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No.9: The Alhambra

issue 38 Aug / Sep 2007

Sharon Stammers continues her world tour exploring the best architecture that is built with light. this time Mark Ridler of BDP Lighting plumps for a Moorish masterpiece.

The Alhambra is the 8th most visited building in the world and consists of a sprawling palace and fortress complex initially built by the Nasrid dynasty between 1338 and 1390. It is located on top of the al Sabika hill to the West of the city of Granada, Spain. Enclosed by a fortified wall and flanked by thirteen towers, the citadel covers an area of approximately 142,000 sqm and includes examples of the whole repetoire of Moorish architecture. Elegant columns soar towards the sky, exquisitely detailed marble pillars and arches, fretted ceilings, filigree work, arabesques, coloured tiles and graceful calligraphy decorate the palace interiors. The sun and wind are freely admitted to the complex, light penetrating through the rooms and reflecting from water.
The Alhambra is named after its reddish walls and translates as the red or crimson castle from the Arabic ‘qa’lat al-Hamra’. This derives from the colour of the red clay of the surroundings from which the complex is made. The exterior of the buildings of the Alhambra were originally whitewashed and have been referred to as silver by starlight and transformed by sunlight into gold. Moorish poets describe the citadel as “a pearl set in emeralds” in allusion to the colour of its buildings and the woods around them.
There is evidence of the Alhambra existing as a fortress from the 9th Century but it did not become a Palace until the 13th Century, when Mohammed ben Al-Hamar the first king of the Nasrid dynasty began the restoration of the old fortress. The kings Yusuf I and Mohammed V completed the beautification of the palaces with the construction of spaces such as the Court of the Lions and ensured the historical identity of the Alhambra as a sumptuous citadel rather than a defensive and ascetic structure.
The Alhambra became a Christian court in 1492 when the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella conquered the city of Granada. The conquerors altered the Alhambra, whitewashing and effacing the painting and gilding. In the 16th Century, Charles V demolished and rebuilt portions of the complex in the Renaissance style of the period, and at the start of the 18th Century, Philip V Italianised the rooms and further defaced the Moorish interiors.
Part of the citadel was blown up during the French domination and Napoleon tried to destroy the entire complex. Just before his plan was carried out, a soldier who secretly wanted his plan to fail, defused the explosives and unwittingly saved the Alhambra for posterity.
During the 18th century and part of the 19th, the Alhambra fell into neglect and was to see its palaces converted into taverns and rubbish heaps: “Thus bats defile abandoned castles, and the reality of Spanish criminals and beggars destroy the illusion of this fairy palace of the Moors.” - Richard Ford.
Before restoration began in1828 by the architect José Contreras, an earthquake in the region caused further damage. In 1870, the Alhambra was declared a national monument and the process of repairing, restoring and preserving the complex started.
In spite of its history of neglect and vandalism, the Alhambra remains the most perfect example of Moorish art in its final European development. Highlights include the elaborate interior of the Torre de las Armas and the 25m high Torre de la Vela within the Alcazaba, the oldest part of the Alhambra. The group of palaces known as the Casa Real Vieja is where the celebrated Patio de los Leones is to be found. The 35 x 20m court is surrounded by 124 double columns which have been compared to palm trees creating the oasis of the central fountain with its twelve lions. Also within this complex is the Sala de las dos Hermanas with its intricate roof of five thousand muquarnas; a dome honeycombed with tiny cells, a magnificent example of Moorish “stalactite vaulting”.

“The romantic imagination of centuries of visitors has been captivated by the special combination of the slender columnar arcades, fountains, and light-reflecting water basins found in those courtyards...this combination is understood from inscriptions to be a physical realisation of descriptions of Paradise in Islamic poetry.”

Architecture: from Prehistory to Post-Modernism - Trachtenberg/Hyman

“My favourite building is the Alhambra, a stunning accretion of Moorish palaces, courtyards and gardens. The interplay of architecture, water, light and sound extends over a huge site but always remains completely human in scale. The Islamic decoration drips like stalactites from stone ceilings and dances in the Andalucian sun. Light and architecture reflects from pools and fountains. It is a place of exquisite beauty and peace. A place to feed each of the senses and to rejuvenate the soul.”

Mark Ridler – Associate BDP Lighting



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