27 Sep 2013

Customs House

Customs House, Newcastle
Sometimes it’s hard to know why you get a particular impression about something. Apparently our subconscious registers lots more information than our conscious mind realizes and it also does it very quickly, which is why, for example, we may like or dislike a new house straightaway, even though we wouldn’t be able to provide a full list of the reasons that lead us to this conclusion.

Something similar happened to me the first time I saw Customs House in Newcastle. It reminded me a lot of Spain but I wasn't quite sure why. Perhaps it was its shape, similar to the shape of many churches I’ve seen back home. Or its tower time ball, similar to the time ball in the House of the Post Office in the centre of Madrid, which is part of the clock TV stations focus on during the final countdown on New Year’s Eve. Or it could be the window arches that remind me so much of the arches in the Córdoba Mosque. I had to look it up.
Picture courtesy of Mihael Grmek

Any connection to Spanish architecture? None of the information I found in the internet indicated that. Customs House was designed in the Italianate Renaissance Revival Style by New South Wales Architect James Barnet in 1877. The Italianate style o was a 19th-century phase in architecture, which was inspired by 16th-century Italian Renaissance.

I wasn’t happy enough with this explanation so I persevered in my search. The type of arches that I’ve always associated with Moorish architecture in Spain, the horse-shoe arches, were already used by the Romans, but there was something about the use of bricks of two colours in these arches at Customs House that I very strongly associated with Moorish buildings and Mudéjar style. The Mudéjar style was a symbiosis of techniques resulting from Muslim and Christian cultures living side by side in Spain. It emerged in the 12th century. According to http://www.podtours.co.uk/mudejar-architecture.html it’s characterised by the use of brick as the main material. Aha! Here it was.

Even after Muslims were no longer employed in architecture, many of the elements they had introduced continued to be incorporated into Spanish architecture, giving it a distinctive appearance. While work carried out by the Catholic Monarchs still contains traces of the Mudéjar style, Emperor Charles V (Charles I of Spain) brought a severe Renaissance style with him from 1530s onwards. But that’s not quite the end of the Mudéjar style, because  it saw a revival in the late 19th century. Even the architects of ‘modernism’ in Barcelona borrowed from the style, which has become in many ways architectural shorthand for Spanishness.

So, the 19th century saw a revival of Mudéjar style in Spanish territory and the creation of Italianate style of architecture in Britain, which spread to Australia.

Perhaps Italianate was a little bit influenced by the Mudéjar style. What's certain is that the red bricks and the two-coloured window arches against a backdrop of intense blue sky are familiar and comforting to me.