The Variance in a Uniform Texture
Updated: Jun 2, 2018
A ritual when planning travel abroad is to consult the UNESCO World Heritage List. Weighted in favor of cultural (as opposed to natural) sites it includes may of the world's great buildings and urban centers. The highest concentration are to be found in Eurasia, with listed luminaries including The Great Wall, the Historic Center of Bruge, and in the USA, The University of Virginia and Monticello. Most obtain status through attributes of beauty and civic splendor. A few have notorious merits warranting inclusion, such as Auschwitz Birkenau where thousands were murdered. On a recent trip to Spain, sites in Seville, Cordoba, and Granada did not need UNESCO's prompt for a visit; their significance was known to me as well as to most architects and seasoned travelers. The list, however,tempted me with a new and previously unknown destination, the Old Town of Cáceres. Not found in my Rick Steve's guide, it nonetheless proved worthy of UNESCO listing. Its qualities rivaled all but the most glorious Spanish icons such as the Alhambra, Generalife and Albayzín and the Historic Center of Cordoba.
Cáceres's old town is compact. It took less than 20 minutes to walk its perimeter and perhaps an hour to walk each of its streets. Its size lends it a unique convenience - allowing several tours during even a brief visit and the ability to know the town in a more intimate way. Seizing this opportunity, my multiple strolls through Cácares allowed it to reveal its character to me gradually, in the way only a second or third encounter affords one the chance for a more immersive experience. Cáceres's urban fabric is woven from the simplest cloth and painted with a coarse brush, whose beauty whispers to the visitor with the subtle textures of its weave. Both street and building are composed of undressed stone set in thick, sandy mortar, the homogeneity of which borders on the sublime. Within such a restricted, rough-hewn pallet, there is a variety and luxury greater than many landscapes of more refined materials and form. The streets, being composed of the same stuff, have the buildings appear to be emerging from the street as do rocks from the earth.
The stone in the walls of the buildings and the paving in the streets have a variety of hues, sizes and density, making one think there was a sense of urgency in their construction. The builders needed to get the job done, and they did it in the most efficient means possible and with the predominant material on hand. When possessing refined attributes, they are restricted to embellishing architectural elements found in all buildings, such as windows, entries, and corners. Such refinements are the most basic in expression and do not descend into frivolity. With few exceptions the refinements are crafted from the same predominant stone and mortar making for just a slight shade of distinction and able contributors to the dominant themes.
It is a stark beauty, but a welcoming one warmed by the texture of the materials, their subtle patterning, intimate scale, and varying levels of precision. Most buildings in Cáceres would seem wanting to many if commissioned today, given their amateurish workmanship. Yet these buildings have stood for centuries despite any perceived shortcomings. Cáceres, and its sister cities such as Siena, reveal that there are innumerable lessons in a simpler, less ego-driven means to achieving a quality built realm. Instead of over-working of form and doggedly pursuing precision, it is often imprecise, simple, and anonymous structures that provide us with the best experiences. Quality materials lose little of their beauty even if constructed in the most pragmatic way.
The few contemporary interventions in the old town are well executed. New stone streets use the same stone as the old, rendered more agreeable to foot and automotive traffic by being cut into pavers. A small museum of very recent origin is a fine example of a contemporary design fitting well into a historical context. It's walls are precise, but is form and disposition are beholden to its neighbors. The building even incorporates a few contemporary flourishes, such as alabaster windows and steel pipe columns.
The new town, if not of UNESCO caliber, is certainly a pleasure to stroll and provides a ready foil to the old town. Perhaps the new town experienced greater wealth than the old? Its rubble masonry is covered with stucco and its first floors are clad in dressed stone. The old and new meet on equal ground in Cáceres's main plaza, the Plaza Mayor, where the old's fortifications face-off the new's hotels, town hall, and restaurants. To have a clearly delineated line separating a city's historical urban patterns is an architectural treat not to be missed. The old town's largest plaza is a fraction of the Plaza Mayor in the new town. The old town's plaza is smaller no doubt because it had a smaller, insular population living in a more perilous time. As Spain, and consequently Cáceres, prospered it inhabitants felt more secure, more willing to venture, and commerce and interaction increased as did the need for a larger market places. Eventually the battlements became obsolete, while increased population, interaction with other communities, and greater wealth led to expansion and a desire for refinement. Fortunately these historical circumstances left the old town untouched, and resulted in a peaceful coexistence between the old and new and one between the town and its surrounding landscape.