In Praise of Spain’s Architecture

Dan Whitman




[Above] is the ugliest building in Spain, aka the American Embassy in Madrid.


Madrid puts together immodesty and grace as few other capitals do. Everywhere are reminders that this was once an empire that vied with all others. These blend with the charm of a thousand little eateries and places to while away a spring or summer afternoon, some of them still sparkling with decorative tiles from the nineteenth century.


Ingrained in the Spanish character is a certain indifference to the past, but a pattern going back 1500 years, of letting it be and encouraging it to speak for itself.


Spain’s architecture was sort of rudimentary until the Roman period. The latter produced Romanesque churches, many of which you can see today. The conquering Visigoths were not scorched earth types, and appreciated these exquisite structures, adding their own style as an overlay.


The Muslim conquest in 711 improved on the Romanesque and Visigoth eras, adding their own Umayyad marvels. The Umayyads ran into hard times in the 1080s, and called in the Almoravids in 1086 to help them hold the line against advancing Christians. The Almoravids obliged but in fact took over 1162-1269.


Even as they did so, they ran into competing Almohads, a sort of Muslim Puritan or Reformationist twelfth century movement favoring simplicity in building styles. Though austere, the latter introduced brick as a medium of construction, and completed the masterwork of the Great Mosque of Córdoba in 1148 (begun by Umayyads in 785.)



The Almohads made Seville their capital, a city which later became Europe’s largest. Before they were quite finished, the Almoravids sent troops north to take Europe, but were stopped by The Cid in 1100 (or Roland, depending on which version you follow.)


The Almoravids (think “Roccoco”) continued to add yet more graceful layers to the mix, such as the Giralda (originally a minaret) of Seville, and later the Alhambra of Grenada in 1237. Meanwhile the Christians took Córdoba in 1236 and built a church over the Great Mosque. Every time something happened, the buildings became more graceful and decorative.


The Almoravids, notwithstanding Almohad competition in areas of the Peninsula, retained the separate Kingdom of Granada, superceded but not removed by the Christian Reconquista of 1492.


Unconverted Muslims (“morsiscos”) permitted to stay in the Kingdom until 1609 enhanced the aesthetic blend yet further in the Mudéjar style, which only improved the architectural output through fusion and diversity.


Taken together, the Umayyads, and Almoravids, Almohads, and Mudéjars are sometimes just called “the Moors.” They introduced stringed instruments to Europe. You could trace a squiggly line between the earliest lutes and rebecs to the Mannheim school of orchestral interpretation.


Political and military convulsions resulted in the embellishment, not destruction or iconoclasm, of earlier masterpieces. The uneasy but fruitful coexistence drew on Iberia’s three cultures – Christian, Muslim, and Jewish. Santa Maria la Blanca in Toledo, originally a synagogue built by Muslims, later became a church, theologically but not aesthetically disruptive.


Building and architecture remained Spain’s glory and genius, yielding from the Roman, Visigoth, Almoravid, Mudéjar and other blends to the Christian Renaissance, Baroque, Spanish colonial and neo-classical periods, each adding to the foundations of earlier masters and revering their predecessors even as they sought to better them.


Post-Reconquest churches in Córdoba and Granada made a point of meticulous preservation of the mosques that preceded them, and adding the Catholic paraphernalia physically on top of the earlier Muslim style so as to underscore their primacy. This building on top of preceding works demonstrated obeisance to predecessors, with improvement, not removal, their goal.



Spain never stopped producing. Later came Catalan modernismo and Gaudí, and more recently, many dozens of world leaders including visionaries such as Enrique Nieto, Alonzo Cano, Jaume Busquets, Josep Lluis Sert, Antonio Palacios, the current Santiago Calatrava, and others.


Which brings us full circle to the U.S Embassy in Madrid, an unprovoked insult and indignity in an otherwise lovely cityscape. Circa 1960, this wretched eyesore was put up without permanence in mind, and in the spirit of planned obsolescence. Then it refused to be obsolete, though it should have been.


The condo-beige concrete slabs forming the façade began to disintegrate in 2015. Instead of razing the thing and considering a fresh start, the Overseas Building Office (OBO) of the Department of State decided to repair and replace the failing surface, now (June, 2016) into its fourteenth month of obras.


Spanish employees in the building wear protective helmets (yes, helmets) to shield themselves from falling debris, and strap on face masks to protect against black lung disease, with dust now everywhere in the interior. They have been putting up with this for over a year.


America does have culture and a great number of graceful architectural achievements in its Homeland. It saves its horrors for export, like tobacco and DDT. We shouldn’t do this to friends.



Despite current economic hardship, Madrid is one of the safest capitals in Europe. You can meander down a dark alley in most neighborhoods in the early morning hours without needing to look over your shoulder. People will assist the lost tourist and seek to please the diner from abroad. Anyone will wish you buen día (“have a good day”) when the elevator stops at their floor before yours.


Madrileños live and let live, but are not bland. They stress and smoke, and seem dissatisfied. This quality takes them a step above serenity, to disquiet, and adds pizzazz to a city which must sleep at some point, but it hasn’t come clear when they do so. You can see this in the wandering eyes and spirited hangovers of the characters in Pedro Almodóvar’s films.


Of the many misfortunes to befall us if/when the Sun collides with the Earth, not the least would be the destruction of the city of Madrid.


My point is not so much our aggressive assaults on Spain’s lovely culture, but Spaniards’ seemingly limitless willingness to forgive, to charm and let bygones go. It may not last forever; at some point patience could run out. I don’t know how we keep managing to borrow more time on people’s good nature, apparently unaware that the unpaid bills of aesthetic offense may one day come due.


Author Bio:


Dan Whitman teaches Foreign Policy at the Washington Semester Program, American University. As Public Diplomacy officer in USIA and the Department of State for more than 25 years, he drafted and edited speeches for U.S. ambassadors in Denmark, Spain, South Africa, Cameroon, Haiti, and Guinea-Conakry. A senior Foreign Service Officer, he retired in 2009 from the Bureau of African Affairs, U.S. Department of State.



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