Madrid is a city that has been around for most of human history. Ever changing, Madrid is a place that has been occupied by nomads, the Romans, the Moors, and various others groups and empires. Madrid has been under the guidance of famous leaders such as Charles V, Ferdinand and Isabella, and Francisco Franco. All the while, throughout these various transitions, Madrid has managed to remain true to itself while expanding and coping with modernization.
The southern sectors of Madrid are what can be described as "old Madrid." This area, which includes El Palacio Real, El Parque del Buen Retiro, and three of the best art museums in the world, is very much a blast from the past in many aspects. The streets are narrow and compact with sidewalks made of cobblestones, lined with buildings reminiscent of 15th to 17th century Spanish rule, some even calling back further to the days of Moorish dominance. Restaurants in this area pride themselves on the quality of their food and the authentic ambiance of their location. Small stores and cafés make up most of these neighborhoods, with the rather frequently seen tributaries of side streets that are home to the residential buildings of southern Madrid. El Palacio Real still reigns over this area with its historical presence and beautiful gardens. During the day, people, both locals and tourists alike, can be seen lounging by the fountain, taking pictures of the scenery, or giving change to one of the street performers. On Sundays, "old Madrid" is flooded with people eager to find a bargain at El Rastro, a massive street market that runs through the La Latina neighborhood. "Old Madrid" is just that, old, antique, historic, a reminder of what used to be infused with a realization of what is. There are still cell phone shops, electronics stores, modern coffee shops, and those sorts of things, but they are hidden in the walls of architectural phenomena that date back to before the US was even born.
"New Madrid" is northern Madrid. As you move more north of the city center, the antiquity of it all begins to fade a bit albeit not entirely. This area is part of the spread that has taken place over centuries of growth and development, and this is where I live. In "new Madrid," the streets are wider, many of the buildings are newer, and life is a bit more Western. Therein lies Madrid's large universities, beautifully modern parks, and contrasting architectural styles that require a bit of a history lesson to understand...
From 1936 to 1975, Spain was under the control of a powerful authoritarian/semi-fascist dictator named Francisco Franco. After the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, Franco took the reigns of the government and ruled until his death. During this time, the citizens of Spain were stripped of many rights, underwent economic oppression, and lived in fear of being killed for not overtly agreeing with Franco's political agenda.
...How does all of this play into the understanding of "new Madrid" architecture? Well, many of the buildings that comprise "new Madrid" were built during the Franco era. In true fascist form, creativity was limited and the architecture is blaring evidence of this. There are fewer carvings, fewer terraces and balconies, and less lattice work than in "old Madrid." Many of the buildings are rather plain and don't evoke much emotion from the passersby. After Franco's death and the subsequent end of his reign, there was a bit of an explosion of creativity that can be seen in various parts of the "new Madrid." Historically and creatively relevant building faces are sprinkled throughout, and some rebellious architectural statements are made by way of a few outlandish looking modern structures that call "new Madrid" home. "New Madrid" looks and feels much more like a city, at least in the generally understood sense of a modernized, Western-influenced city.
This contrast is just one of the many lures of madrileño life. While I live in "new Madrid," a few minutes' Metro ride south and I am in the middle of a much more quaint, much more compact, much more endearing "town" of sorts. It is as if the Metro acts as a time machine that weaves throughout the city, depositing its patrons throughout various parts of Spanish history all depending on the stop at which they choose to depart. Each part of the city offers its own unique perspective on madrileño existence, and neither can be definitively proclaimed as better than the other. To live in one is to visit the other, and vice versa. The citizens definitely share the city, no matter in which part they choose to lay their head. There is an oozing of the various aspects of Madrid's cultures that takes place throughout allowing that parts of "new Madrid" be old and "old Madrid" new. Old or new, north or south, both sides of the city are most assuredly one Madrid, and there is not and need not be an official delineation between the two. But just a few hours spent in each, and anyone can see that walking through the streets of Madrid is not about continuity, but instead, it is about an ebb and flow of history and present day that dances along the sidewalks and tells its story of years passed...if only you take the time to listen.