Architectural design is an essential hallmark of our cities. As we stroll through a city’s streets, seeing the sights, our imagination builds up a picture with the buildings’ profiles, lines and styles, until it forms part of our daily landscape, of our culture and life.
TEXT: ANA SOJO & ROCÍO HERRERO. FUNDACIÓN MAPFRE
We all admire the emblematic constructions that form part of the architectural makeup of the cities we live in, but we are generally unaware that some of the most beautiful buildings were built by insurance companies. They were responsible for building impressive head offices which, with their majestic presence, sent out a clear message of stability and solvency to their clients. They make up an interesting architectural heritage whose origin is not sufficiently well-known, yet they have cemented the aesthetics and true personality of the cities to such a degree that they have become authentic icons exuding uniqueness and beauty. Let’s look at a few examples:
Madrid, La Unión y el Fénix building
Visitors to Madrid will undoubtedly walk along the Gran Via, the city’s central artery which completely transformed the physiognomy of Madrid. Designed as a major improvement to the road network, it provided a link between the urban expansion areas.
Work on the Gran Vía began in 1910 and the planning revealed the desire to provide Madrid with a broad avenue filled with elegant, cosmopolitan buildings, duly reflecting the degree of modernity befitting a European capital. To this end, houses were demolished and narrow streets disappeared in order to make room for this huge undertaking. The big insurance companies were the leading players in the configuration of this new space, as they invested in the construction of magnificent buildings which were to forever form part of the very essence of the city. Among the most representative constructions, standing right on the corner of Calle Alcalá and Caballero de Gracia, was the imposing La Unión y el Fénix building, nowadays Metrópolis, which harks back to turn-of-the-century Paris, thanks to its facade and graceful dome. The Février brothers, winners of the international tender called for the building’s construction, and the architect Luis Esteve made clear the primacy of the French style in this first stretch of the Gran Vía.
The original building was crowned with a sculpture of the Phoenix (iconic symbol of the company La Unión y el Fénix) until 1975, the date on which the property changed hands. From that moment, the sculpture atop the dome was a winged Victory, the work of Federico Coullaut.
Without a doubt, those who stroll up to the Puerta de Alcalá and fix their gaze on Plaza de Cibeles will enjoy one of the most beautiful views of the city. It unfolds before our eyes like a theatrical setting comprising the ‘bow’ of the Metrópolis building taking center stage, surrounded by the gardens of the Buena Vista palace and many other splendid monuments.
American Insurance Union Citadel in Columbus, Ohio
Inaugurated in the year 1927 by the company American Insurance Union, it was then the world’s fifth tallest building, designed by the architect Howard Crane, in a brilliant art deco style. Today, almost a hundred years later, it remains one of the city’s most characteristic buildings, a fundamental component of the profile of downtown Columbus. The building was really well received and, according to the magazine Architectural Forum, it was described as splendid and impressive. Crane said he was inspired by Byzantine architecture for its conception, particularly in its interior. The Detroit-born architect had an extensive, successful career designing monumental cinemas and theaters.
The construction of the building was not without its difficulties. It went over budget on countless occasions. In the Great Depression, the company declared bankruptcy and, although it survived for a few more years, it would finally disappear in 1934. The building was purchased by Lesley LeVeque and John Lincoln in 1945, and today it is known as the LeVeque Tower.
Insurance companies were responsible for building impressive head offices which, with their majestic presence, sent out a clear message of stability and solvency to their clients
MAPFRE Olympic Tower in Barcelona
The choice of Barcelona to host the 1992 Olympic Games led to a whole host of urban development projects that would totally transform the city, making it one of the most beautiful modern cities in Europe.
The legacy of the Games included opening up the city to the sea, restoring, among other areas, the old quarter of Sant Martí for all the inhabitants of Barcelona to enjoy. And it was in this space that two similar (but not identical) towers were constructed, one of them being the MAPFRE Olympic Tower.
The MAPFRE Tower is a building 154 meters tall, a project of the architects Iñigo Ortiz and Enrique de León. At the time it was the second tallest building in Spain and it remains the city’s tallest, together with the neighboring Hotel Arts tower.
The building is located in the Olympic Port area and is visible from almost anywhere in the city. It forms an essential part of Barcelona’s skyline.
It was recently recognized as the second most efficient building in all of Spain. Moreover, the MAPFRE Tower and its leanings to sustainability and innovation have been used as a case study in various international universities and forums.
La Nacional Seguros in Mexico City
Built between 1930 and 1932, the construction was promoted by La Nacional insurance company, which put the architectural project out to tender. The winning team was formed by Manuel Ortiz Monasterio, Bernardo Calderón and Luis Avila. It posed a major architectural challenge, given the lake basin upon which the foundations were laid, as well as the known seismic risk in the city. Surpassing the height of 50 meters was a true milestone and, in its day, it was the tallest, most modern building in Mexico, and a case study for many projects that would follow later.
The art deco architectural style is inspired by the Egyptian and Aztec pyramids and the simple, straight lines plot out its silhouette, with its volume and the angles affording it that distinctive outline. The outstanding decorative element is the beautiful low-relief work that crowns the main entrance. This allegory to life insurance depicts an angel spreading its wings to protect three human figures, representing the ages of man: childhood, maturity and old age. It is the work of the artist Manuel Centurión.
As in the previous examples, this building also became a symbol of the city. This fact is corroborated by the advertising poster of the Mexican Tourism Association, which shows four unmistakable symbols of Mexico City: the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the pyramids of Teotihuacan, the cathedral and the La Nacional Seguros building. The image of this emblematic building, an identifying landmark of the city, continues defying the forces of nature to this day.
These are but a few examples of the contribution of insurance companies to our rich architectural heritage. For this reason, as we stroll around our cities, it is worth raising our eyes to revel in the surprising beauty of these buildings, which are steeped in history and life.