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Colonial architecture in the Americas
03 Dec 2009, 17:02

Colonial architecture in the Americas

North America.

The colonial architecture of the United States and Canada was as diverse as the peoples who settled there: English, Dutch, French, Swedish, Spanish, German, Scots-Irish. Each group carried with it the style and building customs of the mother country, adapting them as best it could to the materials and conditions of a new land. Thus, there were several colonial styles. The earliest buildings of all but the Spanish colonists were medieval in style: not the elaborate Gothic of the great European cathedrals and manor houses but the simple late Gothic of village houses and barns. These practical structures were well adapted to the pioneer conditions that prevailed in the colonies until about 1700, and few changes were needed to adapt them to the more severe climate. The styles were frank expressions of functional and structural requirements, with only an occasional bit of ornament. So far as is known, no single new structural technique or architectural form was invented in the North American colonies.

There were seven reasonably distinct regional colonial styles: (1) the New England colonial, visible in almost 100 surviving 17th-century houses, was predominantly of wood construction with hand-hewn oak frames and clapboard siding; its prototypes are to be found chiefly in the southeastern counties of England. (2) The Dutch colonial, centring in the Hudson River Valley, in western Long Island, and in northern New Jersey, made more use of stone and brick or a combination of these with wood; its prototypes were in Holland and Flanders. The style persisted in this region until after the American Revolution. (3) The Swedish colonial settlement, established in 1638 along the lower Delaware River, was of short duration but contributed the log cabin (in the sense of a structure with round logs, notched at the corners and with protruding ends) to American architecture. (4) The Pennsylvania colonial style was late in origin (the colony was not founded until 1681) and rapidly developed into a sophisticated Georgian mode, based on English precedents. A local variant, often called Pennsylvania Dutch, evolved in the southeastern counties where Germans settled in large numbers after 1710. (5) The Southern colonial flourished in Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas. Story-and-a-half brick houses, sometimes with large projecting end chimneys and decorative brick masonry, prevailed. (6) The French colonial, stemming from medieval French sources, evolved in Canada in the Maritime Provinces and the St. Lawrence Valley. The earliest impressive structure was the Habitation of the French explorer Samuel de Champlain, built at Port Royal, N.S., in 1604. Most of the surviving early houses of New France are to be found in the province of Quebec. The French settled the Great Lakes and Mississippi regions by the late 17th century and introduced the Quebec style. Far to the south, Louisiana was established as a colony in 1699, and New Orleans became the capital in 1718. There grew up a distinctive regional style in the close-packed streets of the Vieux Carré of New Orleans and in the quiet plantations of the bayou country. (7) The Spanish colonial style in the United States extended geographically and chronologically from St. Augustine in 1565 to San Francisco in 1848. The five great mission fields were in Florida, New Mexico (from 1598), Texas, Arizona (both from 1690), and California (from 1769). Unlike other colonial styles, which were essentially medieval, the Spanish colonial followed the Renaissance and Baroque styles of Spain and Mexico.

The architectural style of the 18th century in England and in the English colonies in America was called Georgian. There are slight differences in usages of the term in the two countries. In England, Georgian refers to the mode in architecture and the allied arts of the reigns of George I, II, and III, extending from 1714 to 1820. In America, Georgian refers to the architectural style of the English colonies from about 1700 to the American Revolution in the late 1770s. Formal and aristocratic in spirit, it was at first based on the Baroque work of Sir Christopher Wren and his English followers; but after 1750 it became more severely Palladian. Typically, houses were of red brick with white-painted wood trim. Interiors had central halls, elaborately turned stair balustrades, paneled walls painted in warm colours and white plaster ceilings. All of these features were new to the colonies in 1700. Some of the earliest Georgian buildings were at Williamsburg, capital of Virginia from 1699 to 1780; other notable examples are Independence Hall, Philadelphia (1745), and King's Chapel, Boston (1750). The style was followed by the Federal style, 1780-1820. ( Hu.M.) (see also Index: Georgian style)

Spanish South America.

The architecture of the first half of the 17th century in Spanish America preserves the late classical style of Juan de Herrera, the 16th-century Spanish architect of El Escorial. Herreran austerity, for example, also characterizes San Agustín and Santo Domingo in Puebla, Mex., as well as the facade of the cathedral. (see also Index: Latin America, Herreran style)

Most impressive is the cathedral (1598-1654) of Cuzco, Peru, rectangular in plan and Herreran in its sobriety except for the early Baroque portal. The Jesuit church in Cuzco, whose handsome facade was designed in 1664 by Diego Martínez de Oviedo, constituted the first late Baroque architecture in the Americas. The city abounds in handsome churches and palaces, built of Andean stone in the second half of the 17th century, and it is in many respects unrivaled in America. At Lima, the rebuilding of the monastery of San Francisco (1657-c. 1673) brought a new wave of Mudéjar influence in the geometric designs of the plasterwork. The main portal (1674) of the church inaugurated in that city the late Baroque type of facade, closely resembling a carved altarpiece.

In Bolivia the chief architectural centre was Sucre, where Gothic vaults persisted; but otherwise both religious and domestic buildings adhered to simple classical designs. The Jesuit church of St. Ignatius (c. 1625-50) in Bogotá, Colom., owes its Italianate classicism to an Italian architect, the Jesuit priest Father Coluccini. The greatest masterpiece of Jesuit architecture in North and South America is, however, the church La Compañía, in Quito. There the Mudéjar patterns, which stand out in gold against a red background, make the interior (1605-89) of the church unforgettably sumptuous. More provincial though extremely colourful Mudéjar interiors are characteristic of the monastic churches of Tunja, Colom. Due to the splendid designs of its monastic buildings, Quito stands with Cuzco as one of the major schools of architecture in South America. (see also Index: Colombia, Ecuador)

The first stage of Baroque architecture in Spanish America is generally distinguished by richly sculptured facades, whereas the interiors often remain sober settings for resplendently carved and gilded altarpieces. The late Baroque altar of spiral columns (Salomonica) was imported from Spain about 1650-60. Its translation into stone on the facade of a church first occurred (1697-1704) in South America in Our Lady of La Merced at Lima, to be followed by San Agustín there and by three churches in Cajamarca, Peru.

In this period there appeared in southern Peru and Bolivia a school of architectural decoration characterized by native Indian contributions in the primitive manner of carving and in the introduction of non-European ornament. The crossbred style is known as mestizo because it, like the people, is compounded of European and native Indian stock. Evidences of Indian contribution are also found in Mexico throughout the colonial period, and there exist parallel phenomena in Central America. The first examples of the independent Peruvian-Bolivian style are preserved in Arequipa, Peru, where the facade (1698) of the Jesuit church La Compañía is carved like a stone tapestry. Other examples of mestizo style are the church of Santiago at Pomata, Peru (c. 1690-1722), San Lorenzo (1728-44), and the Jesuit church La Compañía (1700-07) at Potosí, Bol., and San Francisco (1753-72) at La Paz, Bol. (see also Index: American Peoples, Arts of Native)

Argentina lay in the outer periphery of the Spanish colonies, and its early architecture consisted of provincial chapels of rubble and adobe, with the exception of the Jesuit monastery La Compañía (1654-71) at Córdoba. In the 18th century, two Italian Jesuit architects, Blanco and Primoli, established the spacious style of the Italian Baroque in the Jesuit estates of Alta Gracia and Santa Catalina near Córdoba and in the church of Our Lady of Pilar at Buenos Aires.

Baroque architecture reached its climax in Mexico with lavishly carved facades in which the tapering pilaster (estípite) was a distinguishing feature. Introduced in Mexico City in the Metropolitan Sacristy facade (1749-68) under the architect Lorenzo Rodríguez, it spread rapidly and appeared in La Santísima, in the Jesuit seminary at Tepotzotlán, in the churches of Guanajuato, and elsewhere. The school of Puebla maintained independence in producing an extraordinary array of brilliantly coloured exteriors of glazed tiles, both in churches and in countless palaces. The varied geometric contours of doorways, windows, and roof levels created picturesque effects in Mexican buildings of this period.

Throughout Spanish America, cities were designed and built on a gridiron plan, with a rectangular plaza in the centre and the covered sidewalks (portales) of Mediterranean tradition. Houses, large or small, were arranged about a central patio. Handsome domestic buildings exist throughout the region; notable were those in Mexico City and Puebla; in South America at Tunja, Potosí, Lima, and Cuzco. Many remarkable civil edifices, such as the customhouse and viceregal palace, survive in Mexico City, whereas elsewhere only the royal mint at Potosí, Bol. (1753-73), and the government palace (1764) in Antigua, Guat., are comparable in architectural importance. Spanish colonial architecture came to an abrupt end with the triumph of Neoclassicism (1800). (see also Index: urban planning)

Brazil.

The architecture, language, and culture of Portugal were transplanted to Brazil, which was the only major area of non-Spanish origin throughout Latin America. Unlike the unified Spanish settlements, the first cities were built upon hills in medieval style. Little of importance survives from the 16th century, when buildings were mostly of wattle and palm thatch.

The Jesuits carried to Brazil the first significant ecclesiastical style, a severe and undecorated architecture (Olinda, 1592). With variations, it persisted in Brazil until 1750. Plans are rectangular with square sanctuary and sacristy directly behind, and basilican structures are few. Long lateral chapels parallel with the nave are an unusual feature, derived from Portugal. Vaults and domes are rare, and decoration is limited to the occasional use of imported blue glazed tiles.

Salvador, the viceregal capital until 1763, had the closest ties with Lisbon; and its architecture reflected contemporary Portuguese models. A former Jesuit church, now the cathedral of São Salvador (1657-72), has a late Mannerist facade of stone in two principal stories, decorated with Doric pilasters and topped by a large attic story. The prominent windows in the second story are typical of Portuguese and Brazilian ecclesiastical and domestic design.

The more exotic Brazilian church facades began to make their appearance in the 18th century; great volutes over the centres between square towers created extraordinarily ingenious effects. This development can be traced in the facades at São Salvador, Deodoro, Penedo, Olinda, João Pessoa, and elsewhere, in a series of Franciscan churches that feature arched open porticos, three windows in the second story, and fantastic volutes crowning the top.

In the last period of Brazilian colonial architecture (1750-1822) the court style of Lisbon took hold in Belém and the new viceregal capital (1763) at Rio de Janeiro. The neo-Palladian church of the Candelaria (1775) there is the most important monument in the early Neoclassical style. The Rococo was, however, still well entrenched, and in the mining country of Minas Gerais it found its most original expression after 1750. There the great sanctuary of the Bom Jesús de Matozinhas at Congonhas do Campo is approached by terraces, a provincial version of the shrines at Braga and Lamego in Portugal. The oval and octagonal plans, which earlier had been introduced at Rio and Recife, reached a new development in São Pedro dos Clérigos at Mariana and in the double oval plan of the Rosario at Ouro Prêto (1785), where they are combined with round towers and curving facades. Curving exteriors in various forms in the Franciscan churches at Ouro Prêto (1766) and São João del Rei, designed by Aleijadinho (Antonío Francisco Lisboa), and in other monuments established the keynote of this late period.

Extreme decorative luxuriance characterized the altars and church furnishings in the 18th century, and often the walls of chapels and churches were overlaid with carved ornament. Rio, Salvador, and Minas Gerais became the chief centres of interiors in which gilding, spiral columns, late Baroque ornament, and illusionistic painting combined to create extraordinary decorative ensembles. An equal flowering of late Rococo ornament distinguished portals, windows, and profiles of both ecclesiastical and domestic buildings. (H.E.W.)

Copyright 1994-1999 Encyclopædia Britannica

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