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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Studying in the UK

The University of Gibraltar opened its doors for the first time last month but not all students from the Rock will want to go there. Mark Montegriffo started his studies in the UK last week and offers his impressions.

Every year a new batch of Gibraltarian first year undergraduates move to the UK to start their degree. Like every other student having to live abroad to study and obtain their qualifications, the experience of having to fend for oneself in a different environment away from family will potentially be a daunting one. Typically, the experience will be no less daunting for the student born and raised in Gibraltar. But being a Gibraltarian student in the UK fosters very unique and idiosyncratic concerns.

Something that isn’t usually a concern is finance. This is not only thanks to the relative wealth that Gibraltarian middle classes earn but also thanks to the Government student grant scheme for students which gives a great amount of economic freedom to students. This makes one feel an irrational sense of guilt and embarrassment when discussing tuition fees with fellow students at the university who have had to pay their way more and face strong financial pressure. In fact, one is advised in Gibraltar to refrain from mentioning the grant scheme that has served students well for years.

If you do mention it, you can face alienation from the peer group as you don't form part of the same struggle, even if you sympathise with it. In Manchester I recently attended a march against grant cuts with over 80,000 people - nearly three times the Gibraltarian population. Or, and arguably worse, you'll get pestered for your money to buy drinks for students and strangers.

Something that can gravely concern a Gibraltarian student is being alone. It is a badly kept secret that we are a very close knit, family-orientated society. Our family is the community and usually until the age of 18, it's all we know when it comes to everyday life. Moving from the Rock to a city like Manchester where you're the only Gibraltarian on your course and there are only two of you in the entire university could certainly be daunting for some.

Undoubtedly, it makes one appreciate the homeland climate and way of life even more, even though the weather has been relatively decent so far this semester. [This piece is dated already – ed] It's not just the climate; university life and budget takeaway mealss create an insatiable appetite for Mediterranean cuisine and homemade gourmet grub.

It is not completely rare that Gibraltarian friends try to ensure that they stick together somewhat for university for that extra comfort. Hubs such as Leeds, Kingston, Cardiff and Twickenham are known to consistently feature Gibraltarian students. In order to fight this fear of loneliness, the Gibraltarian student is left to socialise with new groups of people (while refraining from small-town boasting. Leave the talk on your grandfather's political career or your experiences in the UN and EU for later) who are also likely to want to make a good impression so as to make friends.

This process can be interesting when you tell people where you're from. A barrage of fairly obvious and often repeated questions (at least to the Gibraltarian) will be spewed forth ad infinitum. The topics will range from monkeys to national identity and sovereignty; but it's rare that many will understand the unique complexity of the latter when it comes to Gibraltar. Some don't seem to understand why a mostly autonomous nation would want to remain British. Others don't seem to understand why Gibraltarians don't want to be Spanish. Hence, the small talk elevates to a speech on international relations, the Franco dictatorship and self-determination.

And just like that you've lost potential friends...or gained them if you've managed to be convincing enough to lobby them. Political ignorance among students is largely a media myth but the Gibraltarian has to keep a composed front and explain Gibraltar's political and historical landscape simply because it merits clarity; and also because you don't want to be mistaken as 'the Spanish guy', or perhaps not nearly as worse, 'the Gibraltan'.

Please, it's Gibraltarian or British.

Mark is a student of politics and philosophy from Gibraltar.