Anger as Mayor takes over best-loved public building

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The Independent Online

After operating from a pretty palace in the heart of the capital for 400 years, Madrid's city council has moved into controversial new offices in the spectacular castle built in 1910 to house the Post Office.

Correos, or the Palacio de Comunicaciones, is one of the Spanish capital's finest and best-loved public buildings, combining art-nouveau and gothic revival styles. This extravagant wedding cake is more imposing than the nearby parliament building, as anyone can testify who has ascended the grand marble staircase to buy a stamp.

Madrid's conservative Mayor, Alberto Ruiz Gallardon, has bagged a huge pentagonal office at the front, with fabulous views across the city, including the 18th-century marble statue of the goddess Cibeles, totem of Real Madrid football club.

But critics condemn the municipal move, and complain that most of the building has been excised from public use without consultation or information. They criticise as "unjustifiable" the ¿77m (£54m) spent on refurbishment necessary to house a flourishing town hall bureaucracy.

"The amount the Mayor has earmarked to finance sumptuous new premises in the Palacio de Correos is absolutely disproportionate to the sums budgeted for reforms for public benefit," said Daniel Alvarez, spokesman for United Left councillors. The Socialist spokesman, David Lucas, said: "With this money we could have built 50 schools or 40 day centres, or hired 600 badly needed municipal workers."

Postal services have declined greatly since Madrid administered an international empire – by post. When Correos was designed in 1904 by the architects Alfredo Palacios and Joaquin Otamendi, Spain had actually lost its colonies. But the Spanish political class retained all its self-assertiveness and commissioned a building that would be a source of public pride.

The soaring cathedral-like central lobby is now swathed in canvas while building work continues. Amidst tall columns, 88 windows were each dedicated to a specific task such sending a telegram, supplying paper, string or, until recently, the services of a scribe. Today, just a handful remain open: austere brass and glass portcullises that once emanated authority and the virtues of public service. You may still lean on one of the marble and mahogany desks to address your envelope. But the grand curlicued letter boxes are fenced off and you are directed to a yellow plastic receptacle.

Public outcry forced authorities to keep part of the building for postal tasks, but these will soon be relegated to a gloomy annex round the corner.

Mr Gallardon insists the building will remain public, by which he may mean it will be inhabited by public employees. He promises exhibition and conference halls, a terrace, a café, an auditorium and art galleries. The public may still use the building, but not as before.