Spanish colonisation of north africa turned the city of Melilla into a marvel of Modernisme and Art Nouveau, with a wealth of buildings now being restored
Along Melilla’s spruced-up Avenue Juan Carlos I, the stylised, Art Nouveau faces of young maidens gaze down on a mixed throng of Iberian and North African shoppers and flâneurs.
Golden garlands and floral motifs are draped over curvaceous balconies, while bright red corner turrets tower above small squares and streets named after doughty Spanish heroes. Architecturally, little along the avenue has changed in this surprising city for more than 60 years.
Set on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, the small Spanish city of Melilla is something of an architectural enigma. This tiny enclave, an early Modernist marvel, has more in common, architecturally, with Barcelona than with North Africa.
As an Art Nouveau city in Africa, Melilla appears to be lost in a time warp and a strange kind of cultural, almost continental, drift.
Indeed, Melilla has the greatest concentration of Modernisme (sometimes known as Modernismo) architecture, characterised by
its eclectic mix of Art Nouveau influences popularised by Antoni Gaudí and others in Barcelona, and in Spain outside the Catalan capital.
It was thanks to a student of Gaudí, Enrique Nieto, that Melilla adopted Catalan-inspired design as its defining style. An area of the city, often called ‘the golden triangle’, contains some of the best-preserved clusters of Art Nouveau buildings to be found anywhere in the world.
Although little-known in mainland Spain, Enrique Nieto is a lauded local figure. A statue of him carrying plans stands at the eastern end of Avenue Juan Carlos 1, opposite the Melul Building, one of his most successful early works.
A Catalan native, Nieto studied at Barcelona’s Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura between 1897 and 1900, and worked with Gaudí on the Casa Mila Apartment before moving to Melilla in 1909.
In Melilla, Nieto’s first major project was to design offices for the newspaper El Telegrama del Rif. The project became a transitional building, combining Art Nouveau elements with historical references.
At the time, Melilla was undergoing a period of rapid social and economic change. Although the enclave had been Spanish since the 15th century, the city had only recently expanded beyond the narrow headland and its medieval fortress.
Military engineers had laid out the plans for a new city based on a single triangular branch of a Maltese cross, heading west from the circular Plaza de España, designed in 1913.
Following the establishment of the Spanish Protectorate of Morocco, decreed by the 1912 Treaty of Fez, much of northern Morocco had come under colonial Spanish rule. With Spain’s increased presence in North Africa, Melilla was feeling confident.
The formerly forgotten enclave now became a vital port supplying goods to Spanish Morocco. Business boomed and the city embarked on a major building programme. There were new contracts to be had by young architects from the mainland.
Nieto took his chance, moved to Melilla permanently, and was finally, toward the end of his career, appointed city architect in 1939.
Among Nieto’s more successful early buildings was the provocatively named La Reconquista department store building, which dominates the Plaza Menéndez y Pelayo on Melilla’s main thoroughfare. (La Reconquista refers to the period of 700 years when Christian kingdoms pushed the Moors out of the Iberian Peninsula.)
With its corner turrets resembling red-tiled pinecones and elaborate floral decoration, the building, constructed in 1915, looks like a Belle Époque villa, which could have been plucked straight from the French Riviera.
At the eastern end of Avenue Juan Carlos I, another key Nieto work, the elaborately decorated Melul Building overlooks the Plaza de España.
Its architecture probably owes more to the influence of Lluís Domènech i Montaner, another leading member of Catalan Modernisme, whose tenure as director of Barcelona’s Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura, overlapped with Nieto’s studies there in the late 19th century.
Completed in 1917, the Melul Building is among the most ornate of any in Melilla’s historical milieu, with heavily charged windows decorated by stylised leaves, tridents and circular motifs.
Although Catalan Modernisme, the source for Melilla’s adopted style, had petered out in Barcelona by the beginning of the First World War, it reached its peak in Melilla during the War.
Buildings inspired by Modernisme continued to be designed and constructed until well into the 1920s, giving way to Art Deco, including the very deco City Hall (1933-48), Nieto’s last major work.
The choice of Modernisme and Art Deco was a clear effort by the local authorities to stamp a Spanish and European aesthetic on this North African city. In the city’s museum, framed plans reveal how Melilla might have developed had other choices been made.
An alternative proposal for the City Hall is a Moorish-inspired design based on Islamic geometry, perhaps more appropriate to Melilla’s geographical context, but not considered a desirable expression of its civic and political identity.
Other unrealised projects include a 1920s-style beach resort, with a Modernist pool and a promenade. Indeed many older Melilla inhabitants, at least those of Iberian descent, regard the 1920s and 30s as the city’s Golden Age.
But the political situation that had briefly raised its profile, and enabled the building of the Modernist city centre, quickly came to an end.
When northern Morocco gained its independence from Spain in 1956, the Spanish held on to their old enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta.
But as their interest in North Africa receded to these two cities, an era of decline set in. Melilla’s centre soon became shabby.
For decades, commercial properties were neglected as Melilla’s regional importance as a strategic North African port dwindled.
It wasn’t until 1995, when Melilla was granted Autonomous City status that its fortunes began to improve. Decades of stagnation meant that the golden triangle of Art Nouveau buildings, although run-down, had hardly changed since the 1930s.
But, impelled by a sense of civic pride, and boosted by funding from Madrid and the European Community (EC), a major renovation programme began.
Today, work continues on some of the city’s key buildings. The Teatro Kursaal-Nacional, designed by Nieto in 1929, is currently undergoing a major €6 million (£5.3 million) refurbishment.
Hernandez Park, which forms the southern boundary of the ‘golden triangle’, is being remodelled under a €3.5 million (£3 million) scheme, 70 per cent of which is financed by the EC. The latter project is due for completion in 2013.
Melilla’s Modernisme star is slowly rising again.