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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Gibraltar - impact of Brexit

Last week our editor took a general overview of some of the scenarios for Gibraltar if Britain were to leave the Euro. This week, as the atmosphere in the British Conservative Party becomes ever more toxic, Michael Castiel, partner at Hassans lawyers on the Rock, goes into more detail (this piece written before the Iain Duncan Smith resignation and subsequent arguments happened).

However unlikely it may prove, the prospect of Britain's withdrawal from the EU sends shivers through Gibraltar's financial services, gaming and tourism industries, which are at the core of Gibraltar’s economy. For, if Britain leaves the EU, Gibraltar goes too, and, should Brexit occur, it is Gibraltar’s relationship with the UK that as in the past, largely will shape Gibraltar's future.

Gibraltar joined the European Union in 1973 as part of the UK. While rights to freedom of services across borders of EU member states apply between Gibraltar and the rest of the EU, because Gibraltar is not a separate member state (and is in fact part of the UK Member State) those rights do not apply between Gibraltar and the UK. Instead a bilateral agreement, formalised almost two decades ago, gives Gibraltar's financial service companies the equivalent EU passporting rights into the UK. Accordingly and pursuant to such agreement, where EU rights in banking, insurance and other financial services are concerned, the UK treats Gibraltar as if it is a separate member state.

This reliance on the special relationship with the UK is recognised by both the Government and the Opposition in Gibraltar, and when the territory (which in this instance as part of the UK electorate) goes to the polls on 23 June, the vote to remain in the EU is likely to be overwhelming. This may have symbolic significance but realistically seems unlikely to influence the outcome. In actual terms, although some non-EU jurisdictions use Gibraltar and its EU passporting rights as a stepping stone into Europe, almost 80% of Gibraltar’s business dealings are with the UK.

But whether or not Britain maintains the 'special relationship' with Gibraltar, if Brexit becomes a reality, other factors will come into play, with the ever-present Spanish Government’s historic sovereignty claim over Gibraltar topping the list.

Recently Spain's caretaker Foreign Minister Jose Maria Margallo went on record that if the UK voted to leave the EU he would immediately 'raise with the UK the question of Gibraltar.' If this was to come about it could take one or more of several different forms, ranging from a complete closure of the border between Spain and Gibraltar, demanding that Gibraltar passport-holders obtain costly visas to visit or transit Spain, imposing more stringent border controls, or a frontier toll on motorists driving into or out of Gibraltar. The latter idea was in fact floated by the Spanish Government three years ago, but dropped when the EU Commission indicated that any such toll would contravene EU law.

Here, again, imponderables come into play, for much will depend on which political parties will form the next Spanish government. A Spanish government headed by the right wing PP party is likely to take a less accommodating attitude towards Gibraltar (the Foreign Minister having recently indicated that in case of Brexit the Spanish Government may opportunistically push once again for a joint sovereignty deal with the UK over Gibraltar) whereas a left of centre coalition will likely adopt a more pragmatic and cooperative relationship with Gibraltar in the event of EU exit.

The most significant changes to Gibraltar's post-Brexit operation as an international finance centre are likely to be in the sphere of tax, and while Gibraltar has always met its obligations in relation to the relevant EU rules and Directives, it has also been slightly uncomfortable with aspects of the EU's moves towards harmonisation of corporate taxes across member states.

Although it was formed as a free market alliance, since its inception fiscal matters have been at the root of the EU, but Gibraltar's 'special relationship' with Britain has allowed considerable latitude in relation to what taxes it imposes or those it doesn't. However, as is the case with other member states, Gibraltar has increasingly found in recent years its fiscal sovereignty eroded and its latitude on tax matters severely curtailed.

As in Britain, Gibraltar has benefitted from several EU Directives introduced to harmonise and support the freedom of establishment, particularly the Parent-Subsidiary Directive which prohibits withholding taxes on cross-border intra-group interest dividend and royalty payments made within the EU.

As a stepping stone for foreign direct investment, should Brexit come about EU subsidiaries could no longer rely on these Directives to allow tax-free dividend or interest payments to their holding companies based in Gibraltar. In the case of the UK, bilateral double tax treaties will no doubt mitigate the impact of the non-application of any tax related Directives. Gibraltar, however, is not currently a party to any bilateral double tax treaties. Accordingly, Gibraltar would either have to seek from the UK the extension of all or some of the UK’s bilateral tax treaties to Gibraltar (subject of course to the agreement by the relevant counterparties) or it would need to negotiate its own network of bilateral double tax treaties with a whole series of EU and non EU Member States. To say the least, neither of these options would be straightforward to implement at short notice and would need the wholehearted support of the British Government

Whilst Gibraltar’s economy is likely to be adversely affected should Brexit occur, there may be some potential benefits. An EU exit would result in fewer regulations and possibly may provide Gibraltar with greater exposure to emerging economies.

From a tax perspective, an EU exit would probably enable Gibraltar to introduce tax rules and incentives that are contrary to EU tax laws and would provide the Gibraltar Government more freedom to adopt competitive tax regimes that may be considered contrary to EU state aid rules. How possible or effective any such strategy would be is doubtful given the OECD driven anti-tax avoidance climate affecting all reputable jurisdictions whether within or outside the EU.

In this as well as other possible change much will hinge on any post-Brexit relationship with the UK - an issue which the Gibraltar Government addressed recently in a paper sent to Westminster's Foreign Affairs Committee. It stressed not only that 'EU membership has been an important factor in the development of Gibraltar’s economy' but also the importance of 'clarity as to the rights the British Government will protect and defend for Gibraltar in the context of its own negotiations.'