Architecture to 1900

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Architecture to 1900

The European discovery of America presented Spain and Portugal with an unprecedented opportunity to introduce new ideas, customs, objects, architecture, and cities there. Iberian occupation of the territory was tied directly to the process of converting the Indians to Christianity that began with the discovery itself, and the church as an institution made the biggest initial contribution to the new American architecture.

European conquest did not proceed evenly throughout the vast American territory. For a half century following Columbus's voyages, European settlement was centered in the Caribbean, where the Spanish imposed architectural styles with features ranging from Gothic to Renaissance to Mudejar. The architecture that resulted was characterized by a varying synthesis of native and imported influences that depended on the experience, education, and cultural background of its designers and artisans.

Forts developed into complexes that blended medieval and Renaissance plans, as exemplified by El Morro in Puerto Rico, built at the end of the sixteenth century. With the founding of Havana in 1514, the center of Spanish activity began to shift away from Santo Domingo. Havana's fortified nature influenced its life and development, but the need for military severity blended with a certain local architectural flair to define Havana's individuality, a process of adaptation to local conditions repeated for other cities in the New World. For example, when the Cathedral of Santo Domingo was completed in 1541, it used a Gothic floor plan, but without its accompanying solidity and horizontality, and contained a plateresque main portico featuring carving in plaster and stone, all of which exemplified spontaneous local adaptations.

The religious orders established their presence not only in the quality and quantity of their buildings, but also through their labors in the organization of new settlements and the consolidation of existing ones. As in the Caribbean, a synthesis of European theories and practices developed, with architectural works of marked Gothic influence in the sixteenth century and pronounced Renaissance influence in the seventeenth. It was during the sixteenth century that the great Mexican cathedrals were constructed. The Cathedral of Mexico City was begun in 1563, but not completed until 1813. Modifications of its original plan resulted in a church with the central nave higher than the two lateral ones and with a cupola and two towers at the front. It is a building of great proportions, in which the characteristic synthesis of many architectural styles from the plateresque to the neoclassic is meticulously expressed.

In addition to the more than 200 traditional churches and convents constructed in less than a century, New World circumstances often led Spaniards to build fortified convents and open chapels. The former were solid and introverted buildings with battlements that created the image of a spiritual fortress and made them seem even more alien when set against the backdrop of the countryside. The open chapel, which had European roots, was particularly popular in Mexico. It combined the Spanish impulse toward conversion with the indigenous reverence for nature by placing altar and fountain in a limited space.

Functionally, churches and convents alluded directly to known European styles. Nonetheless, the preponderance of indigenous craftsmen and laborers involved in their construction often influenced their stylistic outcome. This is most evident in changes made to the portals of the churches. Because of the value that indigenous peoples attached to exterior space, and the ways they used it, the portal became a representative, symbolic, and instructional element of great importance, incorporating native themes and styles of workmanship and decorative representation.

In South America, the Conquest and expansion proceeded slightly after that of Mexico. The numerous cloisters built in the city of Quito, Ecuador, founded in 1534, were of imposing proportions and had grandiose and ingenious solutions, in which once again Indian craftsmanship provided silent witness to his presence.

Although the Spanish and Portuguese effort to build new cities did not meet strong opposition, they were created by combining European architectural thought with the environmental and human factors specific to each site. That mixture was demonstrated in the city of Puebla de los Angeles in Mexico, founded in 1532, which established an ordered, urban plan.

The 1573 Planning Ordinances of Philip II introduced urban planning criteria that both capitalized on acquired experience and sought to standardize future settlements. Although Renaissance thought inspired the plans for the new cities, their appearance differed greatly from that of ideal European cities, approximating more nearly the criteria and proposals of the Roman architect Vitruvius in his treatise on city planning, De architectura, favored by architects of the Italian Renaissance. Three principal elements characterized the grid layout of the new American cities/administrative centers: the street, the blocks of buildings, and the plaza. That link of spatial structure and administrative function led to the emergence of new urban traits such as the possibility of growth within the same grid and a formal link to the surrounding territory. This allowed for a gradual urban expansion into the surrounding rural space.

The central point of reference in Spanish American cities was the plaza, which helped to integrate their political and religious functions. The straight lines of the streets defined the characteristic image of the urban landscape, and the importance of buildings was gauged by their proximity to the plaza. To the general plan proposed by the ordinances were added all the modifications and variations that practicality, experience, and necessity demanded.

This process continued until the eighteenth century, but the founding of major cities—many of which were to become capitals, such as Mexico City, Caracas, Bogotá, Lima, and La Paz—took place in the sixteenth century. Those that followed continued with the original policies and adopted the same regular plan. Also, previously established centers grew and developed in the eighteenth century. The only exception to the planning style of the ordinances was that of the Jesuits in their Guaraní Indian missions. Yet there were also irregular and superimposed cities that demonstrated the synthesis of two cultures, with the indigenous providing a basis for the Spanish. Cuzco, Peru, is an example of new architectural language expressed amid the huge, severe walls of the Incas, thus signifying the confrontation between two opposing conceptions of the world.

In contrast to the Spanish, early Brazilian urban settlements were largely shaped by Portuguese policies of focusing on strategic coastal sites. São Salvador da Bahia de Todos os Santos (commonly called Bahia), founded in 1549, marked the beginning of a period of city building. Institutions defining an ordered style did exist here, but they were without the marked rationality of the Renaissance-Spanish style, and allowed planners and designers more creative freedom. The Portuguese selected a suitable and convenient site to build the humble fortified port of Bahia, which thanks to its Afro-Brazilian population would develop a colorful syncretic aspect unlike any other city in Spanish America.


From 1650 until the latter eighteenth century, Latin America adopted an architectural style with a manner and language that, despite regional variations, demonstrates numerous stylistic commonalities. During this period, the church modified European baroque to capitalize on previous architectural experiences and create new vistas, while at the same time buildings established a more harmonious relationship with the city. Each region introduced its own original variants. Since the Conquest, the Mexican indigenous population had appropriated and mastered interior space and produced a body of professionals that included few Europeans. Mexican buildings exhibited a riotous expanse of color often supplemented by extravagant polychrome plasterwork, the mingling of curved and straight forms, and highly original tilework. Portals acquired more richness and volume, and in many cases their ornamentation dominated the entire church facade. During this period, the Mexicans developed the estípite, a pilaster shaped like a truncated upside-down pyramid. The use of this ornament became characteristic of a new style, churrigueresque, often termed "estípite baroque." The Jesuit church of San Martín Tepotzotlán demonstrates the combination of a more Europeanized intricately carved white facade that leads into a graceful tower with a completely decorated and sensuous interior. El Sagrario in Mexico City, Santa Prisca in Taxco, and Santo Domingo and San Francisco Acatepec in Puebla are a few more examples of the baroque during this period.

The Andean baroque, by contrast, began in Cuzco during the period 1651–1669 with the construction of the Cathedral and La Compañía church. It was followed in Lima from 1657 to 1675 with the construction of the new Church of San Francisco. Cuzco regained its architectural authority under the leadership of Bishop Manuel de Mollinedo (1673–1700), and its style predominated in more than fifty churches from Belén and San Pedro in Cuzco itself to the church in the town of Asillo near Lake Titicaca. Finally, the baroque reached its apogee in Lima from 1700 to 1740 with the Torre Tagle Palace and the churches of San Agustín and La Merced.

In Brazil, religious architecture evolved energetically in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, especially in Bahia, where churches had a sole nave, usually with a wooden roof. Although the styles continued to be European, the valuable decorative elements reflected the exuberance of the population. These buildings were notable for the large interiors designed to accommodate the entire community, and combined with a sense of sculpture, they brought a new element to the urban landscape.

After 1750, Minas Gerais was the center of Brazilian development. In the last decades of the century, Aleijadinho (Antônio Francisco Lisboa) made his unique contribution. Aleijadinho brought sculpture nearer to architecture with such force and mastery that his work became a style unto itself. The facade of the church of São Francisco de Assis, designed in 1774, and built in Ouro Prêto, is testimony to the management of space and other changes that Aleijadinho brought to architecture. In this church the oval towers recede, yet they remain visually and materially integrated by an undulating cornice that traverses the entire facade. Sculpture plays an important role in linking the facade with the interior using the altarpiece, the pulpit, and the ceiling of painted wood to provide a distinctive spatial and optical effect.

Architecture in Paraguay and the region of the Guaraní Indians followed a different course, shaped by the availability of abundant supplies of wood. The site chosen for each church with its perimetrical gallery, and the spatial value of the plaza as atrium and cemetery, endowed the building with multiple meanings, as demonstrated by the eighteenth-century San Roque Church in Yaguarón. The use of a gallery, created in response to the demands of the climate, replaced the idea of the facade.

The Jesuit mission settlements in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia, infused with the charisma and spirit of the Order, developed a sense of coherence and spatial balance unique in urban America. A small group of priests and a significant number of indigenous people joined forces to contribute their respective visions and versions of reality. The architecture—from simple sheds to elaborate churches—consciously grew out of indigenous communal life, combining simplicity with dignity. Skilled woodworking resulted in balanced buildings of marked horizontality in which technological solutions were readily seen, clearly distinguishing them from buildings that made use of alternative solutions. Their buildings were simple, but not lacking in such details as pulpits and Solomonic columns. Their refined painted murals lent them an artistic value not ordinarily apparent from the pronounced rationalism of the structure.

The Cathedral of Córdoba, Argentina, begun at the end of the seventeenth century, represents an important moment in the history of architecture in that country and in all of America. Of great volume and harmonious proportions, the Cathedral always tends toward the horizontal, its cupola and the two towers of the facade adding character to the solid and stony presence. Exterior ornamentation is concentrated on the cupola and the towers, which are rendered with special grace and ingenuity. The serene and static interior space was "altered" with overwrought ornamentation added in the nineteenth century.


Spanish professors introduced the neoclassical style to Latin America at the Academia De San Carlos, created in Mexico in 1785. In the beginning, the introduction of neoclassicism represented a decision and aspiration to follow similar trends in Europe, and it confronted its followers with a style that many did not hesitate to refer to as consolidated archaisms. The period signified, above all, the beginning of the end of the baroque style. The novelty and freshness of neoclassicism suited the spirit of independence that was spreading throughout Latin America. In Mexico City, for example, many buildings dating from as early as the sixteenth century were torn down by government decree to make way for the more simplified style. European architects led the way almost everywhere, from Manuel Tolsá in Mexico City (the School of Mines), Domingo de Petrés in Bogotá (the Cathedral), Joaquín Toesca in Santiago (La Moneda Palace and the Cathedral), and Próspero Catelin in Buenos Aires (the Cathedral).

Following Independence, many Latin American nations suffered crises of organization and identification. Italy, France, England, and the United States variously contributed ideas, capital, and immigrants, each of which left a pronounced stamp on regional development. Neoclassicism may have replaced the baroque, but as in Europe, it was followed by the neo-Gothic. In the Americas, both neoclassicism and the neo-Gothic lacked the ideological content they possessed in their European environments, and relied on their merely symbolic aspects. It was not until after 1870, however, that changes initiated decades earlier began to affect the urban landscape.

As in Europe, academic posture was confronted by a romantic one, and functional traditionalism also found its niche. During the late nineteenth century, there was a notable increase in the quality and quantity of new architectural themes and forms of expression which were displayed in the many theaters, libraries, government buildings, railroad stations, prisons, and exhibition centers constructed at that time. Construction activity was not equal in all Latin American countries; Argentina boasts many important works during this period, not only in Buenos Aires, but in La Plata and Córdoba as well. The Teatro Colón and the Congressional Palace, built between 1892 and 1906 in Buenos Aires, testify to this notable period of architectural history.

The new cities founded in the nineteenth century covered a wide range of styles, but almost all were affected by high levels of European immigration. In Argentina, an important pole of attraction, towns grew around railroads and agricultural communities. Out of sheer practicality, the grid layout was widely adopted, and immigrant artisans and laborers often added varied interpretations and combinations. La Plata, founded in 1882 as the capital of the province of Buenos Aires, is a typical example. The traditional grid was superimposed, with an irregular web of plazas at major points of intersection. A monumental axis crosses the city, and public buildings serve as points of attraction, interest, and reference. The structure of this city is completed by the green in the streets and in the great park at the foot of the axis. The city had a large European population, whose architectural influence is evident in the neo-Gothic cathedral and in the neoclassic Museum of Natural Sciences.

Haussmann's Paris served as a model for numerous urban reconstructions complete with new buildings. Mexico City, Lima, Havana, Asunción, Bahia, and Buenos Aires, among others, acquired during the second half of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries boulevards, promenades, and parks, along with infrastructural works and the first low-income housing projects, such as those built in Buenos Aires in 1885.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the modernist spirit had arrived in the art world, which began to feel the rejection of academe in architecture. The alternative to academe was art nouveau, whose diffusion in Latin America was not widespread. In countries where it found a home, such as Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina, only its formal features were preserved, and in some cases only its decorative elements.

The Nationalist Restoration movement, which had few concrete results, was nonetheless important as the first attempt to create an American architecture with its own theoretical corpus. It also implied the need for the study and valuation of an architectural heritage. Argentina provided much theoretical substance for this movement, and interesting and representative works were created in Peru. Carlos Noel, Angel Guido, Juan Kronfuss, Alejandro Christophersen, and Pablo Hary are some of the names associated with the Nationalist Restoration movement.

The third anti-academe alternative that arose during the first three decades of the twentieth century was that of art deco, whose geometrization and simplification, along with the use of reinforced concrete, opened the way to modern architecture.

See alsoAcademia de San Carlos; Aleijadinho; Art: The Colonial Era; Art: The Nineteenth Century; Teatro Colón.


Leopoldo Castedo, A History of Latin American Art and Architecture from Pre-Columbian Times to the Present (1969).

Jorge Hardoy et al., Colóquios sobre urbanización en América desde su origen a nuestros días, 4 vols. (1970–1978).

Graziano Gasparini, América, barroco y arquitectura (1972).

Javier Aguilera Roja and Luis J. Moreno Rexach, Urbanismo español en América (1973).

Damián Bayón, Sociedad y arquitectura colonial sudamericana (1974).

Marcello Carmagnani, América latina de 1880 a nuestros días (1975).

Michael Ragon, Historia mundial de la arquitectura y el urbanismo modernos, vol. 1 (1979).

Additional Bibliography

Arbeláez Camacho, Carlos. De arquitectura e historia. Medellín: Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana, 1968.

Bottineau, Yves. Living Architecture: Iberian-American Baroque. London: Macdonald & Co., 1971.

Buschiazzo, Mario José. Historia de la arquitectura colonial en Iberoamérica. Buenos Aires: Emece? Editores, 1961.

Donahue-Wallace, Kelly. Art and Architecture of Viceregal Latin America: 1521–1821. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008.

Gutiérrez, Ramón. Arquitectura colonial: Teoría y praxis. Resistencia, Argentina: Instituto Argentino de Investigaciones en la Historia de la Arquitectura y Urbanismo, 1980.

Kubler, George. The Art and Architecture of Ancient America: The Mexican, Maya, and Andean Peoples. Harmondsworth, England; New York: Penguin Books, 1984.

Robertson, Donald, Pre-Columbian Architecture. New York: G. Braziller, 1963.

Telesca de Abbondio, Ana María. Arquitectura Colonial. Buenos Aires: Centro Editor de América Latina, 1977.

                                   Horacio Gnemmi

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Architecture to 1900

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