AZCA: A Visual Narrative | Diego Leon Bethencourt

AZCA: Asociación Mixta de Compensación de la Manzana A de la Zona Comercial de la Avenida del Generalísimo. Words without barely any meaning or possible translation.

AZCA is nothing other than the seemingly boring mix of tall buildings surrounded by expensive shops in an attempt to design a default business zone for Madrid. It is the checking and bagging area of a city. But in its heart, there is more than it would seem. Its birth begins in the frenzy driven by a speculative bubble in 1950s Spain, a country and a city that had just left true misery and poverty. Corruption, speculation, and cheap buildings came all hand in hand under the supervision of a dictatorship that actively benefited from it. Why not have our business area then?

The location chosen made no sense at the time but the prospect of making money out of thin air was very enticing. Buy land that was practically worthless and wait for it to become valuable to later sell it for millions for development. Only some residential houses were nearby, the Castellana road and the old Ministerial buildings created during the brief time of the republic. Since the hands that bought the land and later pushed for the development were the same, it was the perfect business. By the late 1980s the last buildings were added and by then the whole area had indeed become the place to be. The Picasso Tower designed by Minoru Yamasaki even stood for some time as the tallest building in Spain. You surely wouldn't want to be anywhere else, would you?

A bubble will only hold itself together for a brief time though. Like most forced architectural developments of the 20th century, AZCA suffered because its birth did not come of a true necessity. Indeed, the distribution inside this island is anything but comprehensible.

There are levels and sublevels, some with wide empty spaces covered by tiles on the open sun, on top of underground levels filled with businesses, restaurants, and nightclubs. Then, tall buildings rise in the middle of everything. The businesses mostly provide their entrance to the outside streets, while the inner space remains mostly empty during the day, with only those that need to leave or come to their workplace visiting it.

A truly bizarre sight. At night things complicate further, the area being popular for clubbing, with many nightclubs in the underground alleys. Loud music, drug trafficking, fights, stealing and even deaths have occurred in them. Meters away from expensive stores like El Corte Ingles or some of the most important banks in Spain. In the underground alleys, “los bajos” as they are popularly known, it is common to see homelessness and patrolling police, even during the day.

As a child in 2005, I visited AZCA for the first time. A massive fire had occurred on the Windsor building shortly before, leaving images that stunned the entire city. In the midst of the fire, shadowy figures were seen in the windows just as the building was being engulfed by the fire. These were “los fantasmas del Windsor” or “Windsor’s ghosts”. The entire building burned down and no human remains were ever found. The fire broke out seemingly as an accident, but the suspicion that it was intentional lingers to this day. It happened just a day before an audit was about to be carried out on one of the largest banks in Spain.

AZCA is a place of big contrasts. The architecture creates dark alleys and bright open spots during the day, rich people in suits arrive to their skyscraper meters away from places where they could have been robbed hours earlier, and pedestrians have no reason to put their feet inside of this island. It is eerily quiet inside, while in the surrounding streets there is the constant noise of car traffic.

Places like AZCA are very representative of Spain. Unneeded, built with no true knowledge of what should be used for, a massive profit made for someone, and then left for us to make some sense of it. Someday, we will see them disappear. They will be replaced by well thought through tidier areas.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, I had the chance to visit the place on three distinct occasions. On my first, I stumbled upon it by accident when looking for the underground to go home. Over the three visits I captured many images I felt represented what the place felt like. The choice of black and white accentuated the strange sights and eventually I compiled several images in a visual film. The music I chose to characterize the place was from You (Forever) from Against All Logic’s latest album, a song I felt represented the quiet industrial and unnatural reality of the images.

To me, visiting AZCA is visiting a zoo of capitalism. Come see and amaze yourself at the sights and see the reality of economy without any distortion. The true nature of the market! Speculation, crime, sordidness! The poor and the rich! AZCA has it all, unfiltered as if someone forgot or stopped caring to cover it under some nice marketing or chic rebranding. It is aging, cracking and free. There is no reason to miss out on it.

View more images from the project HERE and watch the film below:

About Diego


Diego Leon Bethencourt (b. 1999 Madrid, Spain) is a Spanish Photographer and Microbiology student based in Cork, Ireland. Diego's work often explores feelings of nostalgia and reflections of his traditional Spanish upbringing. Diego is also the photography editor for Disobedient.

Instagram: @diegoscopia /