The earliest buildings, constructed of impermanent materials, have disappeared, but by the end of the 16th cent. durable monumental architecture had been achieved. Most of the buildings of this time, including the cathedrals, were built for military purposes and were consequently massive and plain. This was a period of transition from Spanish Gothic to Spanish Renaissance, with many buildings reminiscent of the plateresque style, with contrasting bare walls and ornamental doorways, and others of the austerity of the Escorial.
Although elaborate and intricate ornamentation was often employed, particularly in later times, a strong strain of simple, solid construction ran through the colonial period, as exemplified in the Spanish missions of California and the 18th-century Jesuit missions of Paraguay. The earliest cathedral in the New World, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (1512–41), has a plateresque portal on the west facade. In 16th-century Mexico the great builders were the Augustinian, Franciscan, and Dominican monastic orders. They introduced the open chapel, as in the monastery of San Francisco Tlalmanalco, which was built with only three walls in order to speed construction and to accommodate more people. The cathedrals of Puebla, Mérida, and Guadalajara were also begun in this period.
During most of the 17th and 18th cent. the baroque style held sway, and in the 18th cent. the sumptuous Churrigueresque ornamentation (see under Churriguera) of Spain was exported to the colonies. In addition to employing the large forms and curving lines of the traditional European baroque, Spanish colonial buildings maintained the contrast between decorated and plain surfaces of the earlier period. A more conservative trend was manifested in Colombia, where churches and public buildings were simple and severe.
Baroque features, combined with the inventiveness of native artisans, reached a climax in the cathedral in Mexico City. It has been called ultrabaroque because of its strong light-and-shade patterns, richly carved columns and entablatures, and violent alternations of curves and angles. In the late 1960s much of the cathedral was damaged by fire and had to undergo restoration. In the Puebla region glazed tiles were sometimes placed on the whole facade of a building, as in the Church of San Francisco Acatepec. Central American buildings were generally provincial versions of the Mexican, but in Guatemala structures were lower and of heavier proportions as a protection against earthquakes.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.