La Casa Encendida (The Incandescent House) 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 (fig. 6).
- 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 (fig. 14).
- 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 (figs. 8 and 9).
- A range of workshops, studios and resources facilitate local communities’ participation in cultural production (fig. 5, Sections).
- The roof terrace was converted into an informal open-air space for public enjoyment (fig. 5, Sections).
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 influence upon these areas.
Formerly the pawnshop of Monte de Piedad de Madrid, 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 architect’s website (new tab, spanish):
- The museologist’s website (new tab, english):
- The exhibition designer for Mundo Extreme (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)
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.
A walk through La Casa transformed demonstrates equitable spatial production, occupation and exhibiting strategies aimed at creating an activist narrative environment for combatting wider societal prejudice and exclusion.
An understated intervention—to effect a deep ideological shift
Transforming Casa de Empeños to La Casa Encendida required a profound ideological shift on the client’s part—from dispensing charity to culturally empowering communities. By contrast, the architectural intervention was comparatively understated; it was respectful of the original heritage building’s decorative brick façade, austere interior details and structural and spatial distribution around a large central patio (fig. 6 and general view above).
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 internal patio (compare figs. 4 and 5, 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 and general view above). Across the central 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, Ground Floor Plans).
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. 14). Such spatial ambiguity anticipated temporary displays that could quickly respond to evolving social issues.
Furthermore, management’s non-hierarchical spatial distribution of exhibition content sought to break down deeply entrenched art scene barriers and create dialogue across “high” and “low” culture or “famous” and “emerging” artists. Therefore, a well-established contemporary artist, or a modern art canon like Chagall or Kandinsky, was always exhibited concurrently with a lesser-known or emerging artist, where each was given equal exhibition space, time and resources.
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. 9).
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, 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, Basement Floor Plan and Sections). The wide range of facilities permits intense events and activities programming by and for diverse groups.
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 (figs. 5 and 13). 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 open-air space for communities’ use
Visitors who continue ascending to the roof terrace find two small exhibition spaces within the building’s ornamental Neo-Mudéjar turrets (fig. 6). 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 (fig. 5, Sections).
Mundo Extreme—bridging the divide between well-known and ‘outsider artists’
La Casa’s staging of Mundo Extreme 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).
Much of the artworks displayed in Mundo Extreme convey a sense of how narrative art flowed out of the workshops like uninhibited “speech” from artists who in many cases had limited powers of speech in the usual sense (fig. 16).
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. 16, 17, 18).
Watch this inclusive space
If you liked this taster of The Museum as Storyteller, check back in early 2020 for more on La Casa Encendida’s project challenges, players and processes and the case study’s conclusions.