives a good insight. For this, the Spanish people, as all over Europe and the developed world, face wounding and fatal cuts in the kind of spending that would really help our lives, that would provide a safety net, living wages and improved working conditions, education and health.

    “The Spanish Experience with PPP

    The first PPP projects in Spain were the traditional transport sector…The volume of these projects soared at the end of the 1990s… Under the infrastructure plan unvelied by the PSOE in 2005 the government plans to obtain from the private sector 40% of a total financing of the 241.4 bn Euro until the year 2020 for new and improved highways, railways, roads, airports and other infrastructures. This would be equivalent of 0.5% of Spanish GDP per year until 2020 and would represent an unprecedented role for PPP in Spain that would make it a lead in Europe…”


    In December 2010, the Spanish government announced plans to tender Madrid-Barajas airport to companies in the private sector for a period of up to 40 years but this has now been halted.


    PPP was used to extend the Madrid Metro to Barajas.


  5. Philip Edwards says:


    Barajas isn’t very good. In many respects it’s as bloated and absurd as Richard Rogers’ overblown reputation.

    But if Barajas is bad, it’s got nothing on Heathrow. Or, if you prefer the nicknames, Thiefrow or Ratrun.

    These days the best Euro airport by a kilometre is Schiphol, which I now use as a hub. And if that wasn’t available I’d still rather use Barajas than that slum in London.

  6. Jon says:

    Dear Alex,

    just so you know, Madrid-Barajas is the fifth busiest airport in Europe, with 50 million passengers each year. This kind of data can be found easily nowadays.
    Your article is just a bunch of subjective opinions. If you pretended to inform somehow about the crisis in Spain at least research a little bit on what you are going to write about.

    As you mentioned, there are other airports in Spain which haven’t actually been used. Those will give you enough to write 3 books, but Barajas? Seriously??

    I think people should get a license before being allowed to write on a blog…

  7. Meg Howarth says:

    Richard Rogers also designed the infamous One Hyde Park, known amongst some as the tax-dodgers den – here’s a taste of why:


    It seems, alas, that Rogers has become blinded by his theoretical vision of what cities should look like but less interested in the social value/effect of what he’s designing and who’ll be paying (taxpayer or corporate); he designed the publicly funded Millennium Dome – which, not surprisingly, doesn’t feature in his practice’s list of projects


    nor is the grandly, and misleadingly titled Deptford Project going to help resolve London’s housing injustice. To the contrary. With the one-two-bed apartments purchased by by-to-let landlords/ladies as is likely the case, it will see unearned income accrue to those who have no stake in the area, further fuelling the neighbourhood’s and the city’s obscene property-price inflation, aka house-price rises.

    An interesting footnote: Rogers is (now was?) an advisor to Barcelona’s mayor where his architectural practice has an office as it does also in Madrid. As for the Barajas behemoth – it was almost certainly conceived to service the needs of Spain’s second home-owners – and UK expats. Behind Europe, and the world’s financial crises, everywhere property is to be found. Time for that long-overdue land-value tax!

  8. Las mentiras de Barajas says:

    Dear Alex,

    From Madrid, Spain, unfortunately your article is right but not complete, Madrid-Barajas is also unsafe.



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