An empty concrete swimming pool. That’s all that was left after a Madrid sports center was demolished. Yet in its place, the residents of one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods have created El Campo de Cebada, an urban project in the heart of Madrid that now serves as a nucleus for communal growth.
Walking by, you could be forgiven for thinking that El Campo de Cebada was still a disused space. The industrial-looking fences that surround it do not immediately scream ‘community project.’ But look a little closer and hallmarks of the resourcefulness and ingenuity around which El Campo de Cebada was created soon become obvious.
Perhaps you spot the posters and graffiti-style notices that alert passers-by to upcoming activities. Or perhaps you see a group of people peering through a washing machine door, turned into a spy-hole, for a better view of the vibrant colors within. Either way, both of these are signs of what is now so much more than a gray concrete pit.
“I didn’t know it was here for a while,” said one visitor. “But there is so much going on. Always something different. Something interesting.”
Murals and urban gardening
Indeed, there is no denying the fact that there is a lot to take in. On entering, it is hard to believe that the space was ever unoccupied. The walls are now covered with impressive murals in a broad palette of colors and styles, ranging from slogans to the surreal.
People are scattered around a farrago of structures including a large dome built from various recycled and affordable materials. These structures provide shade, seating, and, more often than not, a climbing frame for the neighborhood’s children.
Volunteers have even managed to incorporate the gold dust that is an urban garden into the concrete site, adding an element of green space to El Campo de Cebada.
“I love bringing my daughter here. The community has come together and that’s great. We always take something away from our visits.”
From comedy to football, from cinema to skating
El Campo de Cebada certainly has a way of bringing different people and activities together. I first visited the project for an open-air comedy show. Lazing around in the audience, it was easy to forget that somewhere in the background people were skating and gardening and playing football.
Until, that is, a ball came flying through the crowd, bouncing comically off my neighbor’s head and causing me to spill my drink everywhere. Of course, at the time I did not see this as an entirely pleasant turn of events. But looking back, it perfectly illustrates the project’s lively nature and atmosphere. It offers an endless supply of distractions and interactions.
Speaking to one of the founding volunteers, the remarkable variety of available activities becomes evident. “We have a lot of things happening. You know, there is a basketball league, a market, a cinema. There are shows. There is music.”
And these are only the things he manages to reel off on the spot. I recently stumbled across a zine fair where people were selling food, art, and jewelry. The site also plays host to various talks, readings, and lectures.
The system is “no system”
“There is no real system for what is going on. People come. They say they want to do something and we give them the keys. And they do it.” He trails off and then shrugs. “They don’t always clean up after themselves, though,” demonstrating the laid-back atmosphere that manifests throughout the project.
However, it is not only what El Campo de Cebada provides in physical terms that makes it remarkable, but also what it represents: the community that created it. The project has always had to rely on teamwork and public participation, but these are also some of the fundamental ideals that the project promotes.
“We always want people to get involved,” says a volunteer. “It’s a challenge sometimes. People don’t always want to work or contribute and you can’t force them, but it’s an important part of the process. There are some people that use the space that will never give anything back. But some of them will and that’s a good thing.”
This recognition of the project’s flaws lends the space an almost human quality that is also reflected in the irregularity of the site in general. There is no fixed color scheme, no governing body, and it is safe to say that it will never be spotlessly clean.
But El Campo de Cebada provides a place for communication and discussion. It provides a cross-generational focal point for the local community. It provides education and entertainment. And it is, without a doubt, infinitely more valuable than an empty concrete swimming pool.
All the photos, incl. the header image: El Campo de Cebada