Architecture: A City’s Silent Storytellers

Emily Henning is a student at Oklahoma State University and an ISA Featured Blogger. She is currently studying abroad with ISA in Barcelona, Spain.

When most people think of “architecture,” they think of the monuments, the big icons, the buildings we’ve all seen in movies and travel guidebooks. They imagine being impressed by the famous cathedrals, theaters, and museums found on postcards. It’s true that the monumental works of architecture that attract us to different cities all over the world say a lot about the history of their respective cities and the values of the people that live there, but oftentimes, you can learn a lot more about what a city has experienced and what that society values by the everyday buildings that you probably pass by without a glance on your way to La Sagrada Familia, the Eiffel Tower, or Big Ben.

The monumental Fuente de Levante, constructed in 1930, in Plaza de los Luceros is centered among mid-20th century modern buildings on the main avenue of Alicante.

I remember arriving in Alicante, Spain and thinking, “Why does everyone think this place is so beautiful? Everything looks like it was built in the 70s.” It turns out that most of Alicante WAS built in the 1970s and 80s after being almost completely destroyed multiple times, most recently during the 1930s in the Spanish Civil War. The city pushed to bring in tourism in the latter part of the 20th century and it was revitalized into the destination as we know it today. Alicante boasts a fantastic castle on a mountaintop and beautiful beaches, but the real history is found in the ecletic mix of a few preserved gems among mid-century modern mid-rises.

A typical street in the Albayzín (historically Arab) neighborhood of Granada.


This tile pattern can be found in walls and steps all over Granada.

In Granada, on the other hand, it was almost baffling to imagine that many parts of the city could be inhabited by people with motor vehicles. Classic Spanish-style white stucco homes with tile roofs along tiny, winding cobblestone roads on the side of a mountain featured colorful and intricate tilework. Granada was one of the most important cities in the Iberian Peninsula during Moorish rule, but it also marked a significant victory and place of importance for the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel who won the capital back at the end of the Spanish Reconquista. Muslim and North African influences are evident in the colorful azulejos, and the city still has remnants of the walls that once separated the different religious neighborhoods. Most of the Catholic churches are in the Renaissance style because of the time period in which the city shifted between rulers and religions.

The Gothic neighborhood and other older neighborhoods of Barcelona feature dark, narrow, winding streets speckled with bright paint colors, plants in every window, and many Catalan independence flags.


In every part of Barcelona, shops are protected by metal garage doors when they are closed. Most have become the street art canvases of the city.


Barcelona’s Eixample (Expansion) features the iconic octagonal city blocks.

Barcelona is an extremely diverse city, with some structures dating back to Roman times standing next to buildings less than 50 years old. The Catalonian capital originated as a crucial port for the Romans in the 1st century, grew organically over time, and expanded vastly in the 1850s with the absorption of surrounding suburban cities (now known as “districts” or neighborhoods) and the introduction of the Eixample. The Eixample began as a strictly organized expansion plan featuring octagonal city blocks that were filled gradually by mid-rise buildings from the 1850s until today, making the area extremely ecletic.

It’s easy to hear what the most famous works of architecture are saying, but the silent stories told by the everyday buildings speak volumes.

The world awaits…discover it.

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