Los Angeles Architecture 101: California Churrigueresque

Featured image credit: Geographer

And you thought Googie sounded exotic. Try wrapping your tongue around Churrigueresque! Believe it or not, this somewhat obscure architectural style is just as overwhelming on the eyes as it is the mouth. Subscribing to the “more is more” philosophy of the Baroque aesthetic, Churrigueresque is a highly decorative sub-style of Spanish Baroque. Due to its unrestrained ornamentalism, it’s sometimes referred to as “Ultra Baroque” or “Wedding Cake Architecture.” To be fair, its uber-opulence is more commonly mirrored in sugary icing than stucco and concrete. Yet, Churrigueresque began toward the end of the 17th century as a Spanish style of architecture that used stucco to achieve its painstaking detail. And while it flourished in Europe until about 1750, its influence continued across the Western world, even finding its way to sunny California. 

The Origins of Churrigueresque

Photo credit: Nicooo 2705

The Churrigueresque style owes its exotic name to noted Spanish architect José Benite de Churriguera. One look at the aesthetic and it should come as no surprise that he was also an accomplished sculptor. However, while Benite de Churriguera may be the movement’s namesake, he was not its originator. Alonsa Cana, another artist who worked in architecture and sculpture, owns that honor. He’s perhaps most revered for designing the intricate façade of the Catedral de Granada, completed in 1667. 

Architects frequently used the florid, ornamental nature of Churrigueresque to emphasize entryways. Yet, it also served to revitalize stagnating architecture in several ways. At its crux, Churrigueresque creates a striking juxtaposition by placing the expressively ornate elements beside unassumingly plain surfaces. Therefore, the unusual style reinvented buildings by directly applying the pre molded concrete, stucco, or terra cotta designs to the original flat surfaces. 

The Three Phases of Classic Churrigueresque Architecture

Historians have broken down the original Churrigueresque movement into three distinct phases:

Phase 1: 1680 – 1720

Italian architect Camillo Guarino Guarini elevated this phase, characterized by its liberal use of spiraling Solomonic columns and Classical composite order, to prominence. Additionally, the marrying of Solomonic columns and composite order would become known as “supreme order.” 

Photo credit: Giovanni Dall’Orto

Phase 2: 1720 – 1760

The Churrigueresque column, commonly referred to as the estipite column, characterizes the style’s second phase. Estipite columns incorporated inverted conical structures and obelisks to facilitate increasingly complex forms. 

Phase 3: 1760 – 1780

The final phase of the movement popularized a concerted movement away from twisting Solomonic columns and highly ornate decorative frills. Instead, this phase infused the florid decadence of Churrigueresque with subdued neoclassical elements. 

Crossing the Seas with Churrigueresque Style

With the popularity of Churrigueresque waning in the late 18th century, it’s a wonder the aesthetic ever graced a single Los Angeles edifice. But by then, Churrigueresque had made its way overseas, taking root in the work of several savvy architects. Chief among these was Lorenzo Rodriguez whose enthralling work pushed Mexican Churrigueresque to become arguably the most ambitious and decadent work in the style to date. Scholars of art frequently regard Mexico City’s Sagrario Metropolitano to be his crowning achievement. 

Under Rodriguez’s influence, several Mexican architects began to apply Churrigueresque to Spanish Colonial structures. It was in the early 20th century that American architects Bertram Goodhue and Carleton Winslow, Sr. sought the inspiration of Mexican Churrigueresque when formulating designs for the ambitious Panama-California Exposition. Many see the buildings created for this 1915 Balboa Park-based fair as the genesis of the California Churrigueresque offshoot.

Fueling the Spanish Colonial Revival in California

The rise of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture across California is a story for another Architecture 101 blog. But it’s important to note that California Churrigueresque’s incorporation drove the widespread favor shown to the Spanish Colonial Revival style. In fact, a major reason why you rarely hear of Churrigueresque is because it was overshadowed in contemporary times by the Spanish Colonial Revival. However, it’s doubtful that the popular architecture style would have gained such remarkable traction without its Churrigueresque elements. The California mission style at its foundation was just too limited. With Churrigueresque, architects found a wealth of creative possibilities. 

The Dawn of the California Churrigueresque Style

Balboa Park’s Panama-California Exposition served as the catalyst for California Churrigueresque’s wide use across the state. But it wasn’t actually the introduction of Churrigueresque in California. At least not physically. When Churrigueresque designs were published in anticipation of Goodhue’s and Winslow’s work for the California-Panama Exposition, they stirred considerable interest. Yet, with the fair still years away, the First Congregational Church in Riverside used those designs to beat the architects to the punch. Completed in 1914, the church makes liberal use of California Churrigueresque in its tower.

Examples of Churrigueresque Architecture in the Greater LA Area

Today, examples of California Churrigueresque can be found sparingly throughout the Greater Los Angeles area. Many in the area opted to label the style the phonetically simpler “Spanish.” But this lacks the specificity that such a grandiose style demands. If you’re curious to see examples of California Churrigueresque for yourself, the following local structures exemplify the style either wholly or in part:

Photo credit: John O’Neill
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