Why you should care
It doesn’t matter if you don’t know modernism from Bauhaus — Melilla’s architecture is as unusual as it is beautiful.
Love European architecture? Planning on hitting Barcelona’s Sagrada Família or St. Peter’s Square in Rome, but cringing at the thought of battling the crowds? Here’s a tip: There’s a little-known city on the southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea that’s unlike anywhere else in the architecture world.
The autonomous Spanish city of Melilla is surrounded by Morocco on three sides and the Mediterranean Sea to the east. To the few who’ve heard of it, Melilla is perhaps best-known as a hot spot for migrants trying to reach Europe. But what you probably didn’t know is that it’s also an architectural gem that for decades has flown under the radar. Barcelona aside, no other place has such a large, varied and dense collection of modernisme, the Catalan take on art nouveau and modernist architecture.
Melilla’s so-called golden triangle — from the Plaza de España along Avenida Juan Carlos I and in the streets and alleyways that stretch out on either side — is home to the best-preserved grouping of art nouveau buildings anywhere in the world. With bright and dark shades of yellow, greens and deep blues, the facade of this curious city is both modern and time-warped. The cast-iron balconies, ornate turrets and mix of leafy and geometric shapes make you feel like you’ve walked into an open-air Wes Anderson movie set.
A Catalan architect and Gaudí protégé named Enrique Nieto led the charge.
There are patterns borrowed from Austria (the La Reconquista), France (Casa Tortosa on Avenida Rey Juan Carlos I) and Belgium (Casa Melul, also on Rey Juan Carlos I) as well as from the Islamic world. The National Distance Education University (UNED) building, for example, combines modernism and Islamic styles and ornamentation. “In the early 20th century, some cities, Melilla included, were built with a strong desire for modernity and cosmopolitanism,” says Antonio Bravo Nieto, a historian and director of UNED. “Melilla’s architecture has a very strong personality and style that is transmitted in its buildings.”
At just 5 square miles, Melilla was granted autonomous city status in 1995. Funding from the EU and elsewhere flooded in, helping revive a unique visual identity that had languished for more than half a century.
But while Catalan modernism is world-renowned because of the ambition and vision of a certain Antoni Gaudí, that genius never worked in Melilla. Instead, a Catalan architect and Gaudí protégé named Enrique Nieto led the charge. Born in Barcelona in the early 1880s, Nieto moved to Melilla in 1909 and set about imprinting a radical new design on the city’s central mosque, synagogue and national theater, as well as dozens of municipal, civic and landmark public buildings.
“His work stands out because he is a collaborator of Gaudí’s in Barcelona on the Casa Batlló and Casa Milá [now both UNESCO World Heritage sites], but also because his own work is in a Spanish city on the African continent,” says Salvador Gallego Aranda, a Nieto biographer and professor at the University of Granada. In 1939, Nieto was appointed city architect, but he’s never been widely known for his contribution. In part, says Aranda, that is because some historians refused to recognize modernist art as such if it existed outside Catalonia.
Whatever the purists say, there’s one thing we know: Melilla is a place sure to surprise and intrigue any architecture fan.
GO THERE: MELILLA’S ARCHITECTURAL TREASURES
- Get there: Two ferry companies make the trip (five to seven hours) between Málaga and Melilla. There are also ferry options from Motril and a ferry from Almería on mainland Spain to Melilla. Alternatively, fly to Melilla direct from Málaga, Madrid or Barcelona (seasonal).
- Pro tips: Be sure to get in a tour of Melilla’s Plaza de Toros bullring, a beautiful 8,800-seat arena and the only one of its kind on the continent of Africa. Watch out for exorbitant cellphone roaming costs if you get automatically connected to a Moroccan carrier.