Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Bilbao & El Escorial

As I mentioned before we had to prepare short descriptions on one or two of the cities we will visit while away. After we come back, the edited text along with our pictures and sketches will be put into a book. I was given Bilbao and El Escorial, hopefully I did them some justice...


Since its beginning, Bilbao has undergone many transformations, brought about by changes in industry and technology. However, it was this adaptability that allowed Bilbao to ultimately reinvent itself from a small port town into a center of culture.

Bilbao was founded in 1300 by Don Diego Lopez de Haro along the bank of the Nervion River, which flows into the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic Ocean. At its beginning, Bilbao was a village composed of just three streets: Somera (“Upper”), Artekale (“Middle Street”), and Tenderia (“Shopkeeper’s”), following the layout found in many other Basque towns. At its center was the Santiago Church and surrounding the entire city was a protective wall.

As the city grew, four more parallel streets were added to the city’s layout, creating the area known today as “Seven Streets.” Various wars between noble families as well as floods and fires disrupted the growth of the city in the 15th century; however, the city was always quick to recover and eventually grew beyond the city’s wall. In 1511, Bilbao became the main export port for Merino wool from Castile to northern European cities, causing Bilbao to become the most important commercial and financial center of the Spanish north coast during the Spanish Empire era.

The growing importance of Bilbao as a major port of Spain caused the city to gain the title of capital city of Biscay in 1602. In the following 100 years, Bilbao continued to grow financially especially after the discovery of iron deposits in the surrounding hills. These iron ore deposits allowed Bilbao to recover from the economic crisis that hit Spain at the end of the 17th century and the city continued to grow throughout the 18th century, exhausting the city’s boundaries.

Bilbao reached its financial peak during the industrial revolution with its strong mining, steel and shipbuilding industries and at the beginning of the 20th century, Bilbao was the wealthiest city of Spain. It was during this time that Bilbao truly became an industrial city rather than a small mercantile port. The harbor was key to Bilbao’s success and was renovated in the 1870’s using both public and private funds. Due in part to the annexation of the nearby villas of Begonia and Abando in the same year, Bilbao’s population tripled in just 30 years (from about 18,000 in 1857 to about 51,000 in 1887) and railways connecting the mines to the harbor and the coastline were underway.

The need for an enlargement of the city was evident and so the first Ensanche project was begun in 1861. A second Ensanche of a much larger scale was commissioned in 1872 under the guidance of engineers Alzola and Hoffmeyer and architect Achucarro. The enlargement created an entirely new city on the left bank of the river, connecting to the old city on the right bank with the El Arenal bridge. The new city was organized around a center and longitudinal axis, creating an ellipse in plan. This Ensanche became the new economic center of Bilbao: financial institutions moved there, and elite housing sprung up around the city’s center. Further enlargements to this Ensanche were developed as needed.

With the coming of globalization, Bilbao’s iron and ship-building industries quickly fell into ruin, leaving the city and its approximately 1 million inhabitants with no source of income. As a result, Bilbao has turned to a service and tourism economy as part of its urban renewal. Big name architects were brought in to reinvent parts of the city, moving it away from its industrial past and towards a future of culture and gentrification. Among these major developments are Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, Santiago Calatrava’s culture center, Euskalduna Palace, and Norman Foster’s design for Bilbao’s new metro system. Most significant of all, the Port of Bilbao, formerly located on the river was relocated downstream to the Bay of Biscay, opening real estate along the river for further gentrification and signifying Bilbao’s morphing from small port village, to industrial city, to cultural center.

El Escorial

El Escorial, located in the town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial just 28 miles northwest of Madrid, is a historical residence of the king of Spain, however; it’s much more than just a palace: El Escorial also serves as a monastery, museum and school. Born into fruition by King Philip II, El Escorial was to serve as a monument to Spain’s role as the center of the Christian world.

With the Protestant Reformation sweeping through Europe during the 16th century, Philip II spent much of his reign and New World gold trying to stem the flow of the Protestant tide in any way he could. With the help of the Spanish architect, Juan Bautista de Toledo, whose work included the basilica of St. Peter’s, Philip II designed El Escorial as a necropolis for the remains of his family, royal palace, and an architectural manifestation of the Roman Catholic religion, as well as a monument to commemorate the Spanish victory over the French in the battle of Saint Quentin in August 1557. The building was begun at the top of Mt. Abantos on April 23rd, 1563 and was completed in 1584. Since its completion, it has served as the burial site for most of the Spanish kings of the past five centuries.

The layout of the palace is in the form of a gridiron, the origin of which is still debated. The most common explanation, however is that it is following the design of the Temple of Solomon. No matter what the origin, the buildings layout changed drastically over its completion due to the large amount of programmatic elements King Philip demanded to be included. In addition to being a monastery and palace, El Escorial was also to include a pantheon, a basilica, a convent, a school, and a library.

El Escorial is built primarily out of local-quarried gray granite and has little decoration, adding to its austere fa├žade, making it appear more like a fortress than a palace. Within its walls are a series of intersecting passageways, courtyards, and chambers and at each of the plan’s four corners is a square tower topped with a spire. Towards the center of the palace rise the belfries and round dome of the basilica, whose plan takes the form of the Latin cross like most of the Late Gothic cathedrals in western Europe. Housed in El Escorial is an enormous amount of master artworks and priceless manuscripts. Everything about the complex was to fit Philip’s instructions to the architect Toledo: “Simplicity in the construction, severity in the whole, nobility without arrogance, majesty without ostentation.”

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