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 and Europe: caught in the slipstream?

The British papers are full of who has the lead in the European in or out campaigns – Guy Clapperton considers the fallout for the smaller territories

Let’s start by acknowledging that there is no clear pattern emerging in the Europe debate, as long as we understand “Europe debate” to mean whether the UK should stay in or leave the European Union. This week alone we’ve seen Boris Johnson “warning Obama off” (as the BBC put it) getting involved in the debated, the same London Mayor and MP having a radio spat with Chuka Umunna involving telling each other to man up and various insults traded as either side accuses the other of scaremongering or making it up as they go along.

Divining who’s going to win is more difficult. The Daily Telegraph reports that “out” has it by a tiny margin but, crucially, the anti-Europe vote is likely to be more motivated so will actually show up on the day, expanding the margin by which it will win. Meanwhile the Times’ daily Red Box email points to Elections Etc. whose research suggests a 58% “remain” vote but with a plus or minus 14% error margin; so somewhere between 44% and 72% will go for staying in the EU. This, readers will note, tells us precisely nothing.

So the outcome, even if there weren’t 100 days in which Presidents and world leaders will offer counsel, claims and counterclaims will be made and the “leave” campaign will eventually decide who the official “leave” group actually is (there are two factions at the moment, doing the best impression of the Monty Python Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea that they can manage), we wouldn’t want to call a snap referendum even if it were to be called this afternoon.

What’s clear is that the outcome will ripple beyond the British mainland’s shores, and the ramifications of an “out” vote are already being felt on Gibraltar. Anyone doubting this should check today’s Times (subscription required), in which the Gibraltarian Chief Minister Fabian Picardo highlights recent Spanish statements about what would happen in the event of a Brexit.

Spain actually caused a few eyebrows to raise and some other people to panic just a little with its recent statements. Essentially the country’s foreign minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, suggested that there would be conversations on the sovereignty of Gibraltar the “day after” an announcement of a British exit, according to the Daily Mail and other reports. He also said (much, much further down the report) that he didn’t want Britain to leave: “God forbid” is the phrase he uses.

He raised the idea of joint sovereignty once again more recently, reports the Gibraltar Chronicle, this time suggesting that if Britain leaves Europe then Gib could do what it nearly did (he says) in 2002 and start transitioning towards Spain. This is an interesting definition of “nearly” when 98.48% of the electorate actually voted not to do so, but remaining British when this might exclude the Rock from Europe would inevitably raise different issues if not a different final outcome.

Outside Gibraltarian interests the effect could be more severe than that. SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has made no secret of her wish to make a fresh case for Scottish independence. The once-in-a-generation referendum on this was lost in 2014 but should Britain exit Europe with a majority of Scots clearly demonstrating that they want to stay in, the case becomes stronger (although the collapse of the oil price would blow the original blueprint out of the water).

So we could end up with Scotland as well as Gibraltar wanting to remain in Europe while Britain made its exit. Whether this would be legally possible if both stayed tied to Britain is untested as yet – and with Spain eager to enter talks the day after an exit is agreed but the Gibraltarians implacably opposed to becoming Spanish, the way forward would not be clear.

Guy Clapperton is the freelance journalist who edits the New Statesman’s Gibraltar hub. You can also find him in the Guardian, Computer Business Review and Professional Outsourcing which he edits.