An opaque and hovering concrete cube that opened to an interior of richly ornamented patios, the building was readily celebrated as the “the jewel” of the fair, exemplar of a refined modernism unlike much of the technological kitsch taking over the grounds of the 1964 Worlds' Fair in New York. The reception of the architecture that the dictatorial regime of Francisco Franco brought into the world scene in 1964 echoed the praise stirred by the Spanish pavilion at Expo 58 in Brussels, a gridded structure of steel and glass likewise applauded as an “unexpected gem of architecture.” Despite the formal and material discrepancies between the two buildings, both were quintessentially modern—and seemingly at odds with the fascist regime they were called to represent. As the Italian Bruno Zevi put it in 1958: “The Spanish Pavilion makes one wonder: maybe this country is no longer fascist? Or, is Franco now tired and allows artists an unusual freedom?”
Fascism was of course alive and well, and architecture continued to be as crucial an instrument for its production as it had been in the 1930s across Europe. Only now the world stage was shifting under Cold War dynamics and with it the ideological configurations, images, and techniques of fascism. In this talk, I will chronicle how architects, State officials, and intellectuals worked together to redefine the cultural narrative and aesthetic register of fascism at mid-century in Spain, a project aimed at securing the regime a place within the modernizing and modernist West all the while retaining, and in many ways reinforcing the myth of empire and religious essentialism that was at the core of the Spanish radical right. The historian and Secretary of Censorship Florentino Pérez-Embid coined this two-sided ideal most fittingly as “Westernization in the means, Hispanization in the ends.” This talk will focus on the architectural strategy that Pérez-Embid proposed to project, namely, the re-inscription of the country’s Islamic past into an abstract and modernized representation of Catholicism. With this synthesis, architecture was called to perform the Spanish Reconquista and western modernization in the very same aesthetic breadth and, in doing so, to transfer a colonial campaign then definitely waning in North Africa to the realm of cultural politics. Beginning with a series of historical revisions on the architecture of Al-Andalus and the Mudejar style between 1944 and 1952 and concluding with the 1958 and 1964 pavilions, this talk follows Spanish architects in navigating the East/West, Islam/modern divide as a predicament to the regime’s imperial imagination—and a Western scene in welcoming this agenda within its ranks.