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This tiny island in the Atlantic has incredible contemporary architecture

The Canary Islands aren’t just for sunbathing

The exterior of the Auditoria de Tenerife. The facade is white and concrete with a structural shape that resembles a wave.
The Auditorio de Tenerife designed by Santiago Calatrava.
Shutterstock

The Canary Islands—a Spanish archipelago located off the northwestern coast of the African continent—are best known for seafront resorts, all-night parties, and sandy beaches. But this tropical paradise, specifically the island of Tenerife, also boasts a stunning array of contemporary architecture.

From cultural buildings to eco-friendly houses, Tenerife’s architecture belies its modest size. Architects like Santiago Calatrava have designed buildings here, and local firms like Fernando Menis Architects are winning international awards for their projects.

In an effort to uncover inventive architecture in unique destinations, Curbed takes a deep dive into how this tiny island in the Atlantic is raising the bar on contemporary architecture.

Colorful houses line a street in Tenerife.
Pastel-colored, traditional houses on a street in La Orotava, Tenerife.
Shutterstock

Architectural history:

Claimed by the Spanish in the 15th century, the Canary Islands feature an eclectic blend of architectural styles. Early churches and castles were a hodgepodge of Gothic, Baroque, and Renaissance styles, with Neoclassical touches coming into fashion in the 18th century.

But despite a clear influence from mainland Spain (specifically Andalusia), the islands also used the materials they had available—residents preferred white-washed exteriors over heavy stone and pastel-colored houses over dark wood.

The exterior of a cave house on Tenerife. The facade is dirt and stone.
A cave house on Tenerife that’s available for rent through Airbnb.
Via Airbnb

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Today, a blend of Christian and Islamic art—what is historically called Mudéjar—forms the backbone of Canary Islands’ culture. But other important factors also influenced architecture. The islands’ important role as a stopover for cross-Atlantic voyages resulted in a a plethora of look-out towers and defensive walls.

Many of the cave homes of the Guanche people, who are indigenous to the isles, have been modernized, with some serving as vacation rentals.

Gothic churches, traditional pastel homes, and cave houses: today they are joined by a new, contemporary style that’s dominant on islands like Tenerife. Even as residents honor the oldest structures on the island—like La Laguna’s Church of Our Lady of the Conception, built in 1502—a surge of new buildings show the future of Canary Island architecture.

Important buildings:

When asked why the Canary Islands—and Tenerife in particular—have such a high concentration of impressive contemporary buildings, local architect Fernando Menis praises the government of the Canary Islands. Over the past twenty years, government officials have “maintained a strong commitment to organizing well-planned international competitions of architecture,” says Menis.

Architects are also well respected on the islands, and Tenerife provides a rich backdrop for inspiration.

“It’s amazing how in such a relatively small piece of land you can find such a variety of styles of architecture,” says Menis. Small details like traditional Canarian balconies made of tea wood—from local pine trees—are juxtaposed with postmodern buildings that rival, says Menis, “anything on the mainland.”

The architect also points out that living on Tenerife is easier and less expensive than in other European cities, and “everyone wants to come here for a while to work with us, so it’s easy to build up a good team.”

Whatever is happening, it’s working.

Tenerife Space of Arts (TEA)

The exterior of the Tenerife Space of Arts.  The facade has shapes cut out which let in light.
The exterior of the Tenerife Espacio de las Artes.
Courtesy of Herog & De Meuron

Designed by the acclaimed Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, Tenerife’s Space of Arts houses a contemporary museum, a library, and the island’s center for photography. The large building—measuring around 221,000 square feet—features a triangular plaza in the center that is open and accessible to the public.

The design also features 1,200 openings in 720 different shapes that allow natural light to filter inside. The same openings look stunning at night.

Presidency of the Canary Islands Government

The exterior of the Presidential Building of the Government of the Canary Islands. The facade is concrete, stone, and wood.
The Presidential Building of the Government of the Canary Islands.
Photo by Hisao Suzuki, courtesy of Fernando Menis Architect

A collective effort of three architects—Fernando Menis, Felipe Artengo Rufino, and José Maria Rodriguez Pastrana—resulted in this government building made of concrete, local stone, and wood. The design centers around a traditional courtyard made of Tea Wood, the inspiration for which came from the vernacular architecture of North Africa. The building opened in 1999 after six years of construction.

The Magma Conference Center

The exterior of the Magma Conference Center in Tenerife. The facade consists of large geometrically shaped blocks.
The Magma Conference Center, located in the southern Tenerife.
Photo by Simona Rota, courtesy of Fernando Menis Architect

With the ability to hold events for up to 2,500 people, Tenerife’s Magma Conference Center is an important cultural building on the island. Fernando Menis Architect designed the avant-garde building to capture the feeling, volume, and structure of a volcano.

Opened in 2005, the building uses thirteen geometrically shaped blocks to house the day-to-day functions—offices, toilets, and cafeteria—of the center, while larger spaces in between the blocks make up the conference halls.

Adán Martín’s Auditorium on Tenerife

The exterior of the Auditorium on Tenerife. The facade is white and shaped like a wave.
The Auditorio de Tenerife designed by Santiago Calatrava.
Shutterstock

Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava—of recent “Oculus” fame at New York City’s World Trade Center—the Adán Martín’s Auditorium is a modernist masterpiece inspired by the profile of a wave. Located on 5.7 acres of waterfront in the Los Llanos area of Santa Cruz, the capital of Tenerife, the auditorium was built entirely of concrete. The building’s iconic roofline soars 190 feet above the ground, while the interior boasts seating for 1,800 and a chamber music hall with seating for 400.

The Holy Redeemer Church

The exterior of the Holy Redeemer Church in Tenerife. The facade is concrete with sliced openings.
The Holy Redeemer Church in Tenerife.
Photo by Kim Yongkwan, and courtesy of Menis Arquitectos

Originally started in 2004 but delayed due to an economic crisis, architect Fernando Menis hopes that the Holy Redeemer Church will be completed in 2017. The church consists of four concrete volumes separated by sliced openings. Inside the church, two overlapping cracks on the building’s end wall create a large cross-shaped window visible from within the nave.

A village of the future: Bioclimatic Architecture

Called Casas Bioclimaticas, in 1995 the Tenerife government sponsored an architectural competition to build 25 self-sufficient “bioclimatic” homes. Architects from around the world submitted 397 entries and the first homes opened to the public in March 2010.

Each home was designed by a different architect and features varying solutions to building a sustainable, eco-friendly home that emits zero carbon dioxide emissions. Some use thick walls and solar panels, others are built more like bunkers and caves with natural air conditioning. All use eco-friendly, recyclable materials—many of them local—and get their water from the sea via the village’s desalination plant.

All of the futuristic homes are available for rent, and in fact tourists play an important part in the community. According to The Guardian, each house is fitted with sensors that test temperature, humidity, and air movement to see which building solutions work best. In essence, the 25 rental homes that make up Casas Bioclimaticas function as an architectural experiment on sustainability.