Crafting a New World Architectural Style

Conquest of the New World by Spain brought with it Spanish architectural styles. Rooted in North Africa, Spanish architectural tradition blended styles from as far as Northern Europe to the Middle East. This distinctive style put Moorish touches on Gothic structures, known by the eighteenth century as Baroque or Churrigueresque. The highly decorative elements of the Old World were then transplanted to Colonial Mexico where they helped to shape the great cathedrals of Mexico City and Central Mexico.

Colonial mission floor plans

While retaining many traditional Spanish elements, the mission architecture of the frontier tended traditional Spanish elements, the mission architecture of the frontier tended to be utilitarian. Buildings stretched fifty to several hundred feet in length and were equally variable in height. Floor plans ranged from elaborate cruciforms with arcade corridors to simple hall designs with an occasional sacristy or baptistery projection (Figure 1). The simple adobe structures or highly decorated churches were built in areas with little to no infrastructure and often under dangerous conditions. These outposts served the church, but also functioned as defensive garrisons. The structures would become the core of many communities and would serve a multitude of purposes.

Missions typically were built from local materials such as adobe and stone, with fired brick used in the construction of the more elaborate churches with multiple domes and arches. Indigenous laborers were directed by skilled missionaries during the construction. The buildings display evidence that highly trained artisans took part in both architectural design and craftsmanship tasks. Vernacular influence is also especially evident in many of the missions built in the pueblo masonry style in New Mexico.

Ornamentation gave missions their individual character. Façade ornamentation ranged from simple stone borders to elaborate carved stone elements. Highly ornate polychromatic murals or a few elements hand-painted by indigenous laborers decorated interior spaces. Elaborate altarpieces or retablos were transported from larger cities along with bronze bells and other ecclesiastical artwork. Although Jesuit architecture is often considered to be more ornate, frequently Franciscan and Jesuit floor plans and ornamentation are indistinguishable (Kennedy 1993). In many cases, Franciscans modified or reconstructed missions on sites that were originally established by the Jesuits. The mixture of artistic and architectural styles of the frontier missions grew into distinct regional tradition that produced uniquely utilitarian and often visually magnificent structures. Spanish Colonial Missions continue to inspire the architecture of the borderlands.