The rationalist architecture in Canarias: the Golden Age of Las Palmas

At the turn of 20th century, Las Palmas was experiencing a moment of great splendor that gave it a new face, changing the economic, social, political and cultural life; the capital of Canarias was in its Golden Age.
A big harbor_the Puerto de la Luz_was built thanks to Fernando Leon y Castillo, Spanish ministry of overseas, that gave the possibility to become the most important mooring post among Europe, Africa and Americas. During this period of changes, the warm climate and the mild temperatures appeal European middle class, especially from England and Germany, who make the island as a favoured destination where to spend holidays. The contact with Europe encourages a notable cultural influence and changes all the features of the canarian society, yet deeply rooted in its traditions and values. Many literary salons, cultural revues like La Gaceta de Arte (1932) and the great money flow advantages the birth of a new middle class_ opposed to local landowners_ that welcomed the European innovations.
As I’ve already said, in Canary Islands the innovation in the field of Architecture came thanks to foreign revues; it was also the direct consequence of new European ideas brought to Spain. Canarian architects like Miguel Martín Fernandez de la Torre studied at schools of Madrid and Barcelona. The Catalan capital of that time was renowned for the modernist architecture of Antoni Gaudí and Lluís Domenech y Montaner; thanks to its proximity to France and also its international expositions (1888 and 1929), Barcelona is in direct contact with the culture and the evolutions in the sector of European architecture.
New ideas are rapidly accepted by the local new class, shaped by the new culture, liberal and open to innovations; in fact it’s a plutocrat bourgeoisie, friend of the foreigner, which makes the architecture as the icon of its well-being, its economic aspirations and cultural ability.
In this context in Las Palmas the first buildings in rationalist style started to be erected, and the most significant figure of these changes was the architect Miguel Martin. The town administration charged him with planning the new urbanization in the northern part of the historical neighborhood of Triana, focusing the attention on the new Ciudad Jardín (garden town). There he designed many houses in the new style and a regular layout made by roads and avenues.
As new seat of the insular government, the Cabildo Insular is integrated in this great project of urban renewal and is widely considered by critics as the apex of the rational architecture in Gran Canaria.

The Cabildo Insular

In 1929 Miguel Martin Fernandez de la Torre was charged with designing a building in a lot at the intersection between Calle Bravo Murillo and Calle Pérez Galdós. The plan was undertaken in 1932, but the Civil War and the continuous changes of government prevent the conclusion of the works; The Cabildo is finally completed in 1942.
The new building was widely different from the original plan; if in external volumes it remained substantially faithful to Miguel Martin’s design, on the inside the spaces were radically modified by Laforet, the new construction foreman. The interior spaces were redesigned to fulfill the tastes of the new government, sharply conservative and traditionalist, that took charge after the rise to power of Francisco Franco.
Miguel Martin was already planning the new urban order when he was charged to realize the Cabildo; the new urban structure ranges from the last borders of Triana _the last residential quarter built at the turn of 20th century and still enclosed by the 16th century walls_ up to Puerto de la Luz. He designed a road fork towards north along Calle Pérez Galdós, so the Cabildo became a focal point, emphasized by the civic tower.
Set among buildings in eclectic style (neighborhood of Triana) and modern architectures, the Cabildo is composed by a rational placement of volumes. The central volume has a prismatic shape which has a portico on the ground floor with reinforced concrete pillars and walls covered by Arucas flagstones, whereas full-length windows on the first floor and another portico on the second floor complete the structure. On the west side there is a prismatic volume marked by ribbon windows which enlarges the horizontal character of the building and at the same time emphasizes the tower set in the middle. The entire structure gives the idea of great plainness and clarity, and also of a great openness thanks to its porticoes and its full-length windows, as should be a place open to all citizens.
Analyzing the functional side of the building, spaces are organized in a clear and rational way; along the main front (Calle Bravo Murillo) there are the most important rooms of the building, whereas along the west side there are rooms for the executive staff. The center of the building is filled up by a full-length patio, within which there are a staircase and the great assembly hall.
The tower volume is the only element of the building which lacks of functionality; notwithstanding this, it has a great symbolic power. For the architect it was a way to represent the Cabildo as the focal point of the entire town; the strategic position next to a crossing among the most important roads of the town emphasizes the public character of the building.
The Cabildo Insular represented the best aspirations of that time, but also the “swan song” of a period full of innovations and prosperousness. During its construction, in 1936 Las Palmas and Canarias became the base of departure of the Alzamiento, the armed offensive taken by the general Francisco Franco against the new government in Spain. When Francisco Franco rose to power, the protesters were immediately arrested and in some cases polished off; their corpses were buried in mass graves that in Canarias are called “pozos del olvido” (wells of oblivion). The strong coercion lead during the dictatorship gradually weakened or eliminated any freedom of speech and expression, and the protectionist swing against the foreign trades affected the town of Las Palmas, which get back to be a small town away from Spain and the rest of the world. A new middle class, nationalist and deeply rooted in traditions, took the power in the town government; Las Palmas continued to develop towards north, and new buildings were built, especially in neocolonial style.
The Canarias Golden Era was finished.

by Andrea Pagotto

Rationalist Architecture Las Palmas

Credit photo:

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