A man stuffed into a safety suit is about to pull a lever. In a dark room lit only by the headlights coming out of the heads of another dozen people, the man also wears a helmet that one of those present will describe years later as a diving suit. A "Martian" outfit that that day in October 2015 gave the scene even more tension, worth the redundancy, because they were about to turn on the electrical panels that would let in more than 5,000 kilovoltamperes of power to power an immense building of 40,000 square meters in the heart of Madrid, between the Royal Palace and the Almudena Cathedral. So, as much as all kinds of previous checks had been done, some of them shrank at the brutal thud that followed the ignition. It was only a moment, because everything had gone well; it could already begin to implement the complex system that gives life to the Gallery of the Royal Collections, a long-awaited cultural space that will open its doors later this month to showcase some of the most impressive artistic treasures of National Heritage. But what the public will see is barely a fifth of the building; The rest, an intricate network of tramoyas that makes absolutely everything – the intensity of each light, the humidity of each exhibition hall, the space that shelters each tapestry waiting to be exposed – as it should be, is what we want to show next.
So this tour of the bowels of the new museum begins precisely in the room of the general low voltage paintings, where Luis Baena, technical architect of the National Heritage team, saw at the end of 2015 how the building finally began to really come alive with the connection to the electricity grid. Gone were the 235,000 cubic meters of earth that had to be moved, the 47,000 cubic meters of white concrete that forged its spectacular framework, the changes of materials and the last minute solutions with which they were overcoming each obstacle. And, although another eight years of tuning and maintenance would still pass, with its vicissitudes and its small torments, until the museum project could get on its feet, it was that precise moment in which the heart of the gallery began to beat; at least, that's the metaphor Baena uses for that space, which has been kicking for the day for 13 years – and, surely, going over in dreams at night – every meter of the building as it went.
We are on one of the lower floors of the easternmost area of this multi-awarded architectural space that is divided into three large bays or parallel sections, if you look at the building from the main entrance, with the Royal Palace behind and the Cuesta de la Vega in front, at the opposite end. In this one we are now, the bay closest to the cathedral, is where all the organs are: that heart that feeds from the lights to the computer services and the security cameras, the lungs that filter the air, the chillers and the boilers that keep the temperature and humidity of the rooms constant ... The intermediate part, a large central courtyard of 50 meters, from floor to ceiling, which channels the facilities, would accommodate the veins, because they are the ones that carry all that the organs produce where it is needed, that is, to the bay that houses the public part: the entrance with the lobby, the shop, the elevator area, the auditorium and, of course, the three exhibition halls.
A key courtyard. The large central space of 50 meters high that channels the museum facilities. Asier Rua
Service lifts. There are many more plants in the service area than in the public part, so they have been named for their height above sea level. Asier Rua
On this side, that of the entire façade that falls down the skirt on which the palace and the cathedral sit, there are seven floors of enormous height: between six and eight meters (the room of the Austrias needed that size to accommodate the highest tapestries). But at the opposite extreme, in which an army of 150 workers will travel between maintenance, security, cleaning or customer service personnel, it becomes 14 floors. A real mess that the architects tried to simplify – it remains to be seen with what success – naming each floor of this area by the height in meters with respect to sea level: from 602 (a small plant of just 200 square meters) to 652, that of the roof of the building. But the thing does not stop there, because not all floors can be accessed from any point, so, for example, in some service elevators there is floor 633, but in others not, so if by some chance a visitor gets lost here, it is best to stay still and wait for someone to come to your aid.
Baena knows everything by heart. He walks the corridors giving explanations, while greeting people and making a mental inventory of the details that he will ask to be checked as soon as the visitors leave the door: a knock on a fence, dirty filters, fallen protections on the door of an elevator ... "I'm a bit like a Pepito Grillo," he laughs as he turns from the heart to the "brain of the building." It is the BMS, the Building Management System, a management program through which each machine, each light, the temperature and humidity of each room is controlled... Perhaps some casual observers may find the humble dimensions and the scarcity of equipment in the control room a little disappointing, but what we are really seeing is a computer connected to a program that lives in the cloud and that those responsible for the building can also manage from their offices or, even, from their homes. "It has happened to me, they have called me on a Saturday: 'Hey, a visit is coming, turn on the lights,'" says Baena.
From the BMS, in fact, you can turn on, off or vary the intensity of each of the independent lights that illuminate each of the exhibited works. "For example, those that are covered are very delicate fans, so they must have much less lighting than the works that are next door," explains Pilar Benito, head of the National Heritage Conservation Area, in one of the exhibition rooms. "The lighting is very careful. Everything is led light, which is the least harmful. Because a ceramic is not affected by light, but a painting is, a textile, I do not tell you, and a book ...", he adds. Therefore, the lighting of each work is designed so that it can be enjoyed as best as possible (that is, that it looks good, without shadows or brightness), but minimizing its deterioration as much as possible. Lights focused on detail that can still be refined a little through plates, a kind of filters.
Multipurpose room. A painting placed on an easel, ready for fine-tuning before being exhibited. Asier Rua
Cleaning at height. Structure designed to hang on the south façade, which overlooks the Cuesta de la Vega, and be able to clean it. Asier Rua
That is what Benito and his team are these days, finalizing some details, which they will have to rethink and repeat again and again not only for the temporary samples, but as the pieces of the permanent ones rotate, which will happen periodically to show most of the funds and for conservation reasons; There are pieces that should not be exhibited for a long time. At the same time, the restoration team also strives to complete its part – here a group places a fountain piece by piece, there two professionals retouch a canvas, a little further, another does the same with a huge sculpture – while the transfer team lives up to its name and, below, in the warehouse, José Luis Valverde, the head of Registry is prepared for any changes in the planned agenda of movements – it happens a lot lately and will surely happen more as the opening day approaches.
Valverde is a quiet, slow-spoken man who explains with the same precision every work of art that appears before his eyes — "This is La naranjera, from Lorenzo Tiépolo's series of cakes of popular types in Madrid; two have gone up to the collection, and the rest have stayed here; they are precious, precious..."— and each of the furniture and tools that so carefully guard them: the combs, which "are metal meshes, grills where the paintings and graphic works are hung and which in turn are suspended in a load-bearing structure that runs through bearings"; compact cabinets, "with an automatic rolling structure"; the "reinforced horizontally with cliff beams" for carpets... To open any of them it is necessary to enter a personalized access code for each worker, which leaves a record of who has used it and when.
Like so many of his colleagues, Valverde has been working on this building for many years waiting for its commissioning, which, in addition to having made them travel surely through very different moods, has allowed them to build and make the place their own. In his case, he recalls, for example, what it cost to make the furrows to start placing the cabinets: "We spent several weeks and even months, drilling in this floor, which is [a floating slab of polished concrete with powder finish] of corundum, a very hard stone. They brought special machines from abroad, they burst their radios..." And he remembers the disappointment of not being able to make double storage height because the line of fire extinguishing tubes could not be exceeded – "we have used up to four meters, but until we were seven we wanted to have made a second floor and we could not" – but also how they looked for solutions and holes even in the last corner to make the most of a space that, on the other hand, it is unique within the Heritage warehouses distributed throughout all the Royal Sites, for its conditions and, above all, for its size.
Giant forklift. It has a capacity of 10,500 kilos and 140 people. Asier Rua
The warehouses. A worker cleans one of the impressive windows that give access to the warehouse area. In the background, the Campo del Moro.Asier Rua
Everything is overwhelmingly large here: the loading dock, the sliding metal door that leads to the aisle that in turn leads to a forklift with capacity for 10,500 kilos and 140 people. "That is why it was thought in principle, due to the circumstances and the ease of access and maneuver, to [store here] the large formats: carpets, tapestries and paintings that are of a supernatural scale, very large, fragments of altarpieces ...", explains Valverde. But the conditions rule and, in the end, apart from the works that are passing through to go up or down the gallery, this modern and perfectly conditioned space turns out to be the ideal refuge for pieces in distress, says the head of Registry while opening a closet full of volumes of documentation from the General Archive of the Palace; They arrived there from the neighboring Royal Palace after a rescue operation for flooding caused by storm Filomena in January 2021.
In fact, to understand how this gallery works it is important to place it within the entire structure of National Heritage and, above all, the Royal Palace, with which it forms a set within which workers continuously transfer and with which they share basic facilities, such as artistic workshops and also maintenance: electricity, plumbing, carpentry, painting and locksmithing, with its forging and everything.
What seems clear is that the Gallery will end up being the home of carpets and tapestries (in the Royal Collections there are 660 of the former and, of the latter, 1,100 small pieces and 680 medium or large). Valverde takes the account while showing the special cabinets for the latter, equipped with metal cylinders in which the fabrics are rolled up, and then covered with fabrics. To move them (remember that the shelves above are four meters away), a crane with four arms placed on top makes things much easier.
Here, stored in their closets, the lights are not a problem, but the environmental conditions are exactly as critical as in the exhibition rooms for the good conservation of the works. "The fundamental thing is that there are no sudden fluctuations," says Valverde. "The optimal conditions are between 18 and 21 degrees Celsius of temperature and 45% and 50% of relative humidity", adds Pilar Benito a few floors above. The challenge will be to maintain these constants when the rooms are filled with visitors: "Simply the breathing of people is an interference, especially in the relative humidity."
Air catchment patio. Open space to the street, from which the museum takes the air to distribute it throughout the building. Asier Rua
That is why monitoring through the BMS – that cloud management program that controls almost everything – and the work of the mechanical organs that allow maintaining these constant conditions, even at specific points in each room, is so important. The process works as follows: there are different spaces in the building open to the street – the catchment yards – from which adjoining treatment units simply suck the air (there are 21 distributed throughout the building), where it is purified by means of carbon filters, then passed through cold batteries, that condense it to remove excess moisture, and then kill any remaining organic elements, such as odors, using photocatalytic filters. Finally, heat batteries and steam lances give you the exact temperature and humidity that the collection requires. "We have a very effective air conditioning system," ditches Baena, who in the corridors of the warehouses, almost at the end of the visit, will stop to talk for a moment with two people. One of them thinks that she liked the building better when it was empty and is sure that Baena thinks the same.
"Well, do you agree?"
—The truth is that emptiness was spectacular... But no; It's better that way.
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