great examples of architecture of spain
Giving tours has allowed me to meet very interesting people from all over the world, and sometimes we’ve become friends. The pandemic has given me some time to catch up with them. So the other day I was on a video conference with a friend and she told me she had decided to take an Architecture Master in Spain, now that everything else was on hold.
If you have followed me for a while, you know how much I like architecture – ever since my beloved high school art teacher Ms. Larruy made me fall in love with it.
This is the best architecture in Spain by architectural styles:
Roman Architecture in Spain
Spain is certainly not Italy or Greece, but there is some ancient architecture in Spain that will transport you 2000 years back in time. You will see in this post that I’m a bit biased… after all I’m a certified guide of Catalonia! So my picks were the Tarragona roman ruins, which are World Heritage by the UNESCO, and the archaeological excavations of Empuries (Costa Brava).
But of course my friend had a more open view and she completed my list with the Aqueduct of Segovia, the Theater of Cartagena and the ensemble of Mérida.
Moorish Architecture in Spain
Here I had no occasion to be biased: the Moors didn't spend much time in Catalonia, so there's no relevant remains to visit near Barcelona. Instead, to see Islamic architecture in Spain you need to head South: to Andalusia!
My friend and I agreed here: our favorite example of Moorish architecture in Spain is undoubtedly the Mosque of Cordoba. I’ve been only there once, but the visit was enough to transport me to a feeling of awe. And to be fair… I felt almost as ecstatic when I visited the Alhambra Palace and the Generalife gardens in Granada. So maybe let’s give them a tie.
Seville has also some examples of arabic architecture, such as the Torre del Oro and the Giralda tower (now the Cathedral belltower but originally a minaret). Beautiful too, but far from the spectacular scenery of Cordoba and Granada.
Romanesque Architecture in Spain
Romanesque is the medieval architecture that in Spain was developed between the 1000's and the 1200's, and its main characteristic is the round arch. Catalonia features beautiful examples of them, such as the churches of the Taull Valley in the Pyrenees, or the Monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes overlooking the Mediterranean sea near the Cape of Creus, the most Eastern point of Spain.
The monastery of Santa Maria in Ripoll and the collegiate church of the Cardona Castle are other unmissable of the Catalan Romanesque, along with the Cistercian monasteries of Poblet, Santes Creus and Vallbona de les Monges, already a transition towards Gothic.
In the rest of Spain stand out the castle of Loarre (Huesca), San martin of Fromista in Palencia, the Monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos (famous for its cloister), or the Church of San Isidoro in Leon. And of course, we can’t forget the destination of thousands of pilgrims in the Middle Ages and nowadays: the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela – end of the famous Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route.
Gothic Architecture in Spain
When Romanesque evolved into Gothic, with the discovery of the pointed arches and the addition of stained glass windows, Catalonia had become a military and economical power in the Mediterranean sea. And its capital, Barcelona, bloomed with Gothic buildings to show off such power.
I could go on and on naming great Gothic churches in Barcelona, so I’ll try to be concise. Santa Maria del Mar in the Born district and the monastery of Pedralbes are my favorite. And if you can ever travel to Lleida, don’t miss its Seu Vella cathedral, with a unique cloister overlooking the valley at its foot. Or the Cathedral of Girona, featuring the widest Gothic nave in the world.
Other outstanding examples of Gothic architecture in Spain are also Cathedrals: those of Burgos, Leon, Toledo, Segovia, Palma de Mallorca… The exquisite Lonja de la Seda in Valencia and the Palacio del Infantado in Guadalajara are remarkable examples of non-religious Gothic architecture.
Renaissance Architecture in Spain
The Renaissance times are a time of depression for Catalonia after losing its independence with the union with Castile. You can certainly find some delicate examples in Tortosa, near the border with Valencia, but here it is just fair to let me friend show off her love for this style.
Renaissance architecture in Spain went through several periods. My friend had in her list the Casa de las Conchas in Salamanca, as well as the University of the same city, for the early Renaissance or Plateresco style. Then she wanted to see the University of Alcalá de Henares, and the Palace of Charles the V in Granada, for the Purist and Cisneros styles (Spanish mid-Reinassance).
And of course she wasn’t going to miss the historical Palacio de San Lorenzo del Escorial, burial place of the Spanish monarchs and most important example of Herreriano style (Spanish late-Renaissance).
Baroque Architecture in Spain
Catalonia continued immersed in a crisis during the Baroque times, when the rest of Spain received the wealth despoiled from America. Sure, let me mention the façade of the cathedral of Girona with its staircase of 90 steps - the longest Baroque staircase in the world. But other than that and a couple of churches in Barcelona, I'll rather stay humble here.
Instead, I let my friend fascinated me with her talk about the Obradoiro façade of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the imposing frescoes of San Nicolas de Bari in Valencia, the main square of Salamanca, and many other Baroque buildings in Madrid and Sevilla.
Modern Architecture in Spain (Art Nouveau)
The industrial revolution implied a modernization of the society, and Catalonia was first to jump on the bandwagon. Factories meant money for the middle-class. And the middle-class wanted to show it off. So they hired architects to work for them. The Art Noveau, Modernism or Modern style was blooming.
And here my friend had to agree that the best place to see modern architecture in Spain is Barcelona. The architect Lluis Domenech i Muntaner opened the path. Don’t miss his spectacular Palau de la Musica Catalan concert hall, and the gorgeous but hygienic and well-structured at the same time Hospital of Sant Pau. Both are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
But he was soon overcome by his student, Antoni Gaudi, who took architecture to a level nobody had ever conceived before. His designs were out of his world, way ahead of this time, completely out of the box. Come to Barcelona and see for yourself: Casa Batllo, Casa Mila (la Pedrera), Park Guell, Sagrada Familia… Yes, to see Gaudi architecture in Spain you need to come to Barcelona, as he only occasionally worked somewhere else (early works in Cantabria and Leon).
Outside of Catalonia, you can find some modernist architecture in Valencia, the Balearic Islands and Madrid. But my friend and I were very surprised to learn that the second city in Spain in number of modernist buildings is Melilla: 500 of them! This city and Ceuta are the two Spanish settlements in Africa, and they are the only two places in the continent where it is possible to find modernist architecture.
This is thanks to Enrique Nieto, a Barcelona architect that worked with Gaudi in the construction of Casa Mila before moving to Melilla where he spent the rest of his life.
Contemporary Architecture in Spain
Yes, I'd love to be totally biased here again. After all, I give contemporary architecture tours of Barcelona. So why not boast how the city has received the best contemporary architects since the Olympics in 1992? I could recite a long list of world-class architecture rock-stars that have worked in Barcelona.
But let me be fair. The Basque Country deserves a place in our list of most famous architecture in Spain. And it was easy to convince my friend that she needs to go to Bilbao to see the amazing Guggenheim Museum by Frank Gehry. And the bridge by Santiago Calatrava nearby. And then head to San Sebastian to see the Kursaal by Rafael Moneo. And since she’d be there, visit the Chillida Leku – because Chillida was of course a sculptor, but his art was very architectural.
And you know what? My friend agreed. We had been over an hour online and we were more excited than ever about her upcoming trip. And I can’t wait to join her in one of her architecture getaways… pandemic permitting. What about you?
What are your favorite examples of architecture of Spain?
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