Donald Gray, the Australian who tried to reconcile tourism and traditional Andalusian architecture | ICON Design

Donald Gray, the Australian who tried to reconcile tourism and traditional Andalusian architecture | ICON Design
Donald Gray, the Australian who tried to reconcile tourism and traditional Andalusian architecture | ICON Design

Albéitar is a village in the heart of the Alpujarra of Granada. It’s not on the way to anywhere. It lacks a bar or shop and its streets are so narrow that cars cannot fit. In the seventies it did not even have an access road, that is why the Australian Donald Gray (1935-2019) arrived there on foot to buy a house that he would later convert into his refuge. He fled tired of the country he had fallen in love with destroying its own roots and forgetting his traditions to sell itself to mass tourism. He had arrived in Spain almost two decades earlier following in the footsteps of Gerald Brenan and was so impressed by Andalusian architecture that he became one of its greatest defenders, scholars and promoters. He designed some of the most fascinating urbanizations on the Costa del Sol, all in the image and likeness of the white towns. It is the indelible mark of a master that today is only claimed by a handful of artisans and architects for whom well-understood tradition is the holy grail.

Gray, born in Sydney, studied Fine Arts and never went to architecture school. He had the profession in his blood and nourished it by being inspired by the traits that characterized the Andalusian towns. He traveled, learned and took that model that had worked (and works) for centuries to repeat it, modifying only a few adaptations to new times. “When I started, practically all the architecture in Andalusia was good,” he said in 2015 in an interview for the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, which awarded him that year. His greatest interest was to create “a pleasant place to live.” These are what he called “edifying buildings.”

First he promoted them on the coast of Granada and then on the coast of Malaga, from which he fled at the end of the seventies. “There are countless buildings that, ideally, if possible, should be erased from the map. Like almost everything they have built on the Costa del Sol in the last 50 years,” he wrote in Traditional construction in the Alpujarra of Granada which he signed in 2014 together with the architect José del Valle and where he demonstrated his knowledge of the region that served as his hideout for almost four decades, in which he defended his thesis of preserving the past and rehabilitating with common sense.

Detail of a deck in Las Lomas (Marbella).Jose Miguel Llano
Windows with lattices decorated with plasterwork in the Casa Morisca, in Las Lomas.Jose Miguel Llano

Influenced by the book South of Granada, by the British Gerald Brenan, Gray traveled to Spain in 1958. He taught English in Valladolid, passed through Madrid, then traveled to Denmark and the United States and returned to return to Torremolinos. A town that he considered the most beautiful in the world.

The Australian was a self-taught man who trained on the job, with artisans whom he considered his teachers. He traveled through Andalusia and northern Morocco in search of roots. “Observation was also his way of learning. He reproduced what there was to preserve it: he did not invent anything,” emphasizes his daughter-in-law, Alba Márquez.

In 1961 he received his first commission to design a house in Almúñecar, his personal paradise. Between 1963 and 1964 he did the same with his first complete neighborhood, San Juan, in the same municipality. He later built, near La Herradura, the San Nicolás urbanization and the La Tartana hotel, which became the favorite of personalities such as Brigitte Bardot. In love with that fishing village called Torremolinos, Gray made the leap to the Costa del Sol. First to Fuengirola, where he designed the Pueblo López urbanization on behalf of the British developer Bryan Hindson. He started in 1967 and there he showed the keys to his work: local materials, traditional design, participation of artisans, respect for the environment and creation of habitable outdoor spaces. The result was a group of houses that seemed to have been there forever. Shortly after he closed a personal circle: he designed Gerald Brenan’s house in Alhaurín el Grande (Málaga).

Narrow streets that connect to the Plaza de Chauen, in Las Lomas.Jose Miguel Llano
Illustration of Villa Erques, in Tenerife.

Between 1969 and 1973, it built two of its most iconic developments. Las Lomas del Marbella Club became one of his most representative works. He designed it just after La Virginia, located in a natural space today already full of urbanizations and luxurious villas. “He was an architect of the void: public spaces were more fundamental than the houses themselves,” emphasizes architect Ciro de la Torre. The residents of La Virginia called themselves the Virginians. And in its alleys they rubbed shoulders with Lola Flores or with visitors like Orson Welles, Claudia Cardinale and Jaime de Mora y Aragón.

He continued for several more years on the Malaga coast but already with the feeling that tourism would eat up everything. “He was a pioneer. And, with Donald’s quality, few things have been done there since then,” points out De la Torre, who points out some work by Antonio Lamela in Torremolinos or the La Heredia urbanization, in Marbella, promoted by the Parladé family. That is why Gray decided to take refuge in La Alpujarra. He had a crush on a house built on a rock and bought it. In 1986 he created the Lebrija Trades Workshop School to promote historical trades: masonry, blacksmithing, gardening, carpentry and pottery.

The construction of Pueblo López, in Fuengirola.Family Archive

In his last years he continued with small renovations, extensions and gardens. “He was also an excellent landscaper,” recalls José del Valle, who worked alongside Gray. One of the Australian’s sons, Víctor, collaborated on some projects, who now follows in his footsteps: restoring properties under the criteria of traditional architecture that his father helped to survive. The Gray saga continues.

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