The architect Juan Manuel Ruiz de la Prada has passed away. Born in Madrid in 1927, he was part of a large group of forgotten Madrid architects, away from academic circles. His work highlights the four luxury residential buildings made in Madrid, clad in brick and wood, warm and evocative.
Recently, after an interesting study trip to the United States, he began a period of collaboration with his promotion partner José Carlos Álvarez de Toledo. “We went by motorcycle to Fuengirola, it took us two days!” He told me in his studio a few years ago. They built several single-family homes on the Costa del Sol and a couple of modest-sized residential buildings in Madrid. After this partnership, he developed most of his professional career on his own. Notable exception was the Caracas building in Madrid, made with Javier Carvajal, an office building in which they investigated the possibilities that an emerging construction industry offered. At least we tried, Carvajal wrote.
After an interesting beginning in the development of his professional activity, Ruiz de la Prada reconsidered his career and decided to focus it in another direction: Real Estate development. His adventure began with the purchase of a palace in Chamberí, taken from Gutiérrez Soto himself. A palace that was demolished to build, as an architect and promoter, the first of a series of luxury housing blocks. In this block he located his study, which in contrast to the usual at that time, was a public limited company called the Technical Office of Architecture, a company that attracted the attention of numerous colleagues and students. We called him Ruiz de la Pera! , Salvador Moreno often comments remembering his time at the School of Madrid. A very young Alberto Campo Baeza worked for a while at the end of the race in Madrid’s studio.
But Ruiz de la Prada also had other interests besides his willingness to professionalize the work of an architect. Attracted from an early age by art, he was a great connoisseur of the national scene. He encouraged his development by incorporating the work of artists in his buildings and became a collector. Known of Manuel Viola since his youth, buyer of Tapies’ paintings in Paris, he was friends with Eusebio Sempere, José Luis Sánchez, José Luis Gómez Perales and César Manrique, among others. His ideology, coinciding with that of most artists of the time, advocated a total integration of the arts.
Integration that in the residential buildings was manifested mainly in the lobbies. Open to the city, walls turned into canvases and door handles were sculptures. Scenarios that reflect this yearning for transparency present in the work of Ruiz de la Prada, Cano Lasso or Lamela.
After his first successful experience as a promoter, Ruiz de la Prada addressed the construction of another block of flats on the corner of Zurbano and Martínez Campos streets. A building, first of the series of four, characterized by a warm, almost volcanic brick, manufactured imitating the tone of a painting by César Manrique that the architect had in his studio. And also known for the wooden panels that cover its facades. Panels that hide the chance and effort behind every great work, since Ruiz de la Prada himself, accompanied by the carpenter of the work, bought several ships that were going to be scrapped in Bilbao from the Transatlantic Company. After a deteriorated first layer, the wood of the planks of the roofs, of teak, presented an unbeatable appearance and was placed on the ceilings and on the facades. “An adventure, but that adventure had nothing to do with architecture, or with the School of Architecture, or with the profession of architect, or with the construction manager, or anything. It was the adventure of two human beings who were interested in making this work a little different and a little better, nothing more than that” he summed up with emotion when he told the story of the ships.
The Zurbano building was a real estate success such that Ruiz de la Prada promoted another three in similar plots, which earned him criticism from some colleagues. But he also had some who defended him, namely Julio Cano Lasso, who compared the work of the Madrid architect with the houses promoted by the Marquess of Salamanca in Madrid. Of them it was said ironically that their façades were sold as a piece of cloth, by meters. Without thinking, according to Cano Lasso, that in this way one of his best virtues stood out, which was nothing more than forming sets of great urban dignity.
Today, in a situation in which current regulations require users to maintain buildings, Zurbano homes, whose facades were not cleaned for fifty years, proudly present the same exterior cladding and carpentry in better conditions than the day they were placed. It is then that one can only reiterate his admiration for the success and tenacity of an architect whose work contributed to change the image of some of the best neighborhoods in Madrid. A silent and unpretentious work, possessing that elusive quality that Juan Marsé called “the suggestive empire of containment”.
Originally published at Diario Sur, September 2.015