Traditional and modern cultures collide on the azoteas, which are urban sanctuaries on top of houses and buildings that may be used to grow vegetables, sleep under the stars on a hot summer night and now, with a new cultural program in Seville, to enjoy a movie or a concert, live and free.
It’s 10 a.m. and Ángel Gonzalez of 47 Calle Cuna is staring at the beauty stretched out before him from his 70-square-meter azotea. To the left, one of the tall spires of Seville rises up in the distance in front an immense church that sits in the Plaza del Salvador, where Sevillanos gather for lunch; to the right, a bustling commercial street is filled with early morning shoppers, tourists and locals alike, all out for a stroll on a mild and cloudy day.
“I spend so much time out here. My azotea actually is bigger than my whole apartment in terms of square meters,” Ángel says. Azoteas are the roof terraces that stretch out across Andalusia. An azotea is akin to a small, private sanctuary from which you can look out onto the sprawling city, the suburban streets or the rolling hills. The word azotea comes from the Arabic word assutáyha meaning eastern roof.
“There was modern movement during the 1930s and ‘40s to return to life on the azoteas,” Angel explains. “Now there are cases in which the azotea is simply a space for utilities like drying clothes, or a space for air conditioning units.”
In their heyday, azoteas were a space that offered a second life. Daily life was on the ground: working, playing, eating and drinking. But then, there was another existence on azoteas—a garden, social meetings, a grill and most importantly, a space for families. Many women enjoyed tending to sprawling and vivacious gardens on their azoteas. They converted the space into something of a sanctuary.
José María González has lived his entire life in the small, traditional Andalusian town of Andújar, in Jaén province. As a child he grew up with a classic azotea. “My mother used to spend hours on the roof taking care of the garden.
She used to sing along to whichever flamenco song blared out of our portable radio. It was a comfort to her; she saw it as her main contribution to the household. The fresh vegetables never disappointed.” He recalls how they used to pick the fresh tomatoes and wash and cut them right on the roof.
When it was warm enough, the family would convene under the stars. “Many times we shared a dinner on the roof that consisted of my mother’s vegetables and food bought at a fresh market in the center of our town. We usually could see some other families on their azoteas doing the same thing. My father used to wave to our neighbors and then maybe go and have a beer and cigar with them after dinner.”
The culture of azoteas started to wind down as bars and discos gained ground as meeting points. Nevertheless, there are people that try now to renew this upper-urban world. One such group of people is La Matraka, a company of cultural activities with the aim to bring people back to the rooftop terraces of their densely packed apartment complexes.
La Matraka, in cooperation with organizations including the Cultural Initiatives Center at the University of Seville (CICUS), the Province House and Zemos98 festival, has created two programs focused on the revival of azoteas. The first, known as Entretejas, uses azoteas belonging to institutions to offer monthly art exhibitions, film screenings, dance, theater, conferences, or concerts in several locations. The goal is to raise awareness of Andalusian rooftop culture and increase citizen participation in artistic activities. The first Entretejas event was held March 30 at CICUS cultural center (on Madre de Dios street, very close to CIEE). It consisted of two separate film festivals preceded by an electronic music and light show. Like all the shows, this successful kickoff party was free and open to the public.
The second program formed by La Matraka is Redetejas, a network of small public spaces on different private azoteas throughout the city. It is a way for citizens to open up and volunteer their terraces to events they want to hold. It is a non-profit program so there is no financial benefit for La Matraka; the group says it only seeks to build cultural awareness.
The program originated on March 5 with discussions about the legality of using azoteas for cultural events. The lawyer José Ignacio Aguilar, along with other interested citizens, hosted the workshop. Also in attendance were the architect Juan José Olmo and Juan Diego Carmona of Civil Protection. Together with La Matraka, they created the manual for the recommended use of azoteas in the Redetejas program. This manual is available on LaMatraka.es.
Many families will always cherish the memories they created on the azoteas. “It was my first summer here,” Ángel remembers, “and that summer was the hottest it had ever been. We brought the sofa up to our terraza and the television, too. We spent the whole night as a family watching the television until 1 or 2 a.m.” The tradition will live on.