The classic façad: most local buildings are designed around a central courtyard or patio
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At an architectural crossroads

Forget red phone boxes and fish-and-chip shops – the urban landscape of Gibraltar is a unique blend of Moorish, Genoese, Spanish and British styles developed by settlers over centuries. Claire Montado tells the story

Gibraltar is a place of very mixed yet distinctive architectural languages, where British military tropes have fused with diverse cultural and regional styles such as Genoese, Spanish and Portuguese to create a unique vernacular.

A walk through the streets in the Old Town of this tiny peninsula might evoke images of Italian hill towns in the late 17th and 18th centuries. The building façades, though largely plain, have a rhythmic regularity that gives the streets a quiet and unassuming beauty. Some say the Old Town feels quite timeless.

Gibraltar was conceived as a fortress city by the Muslim conquerors when the first city on the Rock, the “Madinat al-Fath”, was founded in the 12th century. To this day, the area within the city walls reflects the urban pattern of the late-medieval period. However, most of the Moorish and Spanish architecture developed between the 11th and 15th centuries was destroyed in the many sieges of Gibraltar over the ensuing centuries.

Since then, the City of Gibraltar has evolved as a direct product of its natural and social environment. Sieges and world wars have marked the urban landscape with a complex map of city defences, walls, moles, bastions and batteries. It was a prosperous merchant trade as well as the subsequent settling and growth of an indigenous population which led to the development of housing and civil facilities such as hospitals, police stations and schools. Within this flurry of development, military-ordnance-style arched doorways, Italianate stucco relief, Genoese shutters, English Regency ironwork balconies, Spanish stained glass and Georgian sash and casement windows all come together to reflect a multicultural community with widespread roots.

Giovanni Maria Boschetti, a settler from northern Italy, has been credited with having a strong influence on Gibraltar’s architectural style. Responsible for the design of the Victualling Yard (a large storage yard that serviced the Royal Navy from its completion in 1812) and also for the Civil Hospital in the Old Town, Boschetti arrived in Gibraltar from Milan in 1784. He was aged 25 at the time and his previous career is unknown, although he may have been a mason or engineer.

Military past

The town of Gibraltar was largely rebuilt after the Great Siege of 1779-83, which was the 14th and longest siege of the Rock. During this time Gibraltar came under continued assault from Spanish and French forces hoping to starve the garrison into submission. The post-siege labour forces, or at least the architects, would have been made up largely of military engineers who stuck to what they knew, clearly influenced by new arrivals such as Boschetti.

It is interesting to see how this style spreads throughout the town and becomes domesticated. It is easy to compare the keystones of the arched doorways leading to family homes with the arched entrances of the many batteries, bastions and barracks around the fortress. Fortress Gibraltar was essentially a walled city, so any rebuilding needed to occurwithin these walls. One must not forget that, unlike today, the sea lapped against the city walls.

Meanwhile, the plan of the upper town was constrained by the very topography of the Rock, with its steep ground, curving hills and gulleys, which has resulted in a maze of steps and alleyways. The British built on and improved the Spanish defence walls and lines, just as the Spanish had done in 1462 when they displaced the Muslims. Although the town was rebuilt after the Great Siege, the old

Spanish street pattern was retained. This was much to the disdain of chroniclers such as Captain John Drinkwater, who was convinced that the destruction caused by Spanish cannon was a good excuse to reorganise the town.

[Hands that built the Rock: the Italian mason-turned-architect Giovanni Maria Boschetti had a strong influence on local style]

Classic façade

With such a multitude of influences at play, could the typical building be said to have a “Gibraltarian look”? Indeed, it can. Most local buildings are designed around a central courtyard or patio. In the past, these patios were the centre of community life, an extension of the home. They were often overcrowded with friends and family, and provided a cool respite on warm summer evenings.

Buildings with more ornate features usually housed the wealthier classes, while the upper part of town, with a few exceptions, used to consist of tenements designed for the poor. These tenements housed a number of families, mostly with one room and a kitchen for each family and a shared toilet, and lacked any form of external ornament.

The one feature common to both the wealthy and the poor was the Genoese shutter – a typical timber shutter originating in northern Italy. Windows and doors define the character of a building and play an integral part in understanding its past history and function. This louvred shutter was highly efficient in keeping out the sun and maintaining an even temperature within. It also has a practical “spy panel” in the lower half that provides shade, increases airflow and ensures privacy from adjacent neighbours.

Urban regeneration

Due to Gibraltar’s restricted landmass and growing population, reclaiming land or clearing space for new construction has put an inevitable stress on the historic urban environment. Some fear that we may be on the verge of losing what makes the city unique. For instance, Gibraltar’s timber shutters are slowly being lost to successors made of aluminium, a material that not only looks out of place in historic streetscapes but acts as a “radiator”, absorbing rather than reflecting the sun’s heat.

There are various urban regeneration schemes aimed at reviving areas of Gibraltar’s Old Town and breathing new life into her old buildings. Most of the properties in the Old Town area are desirable and of spacious proportions. They are increasingly being converted into family homes, workspaces and shops. Gibraltar’s architecture makes it a place like no other on earth. Why not come and see for yourself?

Claire Montado is the chief executive of the Gibraltar Heritage Trust, a non-profit statutory body working to protect, conserve and promote Gibraltar’s heritage.

Images courtesy of Gibraltar Heritage Trust and Shutterstock

Photo: Getty
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Looking to the future

In our last regular article on Gibraltar for a while, Gibraltar Chronicle editor Brian Reyes looks to the economic and political outlook for the short and medium term.

At the beginning of March, over 150 members of the local business community gathered in the World Trade Center construction site for a ‘topping out’ ceremony. As the last beam was placed on the structure, guests heard speeches about Gibraltar’s resilient economy, its potential for international growth and the need to offer global businesses the necessary working environment to remain competitive.

The EU referendum and the prospect of a so-called Brexit are dominating the headlines, and much of the coverage is gloomy. But in the background, Gibraltar’s private sector continues to drive projects which, in the long term, will help attract international investors to the Rock.

Earlier that same day, Gibraltar’s Development and Planning Commission heard submissions from well-known British architect Jonathan Manser, who leads the design team behind Eurocity, another major development that has its eye on Gibraltar and a prosperous future.

There are other schemes too, some still on the drawing board, some already under way. The MidTown Development, a mix of offices and top-end flats, is funded by a local consortium on a prime site in the heart of town. On the east of the Rock, the ambitious Bluewater project promises a mix of luxury and affordable homes alongside a marina. There are plans too for a former Ministry of Defence site named after Admiral Rooke, while in the Old Town, developers and individual home owners are breathing life into this run down but charming warren of steep, narrow alleyways.

Elsewhere, work is progressing on key infrastructure that will be essential for Gibraltar’s future, in or out of the EU.

Experts are finalising the environmental impact assessment for a facility that will store liquefied natural gas for Gibraltar’s new power station, already under construction. Work should resume too on the airport tunnel project, vital to freeing up Gibraltar’s clogged roads. A new sewage treatment plant, although still some way off, is also in the pipeline, a critical and long-overdue element of Gibraltar’s infrastructure.

There are new attractions for tourists - the opening of the Upper Rock rope bridge and sky platform is eagerly awaited by locals too - and important developments in culture and education, where the University of Gibraltar is building strong academic links across the community and beyond.

And against the background of uncertainty over the UK’s - and by extension Gibraltar’s - membership of the EU, the Gibraltar Government is leaving nothing to chance. A team of economists is analysing the different possible permutations of membership of the EU, EFTA or the EEA, including the potential effects on the Rock’s export economy of membership of the Common Customs Union. 

Despite the combative nature of Gibraltarian politics, there is unity on this question. Both the Gibraltar Government of Gibraltar and the Opposition agree that the UK and Gibraltar should remain in the EU and that Brexit could undermine the Rock’s economic model, creating uncertainty that Spain will undoubtedly seek to exploit. They add that the UK must factor Gibraltar into any post-Brexit negotiation with the EU.

Gibraltar’s long-term economic future will also be placed under scrutiny locally this year by the 2025 Committee, which brings together the public and private sectors and unions to draw up 10-year strategies for the different sectors of the economy, identifying challenges and opportunities in areas as diverse as e-gaming and shipping. A key element of this will be to find new opportunities for business in emerging markets in Asia, the Americas, the Middle East and Africa.

In parallel, a cross-party select committee of the Gibraltar Parliament will analyse various aspects of the 2006 Constitution ahead of a constitutional conference with the United Kingdom on a date yet to be determined. Along with the UK’s referendum on EU membership, the constitutional review will dominate much of parliamentary and political activity during 2016 and likely into 2017. If any changes are proposed as a result of the review, they will first have to be put to a referendum before they can be adopted.

Gibraltar is keeping a wary eye too on Spain, which has yet to swear in a government following an inconclusive general election last December. The future of cross-border relations will depend not just on whether the UK remains within the EU, but on the outcome of the post-election wrangling in Spain.

But even as Spanish politicians try to hammer out a coalition pact in a bid to avoid a return to the polls in June, there is grassroots contact across the border.

The Cross Frontier Group, which brings together business and union interests from Gibraltar and the Campo de Gibraltar, is forging ahead with a proposal to access EU funding for cross-border initiatives. Separately, the government continues to maintain contact with Spanish politicians ranging from PSOE senators to the mayor of La Linea, Juan Franco.

The hope is that, having cleared the EU referendum hurdle, Gibraltar will be able to develop positive dialogue with Spain, irrespective of who is in government. There is much to be gained through practical cooperation in areas as diverse as commerce, culture and sport.

There is, inevitably, a degree of caution. Spain’s acting Foreign Minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, has signalled that if Britain left the EU - and if his party remained in power - he would seek to revive the joint sovereignty proposal robustly rejected by Gibraltar in 2002. 

It would be a move doomed to failure because Gibraltar will have nothing to do with such a a proposal, and neither will the UK. Their shared view is that nothing can be decided on Gibraltar’s future without the agreement of the Gibraltarians.

When he was sworn in as Gibraltar’s new Governor last January, Lieutenant General Edward Davis reaffirmed the UK’s double-lock commitment to the people of Gibraltar, underscoring their inalienable right to self-determination and the UK’s commitment to secure their consent in all matters that pertain to the sovereignty of Gibraltar.  

In doing so, he was reflecting the words of one of his predecessors, General Sir William Jackson.

“Gibraltar is neither Spain’s to claim nor Britain’s to give,” Sir William wrote, in a sentence that resonates to this day and sums up the situation succinctly.

“It is the rock of the Gibraltarians.”

This will be the last item on the New Statesman’s Gibraltar hub for at least a while. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed bringing you insights and hopefully greater understanding of the issues affecting the Rock as well as its politics, culture, geology and a great deal else. We would like to thank our sponsors the Gibraltar government, our many writers and above all our readers.

Charlotte Simmonds, editor, March 2014-March 2015

Guy Clapperton, editor March 2015-March 2016

Brian Reyes is the editor of the Gibraltar Chronicle.