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Spanish Architectural Elements: It’s Historic + Pragmatic Origin.

Spanish architectural elements while of historic origin were also pragmatic; derived from a social, political and climatic approach. Within this article, I will be highlighting a few of my favourite Spanish architectural elements found within many Caribbean countries using Cuba as precedence.


The remnants of Spanish architecture can be experienced around every corner of this beautiful archipelago; from instant visual memories of Cuba - to the lesser-known images of Eastern Hispaniola, Jamaica and Barbados. Our Architectural landscape can be described as a response to our historical events and influences, these leftover architectural elements frame the story of a tenacious past. While the Caribbean region is extremely diverse, and countless other architectural styles and influences are present - including African, French, British, and indigenous each having contributed to the unique architectural heritage of the area. This article will focus specifically, on the most popular Spanish influences found throughout the region. The built environment is often guided by the constraints of time, constructibility, logistics, and economics. In response these aspects guide and inform our design intentions however, it rarely limits the style chosen. Looking back their response to our context could be perceived as both a desperate attempt to recreate their home while paying respect to the context.


Architecture, being a reflection of the people, their power, circumstances and beliefs creates a collaged environment, weaved with symbols of dominance, signifying occupation. Today it continues to be used as a tool to engineer loyal and nationalist societies. The overwhelming influence of the old world is still present, encouraging us within the Caribbean basin to become opposed to our own unique indigenous thoughts and vernacular language and aspire to more Cartesian thoughts synonymous with the old world. Despite this colonial architecture remains a marvellous beauty. I believe that the origin of an element should not reduce its worth or technical value and so while these architectural elements once represented an imposed occupation, they were also engineered in a manner that is somewhat adaptive to the context.


Spanish architectural elements while of historic origin were also pragmatic; derived from a social, political and climatic approach. Within this article I will be highlighting a few of my favourite Spanish architectural elements found within many Caribbean countries using Cuba as precedence. As some of the most common Architectural elements within Spanish Colonial-Era Buildings can be found on the island of Cuba within its rich architectural palette. We can generally note that buildings often featured thick walls made of stone or adobe, high ceilings and large windows enclosed with wooden shutters. There was also a heavy use of balconies and courtyards. Spanish colonisation also brought with it the construction of numerous churches and cathedrals to the Caribbean. These religious structures would feature grand facades, intricate ornamentation, bell towers, and a combination of architectural styles like Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque.


These architectural elements can be placed into 3 categories:


  1. Religious Expression and Social Integration

  2. Climate Adaptation + Mitigation

  3. Hegemony, Class + Security


Religious Expression + Social Integration


When we look at Spanish colonialism through a historical lens, we can make a connection to Spain’s lust for power, and total dominance. Spain brought not only their religious beliefs and their unique way of life to the New World but also their architectural and cultural ambitions. Their core values of Christianity has always been pervasive, with family and religion being a focal point framed within their social and built environment. Naturally, this then became the undertone of their architectural landscape - Their urban design fosters a sense of camaraderie while gently housing the rituals of life, through well-ventilated spaces attuned to the Caribbean’s climatic conditions. One of the most popular architectural elements is the central courtyards, known as "patios" or "plazas." These open-air spaces serve as gathering spaces with access to natural light and ventilation for the surrounding rooms or building - depending on scale. Plazas were also used in a public manner within the urban planning of cities and towns; the concept of the Caribbean Square later became its derivative. Past investigations into the origin of the colonial plaza were conducted by S.Low; in 2009 who stated - “In fact, the ethnohistorical and archaeological evidence suggests that the colonial plaza evolved from both indigenous and Spanish influences and models that created a new urban design form.” Today its origin is still heavily debated - man’s need to gather in any central location is synonymous with all cultures. Therefore, the notion of this element, historically does not belong to particularly anyone.


The Plaza de la Cathedral Square of Old Havana is one of the most uniform of the four main colonial squares in Old Havana and is well known today as a popular tourist attraction. This particular cathedral was built in 1748 and then consecrated in 1782. It’s architecture informed by the Baroque Architectural Style; one of the first international styles, emerging in Rome in the 17th century and becoming identifiable with catholic architectural expression. Spanish architecture often keeps religion close to its heart. So it’s no surprise that this style etched its way into Cuba’s landscape. This particular manifestation is one I would describe as a synthesis of classical and sacred architecture, although to be clear, I have no background on the architect’s intention. Another observation worth noting is that the placement of the cathedral from an urban planning perspective reflects the core values of the society: religious belief and reverence, typically accompanied by public courtyards - Public Squares.


Climate Adaptation + Mitigation


Architectural design should always be executed using a pragmatic approach. It is difficult for us to make a definitive statement on whether these elements were a social/cultural response to the rituals of life or purely a technical approach to dealing with the local context. The intervention-design concept of the verandas and balconies along with the use of covered arcades is common in Spanish-influenced Caribbean architecture. Today they remain weaved within our Caribbean fabric. - Shaded walkways, porches, arches and colonnades which were designed to protect from climatic elements, while also providing spaces for social activity. We can also note that within the city there begins to be a constant and healthy connection with the street and internal spaces on either side. A relationship between above and below is present as well, fostering familiarity with one's neighbours. While this mimics the design culture of Europe; the difference can be noted in the minor details - for example, the balustrades. Balconies; particularly Spanish-styled balconies are a characteristic feature of Caribbean Architecture, their protruding structures, often made of wrought iron or wood, extend from the upper levels of buildings and add a decorative touch while offering views of the surroundings. These are often articulated with a Spanish flair, these differentiations were often dependant on the location of buildings and social class. With more vernacular influences used for the lower class, Moorish influences for the middle-working class and Baroque/ military influences for the upper class. Today within the region verandas and balconies are constructed using local, common materials, applying the concept of the popular house.

On a more detailed scale, Spanish tiles vibrant and ornate ceramic tiles known as “azulejos” are a common element used within the Spanish architectural language. As well as indigenous patterns and artistic expression line the works throughout the region. These are often used on the building envelope; walls, floors and even within the building's threshold spaces such as staircases. The details on such spaces and external spaces also carry a unique speech - wooden balustrades, with intricate carvings and designs, are commonly found in Spanish-influenced spaces. Wide lengthy doors were also used to provide visual access to the outside. These cantilevers and extended walkways along the street are often suited for lounging activities, with the populous spending time outdoors.


Hegemony, Class + Security


On the island of Cuba, security and protection were always accommodated within their urban planning and zoning. The existence of Forts and Castles can be found throughout the beautiful island, symbolising monarchy, ownership and political stability. The Spanish’s display of hegemony can be noted by their choice of architectural elements, particularly within their civic and military design. Quotations from Greek and Roman architecture can be identified; about politics, it is fair to assume that the incorporation of these elements where to display Spain’s civic presence. The use of arches and columns is found in the neoclassical style of architecture. Cuba’s Neo-classical influence was prevalent during Cuba’s War for Independence and can now be noted among the upper class. With the creation of theatres and elegant neighbourhoods as a symbol of power and prosperity. Columns facing spacious courtyards and French-inspired lavish interiors are synonymous with the upper-class residential districts. When discussing the architectural tectonics of Spanish colonial architecture it is evident that security was prioritised, as seen with the selection of building materials and also construction methods. This influence was prevalent during Cuba’s War for Independence but even dates further back to the British. The Spanish built numerous forts and castles for defence. These structures exhibit the typical components of military architecture, i.e. thick walls, cannons, battlements, and strategic positioning near the coastline. This allowed the natural harsh environment to add to the story, fierce limestone and rock lined these spaces.


There is no conclusion to this article as I’m still investigating, and my thoughts are not conclusive. I’ve attached some reading materials below which have been very helpful to me.

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