What should have been a showcase project to turn part of Madrid's 19th-century former zoo into a state-of-the-art library has instead come to symbolize the chronic overspending of City Hall.
Until 1972, the Casa de Fieras (Animal House), built in the 1830s in the capital's Retiro park, was home to a collection of lions, tigers, panthers, bears, giraffes, monkeys, and elephants. After the animals were moved to a new zoo in the Casa de Campo, the lion house was converted into municipal offices, and the building was then abandoned and fell into disrepair.
In 2007, architects Jaime Nadal and Sebastián Araujo presented a project to convert the building, beginning work in 2009 on a 7.2-million-euro renovation project to turn the lion house into a library. The work ended up costing 8.5 million.
"The building was in a terrible state, and we had to rip the insides out completely and then get it back to its original condition," says Araujo. The pair created glass cages in place of the original bars that covered the south-facing façade. A two-story steel and glass cube has also been built alongside the reading rooms, which should at some point in the future house most of the library's collection.
But for the moment, the Casa de Fieras - as is the case with the municipal libraries in the Conde Duque former barracks and another in the Carabanchel district - has not been given an opening date by City Hall. Aside from an absence of books, the capital's authorities say that there is no money to pay librarians and other staff.
Madrid's new mayor, Ana Botella, wife of former Popular Party (PP) Prime Minister José María Aznar, last month sparked controversy when she called for volunteers to staff arts and sports facilities.
"Given the exceptional situation that we are experiencing," she said on January 26, in reference to City Hall's more than seven-billion-euro debt, run up over the course of the right-wing PP's control of the capital during the last two decades, "I would call on the involvement and collaboration of all to help us move forward and to make the best use of an infinite number of public spaces."
City Hall has not replaced the almost 2,000 people who have retired from its payroll since 2009.
"This city is fortunate to have a lot of facilities and infrastructure: now we have to be able to use them. I refuse to accept that they will not be used for lack of volunteers to get them running," said Botella.
She signaled a network of around 5,000 volunteers, who already offer their services to City Hall to help with events. "We want to see volunteers taking an active role in public life. Many people already give up their time helping elderly people, and we can now extend this into the environmental and cultural spheres. People can organize themselves to run libraries and other centers that have been created for the public to use. The possibilities are endless." For the moment, no mention has been made of the public donating books to fill libraries.