Donald Gray, the essence of traditional architecture

Donald Gray, at La Virginia in Marbella.
Donald Gray, at La Virginia in Marbella. / Josele-Lanza
  • The Australian, who won the Rafael Manzano Prize in 2015 and has lived in La Alpujarra for years, is a staunch defender of the Andalusian style of building

  • Marbella pays tribute to one of the designers of La Virginia, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary

"This is the Casa de la Cascada (the Kauffman residence), the work of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. He did it in the year I was born, 1935, and it is an example of modern architecture. If you took the house away, you'd see a beautiful waterfall, but he built an enormous block of reinforced concerete there. Why on earth was he ever famous?"

At the age of 83, Donald Gray is still highly critical of the contemporary and avant-garde architecture with which he has never agreed. On the contrary, he has spent his whole life defending a style which he fell in love with the first time he set foot in Spain, the traditional architecture of Andalucía. He has used it more than most in residential developments which are still inhabited today and which, especially in the case of La Virginia, in Marbella, retain their essence and authenticity even after 50 years. La Viriginia shares the double merit of being one of the loveliest and yet least well-known in the municipality.

This Australian architect has just been back to La Virginia, to attend a tribute from the community of the development, the mayor and councillors, as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations. The event was also attended friends and people who know, admire and are fond of him. "Today is a great day for Marbella and for Andalucía," said another master in his own field, Rafael de la Fuente, afterwards.

As its designer, Donald Gray was delighted to return to La Virginia for this important anniversary. The idea for the project came from developers Juan Manuel Figueras and Freddy Wildman at the end of the 1960s, and Jurgen Vig Muller, María Luisa Larrañaga and Rafael Neville (all friends) were also involved.

At the tribute there were speeches and a screening of a video filmed three years ago, when he was awarded the Rafael Manzano Prize for New Traditional Architecture. The documentary explained that "space and light" is the essence of the buildings upon which Gray worked between the 1960s and 1990s. These include Las Lomas de Marbella Club, Pueblo López in Fuengirola, Nuevo Pueblo Mijas, the town hall in La Tana, in Pitres, and La Tartana hotel in La Herradura (Granada).

There was also a screening of a series of photographs provided by the architect, who was born in Australia and has lived in La Alpujarra for years. It was a showcase of examples of modern and avant-garde architecture, and the outrageous mass construction during the years of the property boom. For Donald Grey, these are examples of dehumanised buildings.

On-site training

His particular commitment to recovering and defending traditional Andalusian architecture began when he arrived in Spain in 1959. He realised that it was something that was never taught at university, and decided to learn directly from master builders. He worked alongside them, designing and building his first houses. In 1961 he went to live in Torremolinos, and after that to La Alpujarra.

"Today is an important day for the town because we are paying tribute to a person who, with his enormous talent and sensitivity, has contributed to enriching the artistic heritage of Marbella with one of the loveliest residential developments on the Costa del Sol and a magnificent example of the best traditional Andalusian architecture," said the mayor, Ángeles Muñoz, at the tribute.

In the heart of the Golden Mile, La Virginia is a small community of about 68 houses set in secluded cobbled streets ,which still seems far away from the bustle of the busy town. It remains today the calm refuge which its creators planned half a century ago.