Esthetics and architecture

The Alhambras of Latin America

Neo-Arabic esthetics and architecture have been studied in both Europe and the US but less so in Latin America.

The Alhambras of Latin America

The field study carried out here revealed a vast Orientalist heritage throughout the geography of the region encompassing a wide range of architectural types. For the exhibition Alhambras: Arquitectura Neoárabe en Latinoamérica, we evaluated the diversity of designs in institutional, leisure and residential architectures while emphasizing constructions whose origins can be found among immigrants from the Spanish peninsula who copied or drew directly from the Alhambra.

While it shares elements with the more general Orientalist esthetic developed in northern Europe, Latin America’s “Alhambrismo” (“Alhambra-ism”) largely results from the contributions of architects who both trained and traveled in Europe and whose designs, on occasion, reflected the territorial surroundings that inspired them. We must also acknowledge the influences of architectural journals as well as literature such as Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra. In addition, pictorial Orientalism arrived in etchings, illustrated magazines, postcards and even works by renowned European Orientalist painters Genaro Pérez de Villamil and Mariano Fortuny, whose reputations were on the rise also in the capital cities of Latin America at the time. These channels were added to by Latin American travelers and scholars who enjoyed educational travels to Europe.

On many occasions this Latin American heritage is also related to immigrants who sought to incorporate memories of their homeland when they commissioned architects who had traveled to Europe for the construction of their homes.

All these factors contributed to a Latin American Orientalist architecture without rigid requirements but rather adaptive to conditions, personal needs, lifestyles and the local climate. This meant that, on occasion, what featured in an interior in Granada may have appeared on a facade, or what was without color in the walls of the Alhambra may appear as a rich chromaticism typical of the Caribbean. Of course, not all has been conserved over the years. There are significant “absent architectures.” It is to this end that this cataloging of the buildings offers an understanding of the global “romantic” significance of the Alhambra: how its legacy is maintained on the other side of the Atlantic, and how the esthetic of what is known as Alhambrismo was adapted and flourished in a wide range of geographical areas and today forms part of the landscape of Latin American identity.

Spanish Overseas Influences and Islamic Reminiscences

In the 19th century, the celebration of world trade fairs offered a testing ground for architecture. Countries participated by means of pavilions, and the design of these buildings called on local flavors and also borrowed from distant pasts far removed from their national identities.

A predilection for Orientalism led to significant examples of Egyptian and Turkish architecture in the International Exhibition in Paris in 1867 and the Ottoman section in the Vienna exhibition of 1873. The Paris exhibition of 1878 included an Oriental bazaar, and the 1889 exhibition, also in the French capital, featured a market along with Arab-style houses, replicas of streets of Cairo and an Islamic neighborhood.

It was in the 1900 Universal Exhibition in Paris, however, that the presence of Moorish architecture had the greatest repercussions. Along with pavilions of obvious Egyptian, Ottoman and Persian inspiration and the construction of the Palais de l’Electricité with its Oriental interior, highlights included “Andalusia in the time of the Moors,” a space that featured elements of the Alhambra, the Sacromonte district of Granada, and the palaces and the Giralda of Seville.

At the time, Spain, and particularly Andalusia, had often been perceived by romantic travelers as exotic, Oriental territories full of bandits and the like. Andalusia, however, also had the unique fortune of offering a rich selection of Islamic architecture.

In this context, it was neo-Arabic architecture that would repeatedly represent the image of Spain in international events, as occurred with the Spanish pavilion in the Brussels exhibition of 1910 and overseas in the clubs and headquarters of Spanish collectives in the Americas. In this sense we could mention buildings such as the Spanish Club of Iquique, Chile, designed and built in 1904 by Miguel Retomano in the Moorish style and featuring ornate, chromatic decor in its interior.

In Buenos Aires in 1912, the architect Enrique Faulkers designed the Spanish Club, the basement of which features the spectacular “Alhambra Room,” murals that depict a 360-degree panoramic vision of Granada. In 1913 in Villa Maria, in Córdoba, Argentina, the Spanish Mutual Benefit Association was erected in a Moorish style. Though built prior to this, the building of the Spanish Association of Panama (1867-1905) was also characterized by its neo-Arabic influences.

Another reference to the link between Spanish and neo-Arabic architectural styles can be found in the Moorish pavilion donated by the Spanish community to Peru in 1921 for the country’s centennial. On display in the exhibition grounds and standing out on account of its enormous horseshoe arch with bichromatic decoration in the manner of the arches of the Great Mosque in Córdoba, it was rebuilt in 2000. In 1923, during the centennial celebrations in Tandil, in the province of Buenos Aires, Argentina, the Spanish community donated a Moorish castle to the town, erecting it at the highest point of Independence Park, a kilometer from the fort that represented the earliest establishment of the town.

Another area in which Spanish-style architecture featured prominently was in bullrings. Among these, the pioneering reference was the bullring constructed in Madrid by Emilio Rodríguez Ayuso and Lorenzo Álvarez Capra in 1874, a year after the latter had designed the Spanish pavilion for the international exhibition in Vienna. This arena, classified as Neo-Mudéjar and built in red brick, influenced other outstanding Latin American constructions, such as the Plaza San Carlos in Uruguay, inaugurated in 1909, and the Plaza Santa Maria in Bogota, which opened in 1931, and others. We can also find notable examples in Venezuela, top of the list being the Nuevo Circo bullring in Caracas (1919) and the arena in Maracay (1933), the work of Carlos Raúl Villanueva, the premier modern architect in the country.

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