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ARQ (Santiago)

versión On-line ISSN 0717-6996

ARQ (Santiago)  no.95 Santiago abr. 2017 


The Islamisms of nineteenth-century Chilean architecture and other Eastern references

José Morais1  * 

11 Académico, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, Valparaíso, Chile.


At best, intellectual processes implicit in the use of references are overlooked; at worst, they are prejudicially dismissed as 'copies' of a purest, truly original. The analysis of Islamic influences in nineteenth-century Chilean architecture, however, allows breaking down those prejudices and reassess what, according to this text, would be "one of the most brilliant stages of Chilean architecture."

Keywords: influences; references; Alhambra; Aldunate; Burchard

Research on the reception of Eastern references within the architecture of the nineteenth and first decades of the twentieth century is presented, for the Chilean case, as an ambiguous phenomenon, confronted historiographically in a diffuse way and explained by multiple factors.

First, we must take into account the imprecision of Eastern trends present in late-century artistic contexts - later infiltrated into building design - and whose specific origins are hard to locate, as it is not easy to explain their formation or the exact architectural models that forged them.

On the other hand, the wide range of Orientalisms adopted by European cultural elites in this same chronological framework which, originated in places as diverse as Egypt, Algeria, Turkey, Morocco or Spain, were reinterpreted in French, German, or English architectures that seldom retained the vernacular forms that the primal models had in the Eastern regions. Thus, if for some nineteenth-century architects references were found in medieval constructions dating between the ninth and fifteenth centuries, such references ended up being reinterpreted and mixed within the fin-de-siècle Europe, making virtually impossible for scholars to determine the exact place of origin of each constructive and ornamental element.

A third problem lies precisely in the approaches for knowledge and reception of Islamic architecture in Western Europe and, therefore, in the formulas that ruled the construction of such imaginaries. Although since the seventeenth, eighteenth and especially the nineteenth centuries great archaeological expeditions carried out from the above mentioned countries were frequent, as was the establishment of romantic voyages to places then inaccessible and remote, the contact with the Eastern world ended up extending outside the erudite circles to become vulgarized under the Grand Tour, which made the new wealthy classes interested in Eastern heritage referents, preferably, those linked to the Islamic world.

The problematic became definitive when these Orientalisms ended up expanding to America, either by their empirical knowledge or through revisions and revivals of nineteenth-century architects. Chile is thus one of the earliest centers accepting the phenomenon addressed in this study - little discussed by literature (Baros, 2011) - making it necessary to state the stylistic nomenclatures that define it and specify its formation processes and architectural development, so as to finally conclude that the cataloging of the examples here studied within the ambiguous concept of neo-Arab - without attending to particular cases - precludes knowledge about one of the most brilliant stages in Chilean architecture.

The architecture of 'the others' and its ambiguous categorization

From the seventeenth century on, Europe turned to the East or, even better, to Orientalism. It was then that a long confrontation between the 'me/we' with respect to 'the others' began, based on a sort of schizogenesis where the European viewpoint built different perceptions of time and the architecture created by 'the others.' Europe was thus beginning a mainly erroneous manipulation of the periods lived in one and the other geographical area, justifying colonialist experiences and developing a kind of imaginary regarding what Eastern architecture had to be in the eyes of Western architects (Fabian, 1983), seizing and reading it symbolically in a scenography-like manner (Geertz, 1980).

This extremely complex process was polyhedral, splitting between the appropriation/nationalization of an unknown architectural heritage - which Europe now believed to be its own - sometimes through a positivist and scientific approach and many others from a romantic interpretation, which portrayed Eastern cultures based on the notions of the picturesque, the exotic and the extravagant (Decléty, 2003; Appadurai, 2007).

It could be stated, however, that there were as many Orientalisms as cultures from North African areas to the edges of India and Mongolia, and the more accessible Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia or Turkey, and that - among all architectural movements developed in such places - it was precisely the one linked to Islamic religion which ended up occupying a referential place among the building preferences of European nineteenth-century elites.

Since its publishing more than twenty years ago, the classic work of Zeynep Çelik (1992) became the basis for a prolific academic production that has attempted to explain the ways of assimilating the different Islamic architectural models in the nineteenth-century Europe, as well as their following transfer to America. In spite of this, some of the most important architectures derived from the Chilean reinterpretation of Islamic building tradition, developed between 1862 and 1896, have been tackled using disoriented premises, encompassing them all in a fictional unitary 'neo-Arab' phenomenon. Specialists failed to clarify the ways in which these formulas were established among Santiago de Chile's eclectic revivals, describing their adoption and instrumentalization among the elites sponsoring such constructions as superficial, appealing always to empty preferences for trendy architectures within a frivolous, eccentric mood.

In 1862, the Chilean architect Manuel Aldunate (1815-1904) designed the so-called Santiago's palace of La Alhambra for the mining magnate Francisco Ignacio de Ossa (Figure 1). The building was widely analyzed in several publications, which generally refer to it as "Hispanic-Muslim neo-Arab" or "Moorish," in addition to considering it magnificent or picturesque, terms closer to the opinion of nineteenth-century scholars such as Recaredo Santos Tornero, who stated: "it is an imitation, in miniature, of the great and magnificent palace of La Alhambra in Spain" (Tornero, 1872:9).

CREA Centro de Conservación, Restauración y Estudios Artísticos

Figure 1 Manuel Aldunate. La Alhambra palace. Santiago, Chile, 1861-1862. 

Aldunate's building is always included in the general inventories of South American neo-Islamic architecture, catalogs that almost never consider the particular aspects that explain the modes of reception in Chile and its contextualization within other examples preserved in the country (Gutiérrez, 2006). Today, there is no literature addressing Chilean nineteenth-century palatial architecture that does not mention it, but - and this is serious - its historical confrontation with European neo-Islamism, its architectural definition regarding the models that inspired it, and, specially, its terminological concreteness within the stylistic taxonomies of the end of the nineteenth-century eclecticism have not yet been published.

Even more striking is the case of the former Díaz-Gana palace, then Concha-Cazotte, built between 1872 and 1875 by the German architect Theodor Burchard (1843-1922?), another persistent yet unknown case in the Chilean architectural history (Figure 2). Ambiguously defined as "eclectic," "Turkish" (Vial, 1982:19; Toca, 1990:78), "Moorish" (Balmaceda, 1969:255) or more vaguely as "romanticist," academics frequently defined it as a "Moorish fantasy, between Byzantine and Islamic" (Slachevsky, 2012:44), "taken from a fairy tale" (Díaz, 2007:39), while recent publications have contributed little to its knowledge in architectural terms by insisting only on its scenic value, an oasis for arabesque fantasies (Müller and Alvarado, 2013). The authority of this Eastern imaginary remains today among specialists, without us knowing the models to which the architect resorted or the paths through which these arrived to Chile (Baros, 2011).

Archivo Histórico Nacional

Figure 2 Theodor Burchard. Díaz-Gana palace. Santiago, 1875. 

The adoption of Islamic formulas in Chilean nineteenth-century architecture was profound - and a more extensive investigation will be dedicated to it in the future - but it is worth noting its expansion towards the mortuary, being Claudio Vicuña's mausoleum (Figure 3), designed in 1896 by the Italian Tebaldo Brugnoli Caccialuini for Santiago's General Cemetery, another victim of schizoid-Orientalist assessments (except for the refined work by Domínguez, 2001), more concerned with imagining fantasy built worlds than to appealing to the actual transfers of models between America and Europe and the concretion of the architectural styles that come together in this revival because, at the end, naming it neo-Arab without referring to the different types and quite diverse forms of Islamic architecture in the mausoleum does not clarify the question.

Archivo Histórico Nacional

Figure 3 Teobaldo Brugnoli. Claudio Vicuña's mausoleum, Cementerio General de Santiago, Chile, 1898. 

From the aforementioned constructions, it should be noted that not all of them are part of the same architectural phenomenon - beyond their laconic cataloging under the epithets of neo-Islamic, neo-Medieval or eclectic-Historicist - nor were all, naturally, created using analogous sources or parallel architectural composition methods.

An Alhambra that is not a copy

Any specialist on medieval architecture can verify, with perplexity, how the palace of La Alhambra in Santiago has been vilified in its comprehension, belittled by repeatedly stating that it is a copy of the Nazari palace built between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries in Granada. Classifying the Chilean building as a copy denigrates one of the earliest constructions of its kind in Latin America, since it was one of the first Alhambrist buildings of the Southern cone, prior to the neo-Nazari Dardo Rocha palace in La Plata, Argentina, built in 1889, and other better known examples (Gutiérrez, 2008).

To interpret Manuel Aldunate's building as a copy relegates it to a naive understanding of architecture as perpetuating vacuous references, obscuring its role in a phenomenon of great intellectual scope. Considering the date 1862 is written in an epigraph on its main facade, its design probably begun in 1861, precisely the year when Aldunate returned from Europe - where he had been sent by the Chilean government for his technical education in beaux-arts schools - and of whom it was said that he was "the most prolific and most original of our architects," "the only one who has completed his studies in Europe; and has therefore no rival" (Grez, 1889).

The design for the Chilean palace is part of a long intellectual process reassessing Spanish Islamic architecture, which begun outside of Spain and with which Aldunate became familiar during his stay in France - where in the nineteenth century flourished a renewed interest for Eastern architecture, as shown by the issuing of Girault's Arab and Moorish monuments from Córdoba, Sevilla and Granada (1837) or the Manuel général de l'Architecture by Daniel Ramée (1843), which reviewed the architecture of Egypt, Sicily and Al-Andalus (Calatrava, 2015, Decléty, 2009).

It was precisely in this context and at the French beaux-arts schools where Brunet De Baines (1799-1855) was educated, the architect who arrived to Chile in 1848 and by then was the first director of the newly founded School of Architecture (Grez, 1889), in addition to being the author of what has been considered the first South American manual of architecture. Although his role in the Chilean knowledge of Islamism has not yet been valued, Brunet pointed to concepts that historiography will later attribute to Aldunate's building, accepting a stereotyped view of a pompous Eastern architecture with a "more ardent imagination," and where Spain and La Alhambra are referential epicenters of Islamic architecture, a position shared only with Cairo's mosque of Ibn Tulun (Brunet, 1853).

In 1861, as Brunet's pupil and successor, Aldunate became acquainted with the famous drawing and study project The Arab Antiquities of Spain (1756-1760), which had encouraged the restoration of La Alhambra in Granada in 1782, when Tomás López Maño became its Master builder, undertaking small protective actions that would reach its maximum development with José Contreras, restorer, rebuilder/destroyer, designer and artificer of casts and reproductions of the building's ornaments between 1837 and 1845 in a phenomenon once again sponsored by France (Barrios, 2008). Between positivist and archaeological approaches mixed with picturesque visions set in Eastern imaginaries, an interest for La Alhambra grew throughout Europe.

Its Chilean version must also be seen in the context of the foundation, in 1847, of the Arab Casting Workshop at the School of Arts and Crafts in Granada, supplier to collectors and museums eager to seize evocative fragments of the Nazari palace's decorative beauty. This is the same year in which Contreras makes a plaster replica of the Dos hermanas room, distributing its copies from 1850 in Universal Exhibitions; a year later, England and London's South Kensington - later the Victoria and Albert Museum - initiate also their collection of Alhambrist reproductions (Figure 4). This led the architect Owen Jones (1806-1874) to a study-visit to La Alhambra, gateway to the Nazari palace of a Victorian England fascinated by Eastern architecture, an interest dating back to William Chambers' Orientalist traces in the Kew Gardens of London (1760), the admiration for Henry Swinburne's seven drawings of La Alhambra and three others of the mosque of Córdoba in 1779, the issuing of James Cavanah Murphy's The Arabian antiquities of Spain (1813), with beautiful plans and sections of the Granadian palace, and Washington Irving's novel The Alhambra, published in 1832.

Victoria and Albert Museum

Figure 4 La Alhambra plaster cast, by Rafael Contreras, 1865. 

Far from copying, the ornaments used in the Chilean La Alhambra, as well as its contribution to the evocation of Islamic space, recall and are part of the wide reception of those 1834 designs by Jones and Goury for Plans, elevations, sections, and details of The Alhambra, a source consulted by all the architects building revivals back then - including Aldunate - as it re-elaborated erudite models originally meant for archeological purposes (McSweeney, 2015) (Figure 5). In fact, only ten years before the pioneering Alhambrist reception at the Chilean capital, the 1851 Universal Exhibition was being held in London, where Hyde Park's Crystal Palace took all the attention. There, Jones preformed his positivist translation of the renowned Granada's Court of the Lions at the Alhambra Court (Figure 6), a masterpiece of Hispanic neo-Islamism on British soil that was widely distributed through photographs, prints and all kind of publications, most certainly analyzed by Aldunate while in Europe (Calatrava, 2015; McSweeney, 2015) (Figure 7).

Islamic Arts and Architecture

Figure 5 Drawing of La Alhambra, by Owen Jones. In: GOURY, and JONES. Plans, elevations, sections and details of The Alhambra. London, 1842. 


Figure 6 Owen Jones. The Alhambra Court, Crystal Palace (Joseph Paxton), London, 1854 

Sociedad Nacional de Bellas Artes

Figure 7 Manuel Aldunate. La Alhambra palace (court). Santiago, Chile, 1861 - 1862. 

Therefore, reducing the Chilean La Alhambra to an unconscious copy disregards the long course that, from circumstances in Europe and mediated by Brunet De Baines, ends up rendering Aldunate as a nineteenth-century architect of a broad intellectual knowledge, fully aware of the debate within Islamist perceptions and a frontrunner among Orientalism intellectuals of the period. This is the only possible explanation for the variety of models comprised in the Chilean palace, which resembles Granada in its inner courtyard but that uses forms proper of Córdoba's mosque in its main façade, justifying its Alhambrist adherence - another derivative of the neo-Islamic style, but that never seems to be pointed-out for the Chilean case.

A palace that is neither exotic nor fantastic

The study of the devastated Díaz-Gana palace in Santiago suffered the same fate than Aldunate's work. Erected between 1874 and 1875 by the German architect Theodore Burchard (Figure 8), the building has been labeled as extravagant, capricious and ingeniously Eastern, while studies' stylistic nomenclatures define it as "Byzantine," "neo-Arab" or "Eclectic," circumventing the need to explain accurately the choice of such architectural aesthetics, as well as the ways and its actual, far from fancy, models of inspiration.

Private collection

Figure 8 Theodore Burchard. Díaz-Gana palace. Santiago, Chile, 1875. 

However part of the neo-Islamic movement, it is essential to point out that the paths followed by Burchard for its design abruptly depart from the process followed by Aldunate. It is by no means a matter of the same phenomenon within neo-Arab.

Thus, the conception of a palace with a low horseshoe-arched frontis, with two domes on drums, framed by minarets, on each side; the use of another major dome on an octagonal drum in the center, together with the prominent staircase and the plinth on top of which the construction rises, have very direct references that explain the adoption of a building type well known in Europe and, therefore, already little inventive or exotic in 1870.

Educated in the German school, Burchard knew the early Germanic side of the nineteenth-century Islamic revival - quite different from the one developed in France, Spain or England - from the Wilhelma villa, designed in 1837 in Stuttgart by the architect Ludwig von Zanth, who had a wide catalog of Islamisms among his buildings (Decléty, 2009). Still, and above all references, there is no doubt that Burchard knew the oeuvre of the architect Carl von Diebitsch, who after visiting Granada in 1846, built the so-called Moorish House of Berlin (1856) and the palace Al Gezirah in Cairo (1862), showing a less positivist approach to the early Hispano-Muslim models (Sazatornil, 2012).

Diebitsch's main and most widespread work was a small pavilion for the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1867 (Figure 9), the most relevant event of the late nineteenth century, which explains the formula and the models that inspired the Díaz-Gana palace in Santiago. The exhibition has been understood as the definitive outburst of Orientalism in Europe, irradiated from the Turkey pavilion, the Khedive palace and, especially, the creation of the so-called Tunisian Palace of the Bey (Figure 10) by the architect Alfred Chapon (1834-1893) (Çelik, 1992:123); referential buildings for a generation of architects convinced that such works embodied progress and renovation, as demonstrated by the universal exhibitions.

Archiv für Kunst und Geschichte

Figure 9 Carl von Diebitsch. Maurischer Kiosk. Paris Universal Exhibition, 1867 

Bibliothèque nationale de France

Figure 10 Alfred Chapon. Tunisian Palace of the Bey, Paris Universal Exhibition, 1867. 

A quick comparison between the buildings irrefutably confirms the model replicated by Burchard in Chile: from Diebitsch were taken the stylized minarets, the small portico and the octagonal-shaped drum of the central dome; while Chapon's Tunis Regency palace inspired the great staircase, the lateral domes, the use of a two-color façade as well as other formal details that make the Bey residence a reference that was almost duplicated.

Two categorizations of neo-Islamic in Chile

In summary, Burchard left little to the imagination in his building for Díaz-Gana as it wasn't really exotic, being a model already somewhat outdated appearing ten years after its innovative presentation in the aforementioned universal exhibition. Eastern imaginaries must give way to a much more mundane reality, as simple as the adherence to the architectural formulas of Universal Exhibitions, typical of nineteenth-century architects.

On the other hand, it seems inadmissible to continue to confuse nineteenth-century approaches to Islamic architecture, even though these have been entangled under the omnipresent and ambiguous epithet of neo-Arab. The first case shows Manuel de Aldunate's adherence to Alhambrism, from his journey to France and the revival of the Nazari palace in Spain and England, whereas the second phenomenon - exemplified in Burchard's building - detaches from the erudite, archaeological model to recreate some supposedly Islamic architectural types (this would deserve another debate) that Tunisia projected, from Paris and from its pavilion, to the Europe of the time.

The first Chilean neo-Arab revival focused on the Nazari palace, while the latter belonged to a renewed interest in Islamic architecture, but outside Al-Andalus, encouraged by the incorporation of new territories among European colonies. Thus, Islamic architecture from Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and India (quite different from the Hispanic one) is evoked in Burchard's palace, originated in the Universal Exhibition's ephemeral constructions, where - like a small microcosm - all Orientalisms were encompassed in a tiny space, far from the scientific and rational nature of the unique model embraced by Aldunate.

These two rich and complex ways of conceiving Eastern architecture in the Chilean nineteenth century should not continue to be confused or hidden under the veils of exoticism and the extravagance of unknown Eastern imaginaries that, on the contrary, have very precise and clear European models - direct and irrefutable - together with well-defined architectural composition processes that explain Aldunate and Burchard's palaces in Santiago de Chile. Likewise, it becomes essential to specify stylistic terms and to use them in scientific texts in order to avoid considering the Chilean neo-Arab as an homogeneous phenomenon, without nuances, a vacuous unconscious and superficial architectural emulation - categories that certainly do not define the architecture here analyzed.

Finally, the reader will agree that, when it comes to referring to one or the other Islamic referent within the nineteenth-century Chilean constructions, one must be very careful to identify - without hesitation - what type of Arab architecture we are denoting, among the vast territories where Islamic art and culture was spread. Because labeling a building as 'neo-Arab' means not saying anything about it at all.


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* José Morais Master in European Culture and Thought, Universidad de León, 2010. Master in Anthropology, Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia, 2016. Doctor in History of Art, University of León, 2010. He is author of the books Roma en el Románico (Cáceres, 2013), La recuperación de la Ecclesiae Primitivae forma en la escultura del Panteon Real de San Isidoro de León (León, 2008), La arqueta de San Adrián del Art Institute de Chicago (Valparaiso, 2016) and Vida y muerte en el monasterio de San Juan de Montealegre (León, 2016). He has been a researcher at the Università degli Studi La Sapienza in Rome, the Center d'études supérieures de civilisation médiévale at the Université de Poitiers, the Medieval Office at the University of Palermo and the Institute of Medieval Studies at the New University of Lisbon. He is currently the chair of Art History at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso.

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