HISTORY AND ARCHITECTURE: SPAIN Keypad May-issue: Architalk

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Before delving into Spanish architecture, it is imperative to deal with a few frequently asked questions first — why is the equivalent of the Chinese word “ya” (tooth) in the names of countries like Spain and Portugal, and why is the Spanish Steps in Rome, Italy? Are the Spanish particularly adept at building stairs? Plus, are there still plenty of Spanish villas in Spain?

The world famous Spanish Steps in Rome was named as such because of the adjacent Spanish Piazza (Piazza di Spagna) and the Embassy of Spain situated right in the Piazza. Interestingly, the Steps was designed by the Italians and financed by the French yet named after Spain, bearing no Spanish influences with the design or construction of the famous Steps.

 

Spanish Steps

 

 

Regarding whether Spain is thronged with Spanish villas which are commonly seen in New Territories, Hong Kong, the concept is similar to asking whether all toasts in France are French toasts. As a matter of fact, the Spanish villas found in Hong Kong were not “imported” from Spain as such and its style varies vastly from those found in Spain, which we will further explore later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Putting these few questions aside, let’s look at the history and architecture of Spain — a country which has experienced its vicissitudes, once the most powerful empire of the world and yet on more than one occasion on the verge of bankruptcy. Historically, there are two monumental events which distinguish Spain from other European countries, which gave rise to its unique style and character in architecture.

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Impact of Muslims

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Starting from the eighth century, Spain had been ruled under the Moors (Muslim inhabitants from North Africa) for about 800 years and the rulers brought with them advanced culture and technology of the time which left behind a rich cultural heritage in Spain.

 

 

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The Moors have constructed numerous mosques and palaces based on Islamic architecture during their rule. Their unique architectural style has deeply impacted the Spanish architecture even after the Muslims were driven away from Europe by the Catholics in the 15th century, henceforth leading to the birth of a unique Spanish style blending Islamic architecture with Cistercian architecture called Mudejar (which literally means remnants in Arabic).

 

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Game of Throne filmed Real Alcázar de Sevilla

 

 

Mudejar architecture actually embodies the grandeur of western architecture as well as the fine craftsmanship of the east; a classic example is the Plaza de Espana in Seville. In spite of its neo Mudejar style characteristics in the 20th century, it beautifully manifests the spirit of east meeting west and combines the Neo-Romanesque architecture with Islamic ornamentation, exuding superbly a surreal and yet futuristic feel from the blend of two classic styles in architecture. No wonder some parts of the Star Wars Prequel trilogy were also shot there; even Plaza de Espana was set as Queen Amidala’s (Darth Vader’s wife) home planet Planet Naboo.

 

 

 

The Spanish Global Conquest

 

 

The second event with far reaching consequences was the discovery of the “New World” in Americas by Christopher Columbus, who was representing Spain. It was regarded by Adam Smith as the most important fact in the history of mankind, engendering the “Columbian Exchange” of human beings, animals, plants, culture and others between the eastern and western hemispheres.

 

 

 

Amidst this great exchange of ideas and culture, Spanish people introduced Catholicism to the Americas, an aspect reflected in the rich architectural masterpieces of Spanish cathedrals and villas in the “New World”. The influx of Spanish culture mingled with the art of the indigenous American natives to form the American colonial architecture.

 

Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral

 

 

Later came the war between the United States and Mexico with the former winning and claiming states including California, New Mexico and others. The Americans caught sight of and fell for the Spanish Colonial buildings left behind by the Mexicans — from the red-tiled roofs and the thick white stucco walls, adorned with little arched windows and arched verandahs. The Americans were enamoured with the Mediterranean style of architecture and Spanish Colonial Revivals became fairly popular in California in the 20th century.

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This vogue overwhelmed the world thanks to classic Hollywood films in the ‘20s and ‘30s; Spain was once again conqueror of the world. In Hong Kong and Shanghai, Spanish villas were also built; some property developers in Hong Kong even adopted this as the theme for developing large scale residential projects. However, with whatever that has gone through America, too much colonisation and Americanisation, coupled with the market-driven paradigm from property developers, there was scarcely any reminiscence of the unique Spanish architecture apart from the red-tiled roofs, notwithstanding the opulent European finishes of these properties.

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皇马对巴塞 Madrid vs Barcelona

 

There was a principality in east Spain called Catalonia, once an independent state where their native language was not Spanish. It has always been inclined to independence and has even been ruled under France as a republic in the 17th century. The power struggle for hegemony and confrontation of Catalonia’s capital city Barcelona with Madrid dated back from around the 15th century. Barcelona ended up on the losing side in the civil war and remained subdued afterwards for a long period. Such kind of rivalry can still be seen in the 21st century in football stadiums.

 

 

 

 

 

Barcelona was on the rise again during the 19th century Industrial Revolution. The city’s economic take-off also nurtured and triggered off the glittering development of arts and culture, culminating in the rise of the golden period which was generally regarded as the Catalan Renaissance. The Spanish version of Art Nouveau is also knowns as the “Catalan Modernism” to differentiate it from the mainstream Spain culture.

Bearing testimony to this movement was no other than the most outstanding architectural genius, who is too important to ignore. Writing about Spanish architecture without mentioning this pioneer is analogous to discussing the Barcelona Football Club without covering Lionel Messi. He is such a significant figure in the arena of architecture that it warrants a separate dissertation to uncover more about him and his impact.