Seville's threatened architectural heritage
Seville's Espacio Metropol Parasols is a museum and terrace complex that resembles a series of massive mushrooms. (Shaney Hudson)
From Roman ruins to Moorish minarets, Baroque palaces to Renaissance churches, Seville offers visitors an incredible mix of architectural statements shaped by more than 1,300 years of history. Throughout the city, opulent buildings tell the story of the invaders, successors and conquerors that changed the fabric of Seville almost as quickly as the tide lapped the banks of the Guadalquivir River that passes through the city.
But in the last two years, the city’s architectural heritage has come under siege, with the construction of two new projects dividing public opinion and threatening Seville’s Unesco World Heritage status.
In March 2011, the Espacio Metropol Parasols, a museum and terrace complex that resembles a series of massive mushrooms, opened in the Plaza de la Encarnacion. The site was originally intended to be a parking garage until construction uncovered a series of Roman ruins, now preserved in the underground Antiquarium museum.
Despite much fanfare, the new addition -- which is considered to be the world’s largest wooden structure -- has not quite settled into its environs. Most visitors struggle to find the entrance to the lift, which takes visitors to an interconnected rooftop path with panoramic city views, and the complex’s various rooftop cafes and event spaces are often empty.
Thanks to its Modernist architecture, which differs drastically from the rest of the city, some locals feel the building is off scale in comparison to the rest of Seville. Not to mention that from the Parasols’s rooftop, an even bigger building swells in the distance.
Currently under construction, the 40-storey Cajasol Tower is being built on the former site of the 1992 World Expo in La Cartuja, a neighbourhood that Seville has struggled to redevelop. Supporters argue the tower is a necessary evil, bringing opportunities for employment in a country where unemployment levels reached a record high of 25% in the second quarter of 2012. But detractors say the building is a blight on the city’s architectural heritage.
In January 2012, leaked documents revealed that unchecked construction and development in Seville, including that of the Cajasol Tower, were threatening Seville’s Unesco World Heritage status. Six months later, Unesco decided not to impose penalties on the city -- but the message was clear: Seville’s architectural heritage needs to be protected.
The city’s most famous building is, of course, the Giralda tower, a blend of Spanish Renaissance and Mudejar styles, having been rebuilt many times over the centuries. Originally constructed in the 12th Century as a minaret for a mosque, it was an important and decisive symbol of power, seen from miles away by ships sailing up the Guadalquivir River -- including potential invaders. After the city was re-conquered in the 13th Century, the mosque was converted into the Catedral de Sevilla, and its connecting tower reached its final 104m height in the 16th Century.
Today Giralda is the most salient feature on the city’s skyline, with the top of the bell tower offering panoramic views of the city. Its architectural significance is only matched by that of the Reales Alcazares (the Royal Fortress), which is Europe’s oldest inhabited palace -- dating from the 9th Century -- and is still in use by the Spanish royal family today. Lauded as the best remaining example of Mudejar architecture in the city, the palace also has stunning gardens.
Many of the city’s most interesting buildings were completed during Seville’s Golden Age in the 16th and 17th Centuries, as the city became a main portal for voyages to the Americas. But for the Mannerist-style Archivo General de Indias, the good times were over before the building was even completed.
The Archive, located between the cathedral and the palace, was intended to be the chamber of commerce for the city, housing all documentation related to the New World. But by the time it was completed in 1598, the Guadalquivir River had begun to silt up, causing all New World trade to move to Cadiz and the building became a rather opulent filing cabinet instead.