True design aficionados and architecture buffs will already have some inkling of the famous architects who have called Ibiza home or spent extended time on the island. But for those who are new to the island or just starting on their design journey, it might be a surprise to learn that Ibiza has attracted a plethora of famous architects to its shores.
On the surface there’s little to differentiate Ibiza’s vernacular design from other Mediterranean boltholes – whitewashed walls are ubiquitous across most of the Med after all. However, there is one aspect of Ibiza’s traditional architecture that sets it apart and that is its purity. Unlike much Mediterranean architecture, the traditions of Ibiza are remarkably undiluted with concepts, methods and materials unchanged since the Phoenicians set foot here in the 7th century. This fact, along with Dalt Vila being the oldest and best-preserved citadel on the Mediterranean Sea, made the island an alluring stop-off for burgeoning and established architects.
They came from all corners of the globe, some invited by friends, others fleeing tragedy and the horrors of war and some touring Europe to experience architecture up close. Every one of them, whether famous or not, was struck by the island and its unique architecture, light and landscape and each took a little bit of Ibiza into their work. Josep Lluís Sert was one where Ibiza would be evident in many buildings he designed across the world. He confessed a weakness for the island repeatedly during his life and his unbridled admiration for the vernacular architecture and people culminated in a book called Ibiza: fuerte y luminosa.
A Barcelona native and already a heavyweight in Spanish architecture, Sert first came to Ibiza in the 1930s and was instantly enamoured with what he recognised as an untainted architecture. He returned frequently until his exile in 1939 when he fled to the US to become an influential scholar and writer while also continuing to design buildings. Eventually, he found himself able to return to Spain and on one such visit to Ibiza in the 1960s he warned against the influx of what he called ‘imported architecture’ and the allure of mass tourism, which he correctly predicted would see the downfall of the ancient crafts, trades and techniques, leading to an irrevocable loss.
Despite his reputation and several proposals over the decades, Sert was unable to mount any of his own projects in Ibiza until 1960 when he designed a house in Dalt Vila followed by the residential complex Can Pep Simó in Cap Martinet between 1964 and 1969. While modernist in essence, Sert maintained an underlying principle to create dwellings that were ‘contemporary equivalents of traditional forms’. What he learned in Ibiza permeated much of his work, most obviously at the Fondation Maeght and the Fundación Joan Miró, where the artist’s undulating shapes are combined with whitewash, earthy tiles and a restrained beauty much like the traditional farmhouses of the island.
Sert’s professional and social circle included many of the great names in architecture and the arts in general. He was generous with his love of Ibiza and championed the island’s many charming qualities. His former professor, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, otherwise known as Le Corbusier, visited the island with Sert in the mid-1930s. The Master took copious notes and rendered myriad sketches of Ibiza’s vernacular architecture. While it’s impossible to know how deeply the architecture of Ibiza influenced Le Corbusier, many historians see a direct connection between the island’s design tradition and The Modular – the anthropomorphic scale he used in his designs. Whether there is a connection or not, Le Corbusier definitely understood the important lesson in Ibiza’s architecture and frequently sent students to the island to experience it for themselves.
Historian Maria Del Mar Arnus wrote the definitive biography, Ser(t) Arquitecto, its title a clever word game (ser in Spanish means to be) that conveys the depth of Sert’s commitment to his craft and to the historical cultural importance of architecture. He was an architectural conservationist well before the phrase became part of the artistic lexicon. From the earliest visits he made to the island, he implored in writing, meetings and interviews for the local authorities to take the traditional architecture of the island as a serious emblem of culture. Warning against the tyranny of speculative developers and mass tourism, it’s a shame to note even this great designer’s own – much copied – works in Ibiza have been brutally transformed and disrespected. This tireless champion of design who did so much for Spanish architects and architecture – not to mention his legacy in the rest of the world – is woefully underappreciated and undercelebrated in Ibiza compared to some of his peers.
Even though his biographer believes Sert would be horrified to see what has become of the island’s architecture, she is optimistic that new generations are more sympathetic to the island’s cultural history. While he rests in a simple tomb within the churchyard of Jesús near Ibiza town, we remain hopeful that over time Sert’s contribution to Ibiza will be recognised for its prescience and the man and his legacy will be celebrated as it should.