Capital cities can be divided in two kinds: those that have become capitals by the sheer force of the reality (even if they are not political capitals, as New York, which is only the capital of its county, a tricky thing to explain as this just covers Manhattan), and those which have become capitals by the force of a law giving that condition to a piece of land in a moment of political compromise, even if later they can become a different thing. It is too early to judge what will Brasilia become, but Madrid is a good example of the second kind in the XVIth century, as Washington and Berlin are for the XVIIIth century. The interesting thing is to which extent being a capital creates interesting urban spaces, and also if a city is really fit to go beyond that first “bureaucratic” dimension.
Madrid appears in history as a muslim hamlet at the border with the kingdom of Castille in the IXth century. Over time a small city appears, much less important than Segovia or Toledo. In 1561 Philip II decides to install the capital in Madrid and, but for 1601 to 1605 and a short time during the 1936-1939 civil war, the city remains the Spanish capital. A central position in the country and the lack of strong local powers, which was not the case for other Castillian cities, seem to have been relevant reasons. Madrid does not become an architectural project with a visible geometry, but it consolidates some elements which dominate the landscape: the cornice over the Manzanares, the Royal Palace and the Buen Retiro Palace (today just the park remains), or the Casa de Campo. The central role of the city in the Spanish urban system (as far as non-government elements) becomes evident only after 1939; the first years of Franco rule were marked by monumental plans which were economically unfeasible. From 1980 to 2007 there has been a strong growth, but without a visible overall urban project. Today Madrid is not a rich city (it has a strong public debt, among other reasons due to the costs of burying the M30 beltway under the Manzanares), but it is still the largest and one of the most dynamic metropolitan areas in Spain.
Washington appears as there is a need to give to the Union a capital which is not subject to one of the member States, on land acquired from the state of Maryland. Here urbanism appears as a central element in the personality of the city, with a baroque plan by L’Enfant on a scale that Europe had seen only in royal gardens. Even if the true economic capitals are in other cities of the Atlantic Megalopolis running from Washington to Boston, and mainly in New York City, its metropolitan area has grown to become one of the most important of the country in economic size. A relevant part of the workforce is made of public employees, and being a capital has also attracted lots of private workforce.
Berlin is a small hamlet until its declaration as the Prussian capital in 1701. Its growth is linked to that of the kingdom and its power in Germany, which shows in an urban core that tries to recreate a classical monumentality. During the XIXth century it also becomes an industrial city. Prior to WWII Albert Speer plans to make the city the capital of the world, with incredible urban scales. After the war, the western part becomes an enclave which is separated from the historical urban core; west Berlin loses the role of capital to Bonn, while east Berlin struggles to be the capital of a much smaller country and rebuild, despite monumental attempts as Karl- Marx Allée. Reunification brings back the city integrity, to become a city that is “poor but sexy”, as mayor Klaus Wolvereit says; the city is surrounded by eastern states that still struggle to rebuild.