Sunday, February 19, 2012

Melilla, an architectural gem on the Moroccan Coast

Palacio de Asamblea
Melilla is one of two Spanish enclaves on the Moroccan coastline that are remnants of Spain's occupation of parts of North Africa.  The other is Ceuta near the city of Tangier, which I visited at the beginning of this year's adventure in Morocco.
Ceiling in the Palacio de Asamblea
The reason I didn't make it last year, and barely did this year is that it isn't all that easy to reach from the rest of Morocco.  The road along the coast that I will be traveling by bus soon is said to be rough, and slow going.  I took a 5 1/2 hour train from Fes to Oujda on the Algerian border, and then a 3 hour bus to Nador.  From there I took a city bus to the border, and then walked across the border zone to another bus that brought me to the city center.  Traveling can be hard work.
Door of the Casa de David Melul designed by Enrique Nieto i Nieto

I have wanted to come to Melilla for some time, as it is a jewel box of eccentric architecture.  There is a medieval fortress built up on a rock promontory over the Mediterranean, and the Ensanche, which prospered at the turn of the 20th Century as the main sea port between Tetouan, Morocco and Algeria.  The new city has the largest collection of Modernisme buildings outside of Barcelona and Valencia, as well as a number of other styles including Art Deco.

Model of the Melilla la Vieja



The old city, Melilla la Vieja, is comprised of a spectacular fortress complex built on a rocky promontory over a long period after the Spanish conquest of the region in 1496.  The fortress was added to over time to create a multi layered impregnable conglomeration of high walls and stone buildings.  These are accessed by tunnels and spanned by draw bridges over a wide moat connected to the sea.
Gate with a drawbridge leading in to Melilla la Vieja
Each alteration or expansion incorporated the latest technology in defensive architecture.  The fortress was recently and meticulously restored by the European Union and contains some small but excellent interactive museums with exhibits on history, ethnography, Catholic art, and the military.  On Sunday, rather than being besieged by pirates there was a brass band playing popular standards in a plaza to a happy crowd.
Live music on a Sunday afternoon

Melilla la Vieja from the port
Melilla la Vieja at dusk

Under the encouragement of King Alfonso XIII, Melilla expanded beyond the old city after the turn of the 20th Century.  The King made three separate visits to motivate the design and manifestation of a new district called the Ensanche.  The Rio de Oro was realigned to make the expansion possible and streets were laid out in the fashion of the time.

All original architecture on Avenida Juan Carlos I Rey

A bronze statue of Enrique Nieto by Mustafa Arruf
But Melilla's real claim to fame is it's grand collection of Modernisme buildings.  Modernisme is a style of architecture that flourished in Catalonia, found mainly in the city of Barcelona where the architect Antonio Gaudi brought the movement to it's pinnacle of expression.  This was a response to the Art Nouveau movement in the rest of Europe and the colonial world.  Although several architects contributed to the design of the city, the most renowned was the architect Enrique Nieto y Nieto.   A student of the great Catalonian architect Luis Domeneque Montaner, Nieto engaged in his studies with a group of students who would all go on to become exemplary architects, including Josep Maria Jujol, who was responsible for the tile benches in Parque Guell (see my December essay about this) and the ornamentation of many of Gaudi's most important projects.  Nieto worked on Gaudi's Casa Mila project for a time before he moved to Melilla, as there was an opportunity to work independently of his powerful mentors.  He arrived in the North African city in 1909 in his late 20's, and remained for the rest of his prolific life.  He was designated the city architect of Melilla in 1939, and undertook the design of a thousand different projects and the completion of an astounding 457 buildings in the city, 148 of them considered to be Modernisme, continuing the tradition long after it went out of style in Catalonia.

He also designed a number of Neo Arabic buildings with keyhole arches and tessalate geometric patterning on the facades.  Later on the Art Deco style came in to vogue and his deco buildings tend to have an aerodynamic look to them.  They also have a different color palette, frequently using more sombre grey and tan tones.  He worked right up until 4 years before his death in 1953.  He was responsible for the design of several buildings for the Catholic Church, Melilla's Or Zaruah Synagogue, and the Grand Mosque.


Beautiful drawing for the Junta Municipal y Juzgados building
A handsome home overlooking Parque Hernandez

So everywhere you look in this confectionary town you see these wedding cake like buildings smothered in floral and geometric ornamentation, or with the busts of women with ribbon plaited hair.  The buildings pale in comparison to the fantastic brilliance of Gaudi's work, but the fanciful exuberance of Modernisme and other styles makes Melilla visually a very fun city.  The area called the Golden Triangle is packed with Nieto's work and other architects like Francisco Hernanz, and Emilio Alzugaray.  This area prospered during the first half of the 20th Century, with the construction of wide streets and boulevards.   The grand Parque Hernandez and round Plaza de Espan~a were designed by Jose de la Granada in 1913.
Wavy Tile Walkway in Parque Hernandez (it is flat, although it has the illusion of undulation)
Plaza de Espan~a

Two Lions on a door
Melilla is also interesting in it's cultural mix.  It was inhabited for over 2,000 years ago, first by Phoenicians and later by the Romans.  There were conquests by Berbers and the Caliphate of Cordoba in Spain.  Catholic Spaniards conquered the city after driving the Moors out of the European continent.  There were numerous rebellions by Berber factions against the foreign occupation but Melilla and Ceuta have remained under Spanish dominion ever since.  The massive fortifications in both cities were intended to maintain sovereignty.  Like Gibraltar in Spain, which is a colony of Great Britain, these cities are a mix of cultures unique to their locations.

Enrique Nieto designed the Sinagoga Or Zaruah in the Neo Arabic style
Plastic on the beach
There is a small remnant Jewish community with about 1,000 people, a large number of Berber Muslims, and a Spanish majority.  Tourist literature likes to point out that there are about 100 Indian Hindu's living in Melilla as well, calling it the 'Land of Culture'.  There is a small Chinese community as well.  You find all the trappings of Spanish society here, with theaters, bars, cafes, tapas bars, and grand parks.  Although I don't see a huge amount of cultural mixing, everybody seems to live in relative harmony.   The city is very clean, in stark contrast to Morocco, unless you are on the beach.  The sea is full of plastic, a true environmental tragedy we are all responsible for.  Land of Plastic Culture.

Cheap Red Wine with lunch
Melilla is rather quiet compared to the bustling towns on the other side of the well fortified border.  You can eat late here, but if you want to have dinner before 9:00 it is virtually impossible unless you want to dine alone in an empty restaurant.  It appears that the Spanish subsist on pastries, coffee, cigarettes, and beer, and finding a meal outside of a late lunch or dinner seems next to impossible.  As I poked my head behind a few doors I did manage to find subsistence.  And there is a Turkish Doner place catering to people who want to eat before bedtime.  When you have a Spanish menu del dia at lunch time and say you want red wine you get an entire bottle included in the price.  Cheap wine in Spain is really cheap, and not too bad.  The best meal I've had here was Chinese at the Golden Dragon Restaurant.
The downtown area is dominated commercially by the franchise businesses typical of the Spanish retail economy.  You have your Zara and Massimo Dutti and Pull and Bear, and Benneton and Etam, but not so many little independent market stalls selling everyday essentials you would find all over Morocco.  Europe, like the United States, is frighteningly dominated by corporate franchise, which takes away the distinction of any particular place.  It is the same stuff everywhere.  My favorite shops in Melilla are the ones with old fashioned facades and signs that lend to the time warp feel of the place.
Red Wine colored windows
But more than shopping and eating out, I will feast on the architecture while I am here.  I did a fairly exhaustive survey of historic buildings over three days.  I found a lot of variety and some repetition that was probably the result of economy, what I would call 'budget Modernisme'.  These are stuccoed brick buildings with cast mass produced cement ornamentation attached to the door and window frames.  They are not necessarily extraordinary for their innovation but are rather derived from a lot of different styles.  The more money budgeted for a building, the more ornate it tended to be.  The art deco movement may have come about in part as a necessity of thrift that came with recession in the 1930's since the facades were much cleaner and without all fanciful detail.

Art Deco detail on the Teatro Cinema Monumental by architect Lorenzo Ros
Blue Confection 

What is most remarkable about Melilla's historic architecture is that there is so much of it that still exists.  There is an enormous body of work by Enrique Nieto and other architects that is preserved in relatively good condition, but few of the buildings have been restored to the point of looking like parodies of what they once were.  Rather they are just nice old buildings, showing some wear and tear, but not falling apart at the seams.  There is great charm in the peeling paint and chipped moldings.  I even like the funky electrical wires wrapped around the decorative brackets as part of some low budget upgrades.  It is real, and it is wonderful that they haven't been torn down and replaced with sad modern structures like you see in so much of the rest of the World.  Spain and the city of Melilla values it's architectural heritage and it shows.  The part of the cities buildings that has suffered the most are the street level facades, which have been greatly altered in many cases to make them more functional for commercial use.  Roller security doors and plate glass windows have replaced what must have been elegant doors and windows.
A Cake Shop Block

Casa de Tortosa by Enrique Nieto 
A building with Sgraffito style ornamentation
Sgraffito is a type of ornamentation where a contrasting color of stucco is layered on to a building and then literally scratched to create the design.  It was a popular form of ornamentation during the Renaissance and made a resurgence in Spain during the first half of the 20th Century.  I saw a lot of this type of ornamentation on buildings in Firenze and Rome in Italy.  This style of facade ornamentation was also popular in Bavaria in German.  The shapes of the Sgraffito buildings in Melilla tend to be very simple with horizontal lines dividing the walls and ornate surrounds on the doors and window.

This is in sharp contrast to the most opulent buildings in town, which rival Rococco and Queen Anne Victorian buildings in their extreme ornamentation.


Edificio La Reconquista
 Its easy to spend a couple of days wandering the streets admiring the fanciful details and variety of styles and influences the went in to this eclectic but harmonious array of buildings.  Corner buildings often have ornate balconies topped with a cupola.  The cupola's on the Edificio La Reconquista are covered in a dragon scale like tile pattern similar to buildings in the Eixample district in Barcelona.
Laundry on fancy balconies

Two Griffins over a door

Filling water jugs at a public fountain
Simple facades could be ornamented by attaching molded ornamentation to give them the popular decorative look without great expense.
Stenciled frames on tall windows


Door Knocker
The busts of women are a popular motif on Enrique Nieto's Modernisme buildings.



Casino Militar by Enrique Nieto on the Plaza Espan~a, built in the classical style demanded by the military
Casino Militar at sunset.  There must be a gymnasium inside.

Stairwell in the Casino Militar which has Neo Arabic decor

An eclectic array of buildings, one with a facade decorated in tile

Curvaceous windows are a popular element of Modernisme buildings

Interesting windows with a reflected detail at each end
Neo Gothic Colegio-Capilla del Buen Consejo by Francisco Carcan~o Mas

I love this one for its wave pattern at the top

The Plaza de Toros
Melilla's beautiful Plaza de Toros was designed by architect Alejandro Blonde Gonzales in 1945 after Enrique Nieto's retirement.  It is one of three bull rings built on the continent of Africa and is the only one functioning to this day.
A monument to the Republican forces by Enrique Nieto

Melilla tends to fall to the right when it comes to politics.  The city sided with Republican forces, and General Franco used it as one of his launching points for his military campaign at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War.  The only statue of Franco remaining in Spain is supposedly here, although I haven't found it yet.  It may have finally been replaced by a modern work that looks like squeezed out toothpaste.  But there may be a little old fashioned facism still around in the mindset of some Melillans.  It might be one of the reasons that Melilla's architecture is so well preserved, as many cities in Spain were heavily bombed by Franco's forces for opposing him during the war.
Plaque in the Museo Militar

Border crossing between Morocco and Melilla
Morocco would very much like to reclaim the colonial cities of Melilla and Ceuta, but it is unlikely that Spain will be giving them back any time soon.  To do so would bring dramatic change to these eccentric and unique enclaves and the predominantly Spanish inhabitants are very much opposed to such a notion.  Spain runs an expensive subsidized ferry service to both cities and has invested enormous capital in to restoration and infrastructure of both cities.  The European Union has also invested vast sums of money to fortify the borders to discourage illegal immigration.  I have crossed them both this year and they are are two of the strangest in the World, along with that of Spain and Gibraltar.  They both function as thriving trading centers with Morocco as an intrinsic link to the European continent.  I'll be going back through this bit of political purgatory again tomorrow.
Looking down the coast of Morocco from Melilla
 Thanks for reading yet another wandering tale from a wandering man. 

4 comments:

  1. Beautiful pictures, how often do you travel ? I like the shots with the laundry haphadzardly on their lines. Great post, thanks~Gina

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  2. I travel every winter for about 3 months, occasionally 4.

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  3. Great pictures, although its a shame to see so much plastic on the beach :(

    Gaz - Exotic Garden

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