Discussing Architecture in Spanish-Speaking Countries

Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

Are you ready to travel to a Spanish-speaking country and talk about architecture? This lesson provides you with the basic terminology you need, including some architectural aspects that you commonly find in different countries of the Spanish-speaking world.

Two Types of Architecture

Imagine you travel to Latin America. The countries you visit have two basic types of architecture that relate to Latin American history. There's la arquitectura colonial (lah ahr-kee-tehk-TOO-rah koh-loh-neeAHL), which means the 'colonial architecture'. There is also la arquitectura moderna (lah ahr-kee-tehk-TOO-rah moh-DEHR-nah), which means the 'modern architecture'. Now, la arquitectura colonial involves all the construction the Spanish built during the colonization years. Any other construction that came after without the influence of the Spaniards is la arquitectura moderna. Let's look at some basic terminology that pertains to each type of architecture.

Colonial Architecture

Let's meet Pablo, a tour guide who takes us on a virtual trip through some arquitectura colonial in Latin America, which mostly has influencia barroca (een-floo-EHN-seeah bahr-ROH-kah). This means 'influence of the Baroque'. Pablo tells us that you can go to Santiago (Chile), Buenos Aires (Argentina), Lima (Perú), Quito (Ecuador), Ciudad de México (Mexico) and you pretty much find all the buildings you just learned if you go to el centro histórico (ehl SEHN-troh ees-TOH-ree-koh). This is 'the historical downtown'. Before the tour begins, let's look at the basic terms that refer to buildings you typically find in this type of architecture.

  • la casa con patio al centro (lah KAH-sah kohn PAH-teeoh ahl SEHN-troh): the house with a yard in the center
  • la catedral (lah KAH-teh-DRAHL): the cathedral
  • el cabildo (ehl kah-BEEL-doh): the municipality (currently, most people prefer to use the word la municipalidad (lah moo-nee-see-pah-lee-DAD) because cabildo makes it sound as if colonial times were still in place)
  • la iglesia (lah ee-GLEH-seeah): the church
  • la plaza mayor (lah PLAH-sah mah-YOHR): the main square (many people call this la plaza de armas (lah PLAH-sah deh AHR-mahs), which is 'the arms square' because this illustrates the authority through arms back in colonial times)
  • la fortificación (lah forh-tee-fee-kah-see-OHN): the fort

Translation: Many coastal cities in Latin America have a fort, like in Cartagena (Colombia).

So now let's put this vocabulary in perspective through an example. We are at el centro histórico en Santiago (Chile). Pablo shows us:

  • La Plaza Mayor incluye varios espacios verdes con bancas donde puedes sentarte a descansar. (The main square includes several green areas with benches, where you can sit and rest.) A un lado de la plaza, vemos la catedral. (On one side of the square, we see the cathedral.) En las calles cercanas a la Plaza Mayor, se pueden ver muchas casas con patio al centro, típicas de la colonia. (In the streets around the main square, one can see many houses with a yard in the center, typical of the colonial time.) En el lado opuesto a la catedral, vemos el cabildo, donde trabaja el alcalde de la ciudad. (On the opposite side of the cathedral, we see the municipality, where the city mayor works.)

This example is a great illustration of what you see in many Latin American cities, each one unique but with this structure around la plaza mayor. Also, if you travel to Spain, you see this structure in many cities... so much that Latin Americans who travel to Spain often feel the sensation of 'deja vu'.

Before we move on, Pablo takes us to Cartagena (Colombia), where we can see la fortificación, a fort typical of many coastal cities since the Spanish built forts to protect cities from possible attacks.

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