It was when I was a student traveling in Spain on a motorbike in the 1960’s that I first encountered the Alhambra. I had a limited understanding of Moorish architecture, since at that time architectural history courses to which I had been exposed barely touched on non-Western models. This moving, unforgettable encounter revealed a spatial realm that inalterable affected my path in architecture.
In Granada, there is a particularly heightened sense of the deep cultural strata of Andalusia, Focused for me in the haunting presence of the gypsies. I had read the gypsy ballad (Romanceros Gitanos) of Federico García Lorca and felt a content and spirit in his work that both transcended and informed his powerful imagery. This intangible content was something that I also have sensed in examples of the architecture of Louis Kahn. In Lorca’s Havana lectures, he exposes the notion of “duende“- a charged state that one associates with the highest, almost mystical, levels of flamenco performance that I sensed had become an aspiration in his poetry. At face value, the Alhambra, born in the atmosphere of Granada, is a charming organization of gardens; but I would suggest that its riveting presence, so compelling to a casual tourist or aficionado, can be characterized as an expression of duende, as articulated by García Lorca and omnipresent in the flamenco “Cante Jondo“: of Andalusia.
For me, the essence of any great building of any time-from Chartres to Ryoan-ji to Salk-is that ineffable power, that duende, that haunts whatever programmatic, cultural, or theoretical premises underpin its conception. In my work, although I aspire to these levels of spirit in architecture, I have found that duende is not a readily deployable “ingredient” that can be conjured up at will. It just shows up if I am lucky and of course, is in the (inner) eye of the beholder.
I will recount my journey of memory through this great masterpiece and perhaps make relationships to works of mine executed in the more than three decades since my first visit to the Alhambra.
Begun in the middle of the thirteenth century by the great Muhammad ibn al-Ahamar and finished 100 years later by Yusef Abdul Hagig, the Alhambra is a composite of sequential spatial perfection and layers of detail, formidable executed by Moorish master artisans. The Alhambra doesn’t have an obvious “front door” (as has amply been pointed out about my Nelson Fine Arts Center in Temple, Arizona). Rather, there is an immediate sense of the prioritization of nonhierarchically linked spatial sequences with the linkages cum chambers, for me, as charged as the “star” spaces they serve. These shadowy transitions to open courts never suggest an overly determined intention about entry, rather a quietly “morphing” condition in total contrast to the Platonic sequencing of the renaissance palace of Carlos V, which is intrusively embedded in one flank of the Alhambra. In an intention similar to the Alhambra, my Nelson center eschews an emphasis on a linear procession, but rather is a multidirectional urban “filter”. As the pageant of the progression of the courtyards of the Alhambra unfolds, each one has diverse perimeter definition: axially positioned chambers focusing views to distant landscape and multistory elements with interspersed towers. Many of the transitional spaces are relentlessly lined with calligraphic script carved in plaster, azulejo tiles or wood alfarge ceilings. All follow the repetitive principle of “zelige,” so that they become surface and are not merely a decorative admixture. Verdant and arid courts thermally induce air movement from one to the next, and water in many guises seductively guides the procession. The “Sol y Sombra” of Andalusia in general and of Garcia Lorca’s bullfight in particular permeate the phenomenological matrix. This duality of sun and shadow has long since become a part of my work as it has evolved in the high desert of New Mexico. The journey through the Alhambra incorporates both subtle and complex level changes. Towers connect panoramically to sky and horizon while introverted subterranean realms like the baths are laced with rays of light. The choreographic imperative in examples of my work, like the Turtle Creek House, Dallas, Texas, unconsciously parallels the sectional elaboration and displacements of the Alhambra. Also, the sense of the palace/fortresses; roughly articulated outer shell contrasting with its delicate inner lining is present in my Danish National Archive scheme.
It is an interesting closure for me to realize that two of the most powerful and personally influential epochs of architecture, the French High Gothic and the Anasazi works of the American Southwest, are roughly contemporary with the Alhambra. All share that baffling quality, that duende, that charges great architecture over time. One of its notable residents, Washington Irving, characterized the Alhambra as “one of the most remarkable, romantic and delicious spots in the world.” To that I would add that the Alhambra, residing in that realm of myth and spirit so powerfully articulated by Garcia Lorca, extends the experience of architecture far beyond the merely picturesque.
And they’re entering a labyrinth.
Love, crystal, and stone.
Texto e imagen de Antoine Predock (2002)