A Cultural History of Madrid: Modernism and the Urban Spectacle

By Deborah L. Parsons | Go to book overview
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5
Cosmopolitan Lights

Modern technology resulted in a fundamental transformation of the temporality and spatiality of urban life. The electrification of public lighting and trams, along with the development of the metro, the telegraph, the elevator and the cinema, reconfigured the physical form, social culture and subjective experience of the city. As electricity illuminated Madrid by night, the first skyscrapers pierced its skyline, and the metropolitan railway transported passengers through its subterranean depths, practices and perceptions of urban space were profoundly altered, the city becoming at once newly ordered and newly mysterious. For if electricity, epitomising progress and scientific technology, illuminated, rationalised and standardised the urban landscape, it was also a strangely invisible phenomenon, an ether with the power to annihilate time and distance, made manifest through the spaces and machines of the city.


Electrifying Space

Electric light was first used publicly in Madrid in celebration of the wedding of Alfonso XII in 1878, when the streets and buildings of the Puerta del Sol were illuminated with electric lamps, providing a spectacular stage for the performance of modern monarchical splendour. The general electrification of the city began five years later with the inauguration of the Sociedad Matritense de Electricidad, created by the city council to provide lighting in the Ministry of War. The network covered a broad central area, including the Puerta del Sol, its surrounding streets, and the Parque del Retiro, illuminating previously familiar public spaces with an unusual brilliance. As David Nye argues, it is important not to underestimate the initial impact of electrification on the urban populations of the late nineteenth century, to whom newly electrified cities would have seemed almost supernatural spaces, illuminated with a strange light ‘at once mild and intense, smokeless, fireless, steady, seemingly inexhaustible’. 1 On the one hand regulating and disciplining city space, electric light was also enabling, opening up the previously illicit night world to the respectable public and encouraging a new phenomenon of urban night-life. In the Puerta del Sol, for example, where shops often traded until late in the evening, many of the cafés and bun-shops would remain open throughout the

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