The “Residencia de Estudiantes” cultural centre has survived civil war, dictatorship and repression to become a contemporary centre of open debate and critical thinking in the heart of Madrid.
2023 marks the 100th anniversary of the rise to power of Primo de Rivera, whose reactionary regime dominated the public life of Spain in the 1920s. In the shadow of the dictatorship, a countervailing liberal movement in the heart of the capital was also coming into its own.
The story begins back 1876 when renowned intellectual Francisco Giner de los Rios became disillusioned by the conformist educational establishment of the Madrid Complutense university, and wished to impart knowledge free from official, religious, political and moral dogma.
His response was the establishment of the Institute of Free Education (Institución de Libre Enseñanza, ILE) The ILE was forced to operate in a private capacity, separate from the main university, in order to achieve its liberal mission of independent learning.
Testament to the innovative vigour of the institute was its famed bulletin and its roster of prestigious contributors, including the likes of Bertram Russell, literary icon George Orwell and the pioneer of evolution theory, Charles Darwin.
The student residence cultural centre
Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the ILE was the founding of the iconic Student´s residence of Madrid.
From its establishment in 1910 until 1936 the residence, as well as housing students, became the foremost cultural centre in the country. It was created under the auspices of the council of further education and moved to its permanent location in Colina de los Chopos close to the centre of the capital in 1915.
It aimed to create an organic and continuous dialogue between the arts and sciences, and as such became a focus for the diffusion of international ideas within Spain. A haven of intellectual and academic freedom in a country under fascist rule, it also became something of a safe haven for homosexuality, in an era when such space was at a premium.
During the course of the 1920s the residence hosted many of the so called generation ´27, some of the greatest artists that Spain has ever produced.
Federico Garcia Lorca, already garnering a international reputation as a poet, developed close friendships with surrealist icon Salvador Dali and acclaimed auteur Luis Buñuel.
Into that heady mix was thrown many distinguished visitors, such as Nobel prize winner Juan Ramón Jiménez and José Ortega y Gasset.
The residence also became a forum for lively discussions on the everything from economic theory to evolution, and it attracted to its debating halls the likes of Keynes, Curi, Einstein and Stravinsky.
However, the student´s residence were more than a mere talking shop. In the latter years of the decade it would exert substantive influence on the direction of the Spanish state. The relatively short lived dictatorship of Rivera had stalled rather than destroyed the rise of liberalism, and with his departure in 1929, these forces came into their own.
The progressive constitution of the third Spanish republic, promulgated in 1931, and which established freedom of speech, voting rights to women, and legalised divorce, was very much rooted in the liberal intellectual perspective of the student residence and its acolytes.
The activities of the the ILE and the student residence were severely curtailed during the Franco dictatorship, their liberal philosophy an anathema to everything the fascists stood for.
Friends of the Residence
In 1926 The Association of Friends of the Residencia de Estudiantes was set up to aid the cultural centre in its activities, and to help raise funds for its projects. During the Franco years it continued to work clandestinely with long time director Alberto Fraud, both in Spain and in exile, to keep the alive the ethos of the centre.
In 1983, the association was legally reconstituted and began the work of restoring the residence to its former glory, after decades of repression. In 1988 the centre was finally returned to its original buildings, and in 1990 it re-established its publishing house, producing research works and critical editions of the historical texts kept in its archives. Many of its activities are made possible by the association, through its fee paying membership.
A refuge once again
Each year, over 3,000 scholars, artists and other professionals from all over the world live for short periods of time in the residence,while studying, researching or contributing to the many public events held in the centre.
Writer Mario Vargas Llosa, Nobel prize winning Martinus Veltman, Spanish historian Raymond Carr, poet Octavio Paz and Spanish cinema´s recently deceased master, Carlos Saura, are among the many leading public figures in the fields of the arts and sciences that have participated in conferences, workshops, round-table discussions, concerts, poetry readings and exhibitions that the residence organises throughout the year.
Through these activities it aims to “regain, conserve and share the memory of the Spanish Silver Age (1868-1936)”. The centre also aims to be forward looking and focuses particular attention on “innovations in all areas of modern-day culture”. In 2015, the Residence was awarded the European Union’s European Heritage Label due to the significant role it has played in the history and culture of Europe, which has helped to re-established its reputation as one of Spains´s premier centres of open debate, critical thinking and creativity.
Currently running at the centre until April 16th is the exposition, Francisco Bores Madrid 1898 -Paris 1972. Bores is one of one of Spain´s most important contemporary artists, and the exposition showcases work ranging from his humble beginnings in Madrid to the mature works of his Parisian phase.