Spanish Colonial architecture

Spanish Colonial architecture represents Spanish colonial influence on New World and East Indies' cities and towns, and it is still being seen in the architecture as well as in the city planning aspects of conserved present-day cities. These two visible aspects of the city are connected and complementary. The 16th century Laws of the Indies included provisions for the layout of new colonial settlements in the Americas and elsewhere.[1]

To achieve the desired effect of inspiring awe among the Indigenous peoples of the Americas-Indians as well as creating a legible and militarily manageable landscape, the early colonizers used and placed the new architecture within planned townscapes and mission compounds.

The new churches and mission stations, for example, aimed for maximum effect in terms of their imposition and domination of the surrounding buildings or countryside. In order for that to be achievable, they had to be strategically located – at the center of a town square (plaza) or at a higher point in the landscape. These elements are common and can also be found in almost every city and town in Spain.

The Spanish Colonial style of architecture dominated in the early Spanish colonies of North and South America, and were also somewhat visible in its other colonies. It is sometimes marked by the contrast between the simple, solid construction demanded by the new environment and the Baroque ornamentation exported from Spain.

Mexico, as the center of New Spain—and the richest province of Spain's colonial empire—has some of the most renowned buildings built in this style. With twenty-nine sites, Mexico has more sites on the UNESCO World Heritage list than any other country in the Americas, many of them boasting some of the richest Spanish Colonial architecture. Some of the most famous cities in Mexico built in the Colonial style are Puebla, Zacatecas, Querétaro, Guanajuato, and Morelia.

The historic center of Mexico City is a mixture of architectural styles from the 16th century to the present. The Metropolitan Cathedral – built from 1563 to 1813 in a variety of styles including the Renaissance, Baroque, and Neo Classical. The rich interior is mostly Baroque. Other examples are the Palacio Nacional, the beautifully restored 18th-century Palacio de Iturbide, the 16th-century Casa de los Azulejos – clad with 18th-century blue-and-white talavera tiles, and many more churches, cathedrals, museums, and palaces of the elite.

During the late 17th century to 1750, one of Mexico's most popular architectural styles was Mexican Churrigueresque. These buildings were built in an ultra-Baroque, fantastically extravagant and visually frenetic style.

Antigua Guatemala in Guatemala is also known for its well preserved Spanish colonial style architecture. The city of Antigua is famous for its well-preserved Spanish Mudéjar-influenced Baroque architecture as well as a number of spectacular ruins of colonial churches dating from the 16th century. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Ciudad Colonial (colonial city) of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, founded in 1498, is the oldest city in the New World and a prime example of this architectural style. The port of Cartagena, Colombia, founded in 1533 and Santa Ana de Coro, Venezuela, founded in 1527, are two more UNESCO World Heritage Sites preserving some of the best Spanish colonial architecture in the Caribbean." San Juan was founded by the Spaniards in 1521, where Spanish colonial architecture can be found like the Historic Hotel El Convento.[2] Also, Old San Juan with its walled city and buildings (ranging from 1521 to the early 20th century) are very good examples, and in excellent condition.

According to UNESCO, Quito, Ecuador has the largest, best-preserved, and least-altered historic centre (320 hectares) in Latin America, despite several earthquakes. It was the first city that was inscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage List, along with Kraków, Poland in 1978. The historic district of this city is the sole largest and best preserved area of Spanish Colonial architecture in the world.

Colonial Cathedral of Lima, in Peru
Spanish Colonial architecture of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
Spanish style in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

History of the city grid in the New World

The idea of laying out a city in a grid pattern is not unique to the Spanish. In fact, it never started out with the Spanish colonizers. It has been traced back to some ancient civilizations especially the ancient cities of the Aztec and Maya, and also Ancient Greeks.[3] The idea was spread by the Roman conquest of European empires and its ideas were adopted by other civilizations. It was popularized at different paces and in different levels throughout the Renaissance—the French took to building grid-like villages (ville-neuves) and the English, under King Edward I did as well. Some argue, however, that Spain was not part of this movement to order towns as grids. Despite its clear military advantage, and despite the knowledge of city planning, the New World settlements of the Spanish actually grew amorphously for some three to four decades before they turned to grids and city plans as ways of organizing space. In contrast to the orders given much later on how the city should be laid out, Ferdinand II did not give specific instructions for how to build the new settlements in the Caribbeans. To Nicolas De Ovando, he said the following in 1501:

As it is necessary in the island of Española to make settlements and from here it is not possible to give precise instructions, investigate the possible sites, and in conformity with the quality of the land and sites as well as with the present population outside present settlements establish settlements in the numbers and in the places that seem proper to you.[4]

City planning: a royal ordinance

Manila 1851
Map of the walled city of Intramuros in Manila with elements of colonial planning called Laws of the Indies present.

In 1513 the monarchs wrote out a set of guidelines that ordained the conduct of Spaniards in the New World as well as that of the Indians that they found there. With regards to city planning, these ordinances had details on the preferred location of a new town and its location relative to the sea, mountains and rivers. It also detailed the shape and measurements of the central plaza taking into account the spacing for purposes of trade as well as the spacing for purposes of festivities or even military operations—occasions that involved horse-riding. In addition to specifying the location of the church, the orientation of roads that run into the main plaza as well as the width of the street with respect to climatic conditions, the guidelines also specified the order in which the city must be built.

The building lots and the structures erected thereon are to be so situated that in the living rooms one can enjoy air from the south and from the north, which are the best. All town homes are to be so planned that they can serve as a defense or fortress against those who might attempt to create disturbances or occupy the town. Each house is to be so constructed that horses and household animals can be kept therein, the courtyards and stockyards being as large as possible to insure health and cleanliness.[5]

La Traza

The traza or layout was the pattern on which Spanish American cities were built beginning in the colonial era. At the heart of Spanish colonial cities was a central plaza, with the main church, town council (cabildo) building, residences of the main civil and religious officials, and the residences of the most important residents (vecinos) of the town built there. The principal businesses were also located around this central plan. Radiated from the main square were streets in at right angles, a grid that could extend as the settlement grew, impeded only by geography.[6] About three decades into colonization of the New World, the conquistadores started to build and plan cities according to laws prescribed by the monarchs in the Laws of the Indies. In addition to describing other aspects of the interactions between the Spanish conquerors and the natives they encountered, these laws ordained the specific ways new settlements should be laid out. In addition to specifying the layout, the laws also required a pattern in settlement based on social standing, in which the people of higher social status lived closer to the center of the town, the center of political, ecclesiastical, and economic power. The 1790 census for Mexico City indicates that in the traza that there was indeed a higher concentration of Spaniards (españoles), but that there was no absolute racial or class segregation in the city, particularly since elite households usually had non-white servants.[7]

The grid was not limited to Spanish settlements; however, "Reducciones" Indian Reductions and "Congregaciones" were created in a similar grid-like manner for Indians in order to organize these populations in more manageable units for purposes of taxation, military efficiency and in order to teach Indians the way of the Spanish.

Modern cities in Latin America have grown, and consequently erased or jumbled the previous standard spatial and social organization of the cityscape. Elites do not always live closer to the city center, and the point-space occupied by individuals is not necessarily determined by their social status. The central plaza, the wide streets and a grid pattern are still common elements in Mexico City and Puebla de Los Angeles. It is not uncommon in modern-founded towns, especially those in remote areas of Latin America, to have retained the "checkerboard layout" even to present day.

Mexico City is a good example of how these ordinances were followed in laying out a city. Previously the capital of the Aztec empire, Tenochtitlan was captured and placed under Spanish rule in 1521. After news of the conquest, the king sent instructions very similar to the aforementioned Ordinance of 1513. In some parts the instructions are almost verbatim to his previous ones. The instructions were meant to direct the conqueror—Hernán Cortés—on how to lay out the city and how to allocate land to the Spaniards. It is pointed out, however, that though the king might have sent many such orders and instructions to other conquistadores, Cortés was perhaps the first one to implement them. He insisted on carrying out the building of a new city where the Indian Empire had stood, and he incorporated features of the old plaza into the new grid. Much was accomplished since he was accompanied by men familiar with the grid system and the royal instructions. The point here is that Cortés accomplished the planning and was on his way to finish the building of Mexico City before the royal ordinances addressed specifically to him even arrived. Men like Cortés and Alonso García Bravo (who is also called "the good geometer"), played a crucial role in creating a city scape of New World cities as we know them.

Church and mission architecture

In places of dense indigenous settlement, such as in Central Mexico, the mendicant orders (Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians) built churches on the sites of prehispanic temples. In the early period of the "spiritual conquest", there were so many indigenous neophytes who attended Mass that a large open-air atrium was built, walling off a space within the church complex to create an enlarged sacred space without great expense of building.[8] Indigenous labor was used in construction; since a communities sacred place was a symbol and embodiment of that community, laboring to create these structures was not necessarily an unwanted burden. Since Mexico experienced many sixteenth-century epidemics that drastically diminished the size of the central Mexican indigenous population, there were often elaborate churches with few Indians still living to attend them, such as the Augustinian church at Acolman, Mexico. The different mendicant orders had distinct styles of building. Franciscans built large churches to accommodate the new neophytes, Dominican churches were highly ornamented, while the Augustinian churches were characterized by their critics as opulent and sumptuous.[9]

Mission churches were often of simple design. As mendicants were pushed out of central Mexico and as Jesuits also evangelized Indians in northern Mexico, they built mission churches as part of a larger complex, with living quarters and workshops for resident Indians. Unlike central Mexico, where churches were built in existing indigenous towns, on the frontier where indigenous did not live in such settlements, the mission complex was created.[10]

Spanish East Indies

The arrival of the Spaniards in 1571 brought in European colonial architecture to the Philippines. Specifically suited for the hot tropics of the new Far east territory, European architecture was transposed via Acapulco, Mexico into a uniquely Filipino style. The Nipa hut or Bahay Kubo of the Indigenous Filipinos gave way to the Bahay Na Bato (stone house) and other Filipino houses collectively called Bahay Filipino (Filipino houses) and became the typical houses of Filipinos in the past. The Bahay Filipino houses, followed the nipa hut's arrangements such as open ventilation and elevated apartments. The most obvious difference between Filipino houses would be the materials that was used to build them. Bahay na bato has Spanish and Chinese influence. Its most common appearance is like that of stilt Nipa hut that stands on Spanish style stone blocks or bricks as foundation instead only just of wood or bamboo stilts, usually with solid stone foundations or brick lower walls, and overhanging, wooden upper story/stories with balustrades Ventanillas and capiz shell sliding windows, and a Chinese tiled roof or sometimes Nipa roof which are today being replaced by galvanized roof. Today these houses are more commonly called Ancestral houses, due to most ancestral houses in the Philippines are Bahay na bato.[11]

Earthquake Baroque is a style of Baroque architecture found in the Philippines, which suffered destructive earthquakes during the 17th century and 18th century, where large public buildings, such as churches, were rebuilt in a Baroque style.[12] In the Philippines, destruction of earlier churches from frequent earthquakes have made the church proportion lower and wider; side walls were made thicker and heavily buttressed for stability during shaking. The upper structures were made with lighter materials.[13]

Bell towers are usually lower and stouter compared to towers in less seismically active regions of the world.[14] Towers have thicker girth in the lower levels, progressively narrowing to the topmost level.[13] In some churches of the Philippines, aside from functioning as watchtowers against pirates, some bell towers are detached from the main church building to avoid damage in case of a falling bell tower due to an earthquake.


Museo de arte de qro.

Monastery of San Agustín, Santiago de Querétaro

Ruinas de Sao Miguel das Missoes

São Miguel das Missões, Brazil

Catedral exterior

The Cathedral of Havana

Cuba Trinidad

Street in Trinidad, Cuba

Basílica Menor de Santa María SD RD 02 2017 1941

The Cathedral of Santa María la Menor in Santo Domingo

Iglesia de San Francisco, Quito 01

Church of San Francisco, Quito

Casa de la moneda

Casa de la moneda, Potosí

Palacio de Torre Tagle

Torre Tagle Palace, Lima


Castillo de San Marcos, Florida

La Merced Church Antigua Guatemala 2

La Merced Church, Antigua Guatemala

Alamo pano

Alamo Mission in San Antonio, Texas

Taal basilica 4

Basilica of Saint Martin of Tours, Philippines

Santa Fe Palace of the Governors

Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Concepcion church

Concepción Mission, Bolivia

Compañia de jesus

Compañía de Jesús, Panama


Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, Oaxaca

Catedral, Plaza de Armas, Cusco, Perú, 2015-07-31, DD 78

Templo de la Sagrada Familia, Cusco


Morelia Aqueduct

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ "Hotel El Convento: Making Over a Nunnery". Architectural Digest. Retrieved 23 March 2014.
  3. ^ Stanislawski, Dan (Jan 1946). "The Origin and Spread of the Grid-Pattern Town". 36 (1). JSTOR 211076.
  4. ^ Stanislawki, Dan (Jan 1947). "Early Spanish Town Planning in the New World". Geographical Review. 37 (1). JSTOR 211364.
  5. ^ Nuttall, Zelia (May 1922). "Royal Ordinances Concerning the Laying Out of New Towns". The Hispanic American Historical Review. 5 (2): 249–254. doi:10.2307/2506027.
  6. ^ James Lockhart and Stuart Schwartz, Early Latin America, New York: Cambridge University Press, 66–68.
  7. ^ Dennis Nodin Valdés, "The Decline of the Sociedad de Castas in Mexico City." PhD Dissertation, University of Michigan 1978.
  8. ^ John McAndrew, The Open Air Churches of Sixteenth-Century Mexico: Atrios, Posas, Open Chapels and other Studies, Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1965.
  9. ^ Ida Altman, Sarah Cline, and Javier Pescador, The Early History of Greater Mexico. Pearson, 2003, p. 119.
  10. ^ Altman, et al., Early History of Greater Mexico, pp. 130–31.
  12. ^ "Antigua’s Environs – Antigua, Guatemala". BootsnAll Indie Travel Guide. Retrieved on 2011-07-06.
  13. ^ a b "The City of God: Churches, Convents and Monasteries". Discovering Philippines. Retrieved on 2011-07-06.
  14. ^ Finch, Ric. "Antigue Guatemala-- Monumental City of the Americas". Rutahsa Adventures. Retrieved on 2011-07-06.
Andean Baroque

Andean Baroque (Spanish: Barroco andino or arquitectura mestiza) is an artistic movement that appeared in the Viceroyalty of Peru (South America) between 1680 and 1780. It is located geographically between Arequipa and Lake Titicaca in what is now Peru and Bolivia, where rules over the highlands and spreads over the entire altiplano. From the Portuguese word barrueco meaning impure, mottled, flamboyant, daring, the most striking example of Andean Baroque art is in religious architecture, where indigenous craftsmen gave it a unique character, as happened in the New Spanish Baroque.

Balconies of Cusco

The Balconies of Cusco are colonial balconies found in much of the city of Cusco, Cusco Region, Peru. These balconies are most dated to colonial times and some other to the early-Republican time.

These constructions are located in the corners of colonial and republican palaces and convents of old streets. They are of Mudéjar and Baroque styles.

Some scientists say that these balconies have a type of discreet enclosure that kept women hidden from the sight of people in the exterior; in this way, these balconies or windows, served so that women could snoop without being seen from the street.Balconies are a typical colonial Peruvian feature that can be seen in other colonial towns of Peru.

Bolivarian Museum

The Bolivarian Museum (Spanish: Museo Bolivariano) is dedicated to Simón Bolívar, the hero of Latin American independence. It is situated in Caracas, Venezuela.

The museum is run in tandem with the birthplace of Simón Bolívar.

The collections include items related to Bolivar and Venezuelan independence.

Caracas Cathedral

The Caracas Cathedral is the seat of the Roman Catholic Metropolitan archdiocese of Caracas, located on the Plaza Bolívar in Caracas, Venezuela. Its chapel of the Holy Trinity is the burial site of the parents and wife of Simón Bolívar. The Nuestra Senora de Venezuela y Santa Ana is a square (cuadra) situated between the cathedral and the central plaza, which is walled on three sides, but open to the east where it faces the cathedral.

Casa Manila

Casa Manila is a museum in Intramuros depicting colonial lifestyle during Spanish colonization of the Philippines.

The museum is the imposing stone-and-wood structure c. 1850, one of the grand houses in Barrio San Luis (one of the four original villages of Intramuros) is located across historic San Agustin church and bounded by Calle Real, General Luna, Cabildo and Urdaneta streets. The other two are the Los Hidalgos, c. 1650 and Cuyugan Mansion, c. 1890.

Casa Manila is a copy of an 1850s San Nicolas House that was once located in Calle Jaboneros. The architect of Casa Manila was J. Ramon L. Faustmann.

It was constructed by Imelda Marcos during the 1980s and modeled on Spanish colonial architecture.

Casco Viejo, Panama

Casco Viejo (Spanish for Old Quarter), also known as Casco Antiguo or San Felipe, is the historic district of Panama City. Completed and settled in 1673, it was built following the near-total destruction of the original Panamá city, Panamá Viejo in 1671, when the latter was attacked by pirates. It was designated a World Heritage Site in 1997.

Cathedral of Veracruz

The Veracruz Cathedral, dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption, is located in the historic center of the city of Veracruz, Mexico. It was consecrated as a cathedral in 1963.

Previously, there had been a parish church of modest proportions on the site, built in the early 17th century and completed in 1731.

It had a single tower on the right-hand side.


Churrigueresque () refers to a Spanish Baroque style of elaborate sculptural architectural ornament which emerged as a manner of stucco decoration in Spain in the late 17th century and was used up to about 1750, marked by extreme, expressive and florid decorative detailing, normally found above the entrance on the main facade of a building.

Illuminated Block

The Illuminated Block (Spanish: Manzana de las Luces) is a historical landmark in the Monserrat neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

José Luis Cuevas Museum

The José Luis Cuevas Museum is located just off the Zócalo within the Historic center of Mexico City, in Mexico City, Mexico. The museum and Church of Santa Inés were built as parts of the Convent of Santa Inés (Agnes of Rome) complex. The museum is in the convent's colonial era residential hall.

La Asunción Cathedral

Catedral de Nuestra Señora de La Asunción (Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption) is the seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Margarita and is located in La Asunción, Nueva Esparta state, on Margarita Island, Venezuela. Completed in 1571, it is the oldest church in Venezuela.

Mission Revival architecture

The Mission Revival Style was an architectural movement that began in the late 19th century for a colonial style's revivalism and reinterpretation, which drew inspiration from the late 18th and early 19th century Spanish missions in California.

The Mission Revival movement enjoyed its greatest popularity between 1890 and 1915, in numerous residential, commercial, and institutional structures – particularly schools and railroad depots – which used this easily recognizable architectural style.

Mission San Juan Bautista

Mission San Juan Bautista is a Spanish mission in San Juan Bautista, San Benito County, California. Founded on June 24, 1797 by Fermín Lasuén of the Franciscan order, the mission was the fifteenth of the Spanish missions established in present-day California. Named for Saint John the Baptist, the mission is the namesake of the city of San Juan Bautista.

Barracks for the soldiers, a nunnery, the Jose Castro House, and other buildings were constructed around a large grassy plaza in front of the church and can be seen today in their original form. The Ohlone, the original residents of the valley, were brought to live at the mission and baptized, followed by Yokuts from the Central Valley. Mission San Juan Bautista has served mass daily since 1797, and today functions as a parish church of the Diocese of Monterey.

Monterey Colonial architecture

Monterey Colonial is an architectural style developed in Alta California (today's state of California when under Mexican rule). The style is characterized by two stories, continuous surrounding porches on both levels, a hip roof, and adobe walls. The first known example of the style was the Alpheus Thompson house in Santa Barbara, California, built in 1834 and demolished in 1913. The second (and oldest surviving) example is the Larkin House in Monterey, California, built by Thomas O. Larkin in 1835. The largest example of the style is the Rancho Petaluma Adobe, begun by Mariano Vallejo in Petaluma, California in 1836.

Revivals of the style have been popular in the 20th century, substituting wood framing or brick for adobe. Other common variations use gable-end roofs and second-story-only covered porches. Monterey Colonial is one of the "non-Hispanic" historical styles recognized (though not encouraged for new construction) by the architectural design guidelines of Santa Barbara, California.

San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary

San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary is a seminary in Havana, Cuba.

Spanish missions in Arizona

Beginning in the 16th century Spain established missions throughout New Spain (consisting of Mexico and portions of what today are the Southwestern United States) in order to facilitate colonization of these lands.

In the Spring of 1687, a Jesuit missionary named Father Eusebio Francisco Kino lived and worked with the native Americans in the area called the Pimería Alta, or "Upper Pima Country," which presently is located in the areas between the Mexican state of Sonora and the state of Arizona in the United States. During Father Eusebio Kino's stay in the Pimería Alta, he founded over twenty missions in eight mission districts. In Arizona, unlike Mexico, missionization proceeded slowly.

Father Kino founded missions San Xavier and San Gabriel at the Piman communities of Bac and Guevavi along the Santa Cruz River.

Spanish missions in Georgia

The Spanish missions in Georgia comprise a series of religious outposts established by Spanish Catholics in order to spread the Christian doctrine among the local Native Americans. The Spanish chapter of Georgia's earliest colonial history is dominated by the lengthy mission era, extending from 1568 through 1684. Catholic missions were the primary means by which Georgia's indigenous Native American chiefdoms were assimilated into the Spanish colonial system along the northern frontier of greater Spanish Florida.

The early missions in present-day Georgia were established to serve the Guale and various Timucua peoples, including the Mocama. Later the missions served other peoples who had entered the region, including the Yamassee.

Spanish missions in Mexico

The Spanish missions in Mexico are a series of religious outposts established by Spanish Catholic Franciscans, Jesuits, Augustinians, and Dominicans to spread the Christian doctrine among the local natives. Since 1493, the Kingdom of Spain had maintained a number of missions throughout Nueva España (New Spain, consisting of what is today Mexico, the Southwestern United States, the Florida and the Luisiana, Central America, the Spanish Caribbean and the Philippines) in order to preach the gospel to these lands. In 1533, at the request of Hernán Cortés, Carlos V sent the first Franciscan friarss with orders to establish a series of installations throughout the country.

Spanish / Hispanic Colonial architecture articles
Historic Centers
Spanish Missions
Churches and monasteries
Bridges and roads
Other buildings types
Architecture types
Modern Revival styles
Early Republic
Mid-19th century
Late-19th to mid-20th century
Post-World War II to current

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