Sergio Perdiguer Torralba

Palms & Propellers. Nuclear Power in the Spanish Pavilion at Expo 58

This thesis studies how the design of the Spanish Pavilion at the 1958 World Fair was influenced by the Francoist Regime’s orchestrated campaign to achieve atomic energy for Spain. These strategies are explored in two chapters: Colonialism (Palms) and Militarism (Propellers). Palms investigates the connection of the Pavilion to the extraction of radioactive phosphates in Western Sahara, coinciding with the end of the Spanish Protectorate in Morocco. Propellers studies the ways in which the Pavilion embodies the Spanish-American joint nuclear surveillance in the Strait of Gibraltar during the Cold War. This thesis inquires how Spanish colonialism in North Africa, linked to extraction for nuclear power, leads to contemporary questions of sovereignty, migration and economic colonialism that shape the present-day relationship between Spain and Morocco.


Blue, associated with the sky, and green, a symbol of the earth, are the chosen colors for the cover of the Architectural Forum/ the magazine of building in June 1958. Issued in the midst of the World Fair of Brussels, many readers must have been surprised by the pavilion that was depicted on the cover, as most people expected to see either the iconic Atomium (a 300 feet high iron molecule) or the American Pavilion. Instead, the cover features the pavilion of Francoist Spain, a country isolated due to nearly two decades of military dictatorship. The Spanish Pavilion, designed by the architect duo Corrales & Molezún, was comprised by a space supported by columns with six fins and hexagonal roofs like parasols. In the illustration on the cover of Architectural Forum magazine, artist Ray Komai uses tile-like triangles and the six-fin columns to create an architectural space that emphasizes verticality and strength. 

A gigantic star-shaped column dominates the very center of the composition, which seems to be supporting a roof which resembles Islamic mosaics. Where the columns meet the triangular roof via the six-rayed capitals, there is a point of absolute tension - an effect created by the diagonal lines arrayed at different angles, which radiate outwards like a starburst. The two colors used for the columns and the roof emphasize the structure as a mediator between sky and earth, just as many religious buildings had before. However, I also see the pavilion as a mediator between the natural and the artificial. To me, the natural is embodied by palm trees, while propellers signal the artificial.


Cover of Architectural Forum magazine, depicting the pavilion in blue and green.

Cover of Architectural Forum/ the magazine of building magazine, June 1958. Color printmaking on paper. Artist: Ray Komai. Source: USModernist


The palms suggest something natural, static, or atemporal, whereas the propellers evoke the modern, the technical, and the dynamic. As a result, the columns of the Pavilion become a physical, architectural translation between the natural and the artificial. I will analyze the geometry of the Pavilion as visual evidence for the political strategies that informed its design. Firstly, I will study how the columns embody Spain’s aspirations of the 1950s to achieve nuclear power. I argue that they were designed to resonate with popular imagery of palms and propellers, symbolizing colonialism and militarism.

Two colonial stamps issued in 1951 by the Spanish Mail Office in Tangier, the only area in Morocco not directly ruled by the Spanish or French Protectorates between 1912 and 1956, condense these two myths. A 1924 map of the Spanish Protectorate shows the International Zone of Tangier nearby the Strait of Gibraltar, which served as a geopolitical apex. From Tangier, Spain sponsored transportation lines. The terrestrial lines, using the green palm stamp, connected Tangier with Tetouan, the capital of the Spanish Protectorate, and Alcazarquivir, the last city before the French border. Aerial lines, using the blue propeller stamp, crossed the Strait from Morocco to the Iberian Peninsula. 

The green terrestrial stamp isolates a single Palm tree in the middle of a desert, occupying most of the composition and surrounded by what seems to be a holy aura. A Moroccan geometric pattern at the left band, which is the only Islamic visual culture featured, creates a portrayal that emphasizes the European impression of the primitivity of Tangier and greater Morocco. The intention was claiming sovereignty over the territories that Spain still occupied at the time of the World Fair of Brussels, mostly the Western Sahara. The blue aerial map depicts a propeller, prominently displayed from the aircraft, representing the opposite to the green essence of an eternal and orientalized Morocco. Before take off, the aircraft acts as a symbol of the movement that implies military capabilities and technological power. Though the aircraft itself occupies the whole image, to dismiss any traces of where this machine is going on its way from Morocco to Spain: the Strait of Gibraltar. By the time of the Fair, the Strait was crowded with Soviet submarines and American aircrafts during the Cold War. These two colonial stamps offer official visual evidence of how the Francoist dictatorship deployed visual metaphors to interpret the columns of the Pavilion.


Colonial stamps issued by the Spanish Mail Office in Tangier, 1948- 1951, color print on paper. Source: StampBears Worldwide Forum

Colonial stamps issued by the Spanish Mail Office in Tangier, 1948- 1951. Color print on paper. Source: StampBears Worldwide Forum


In the summer of 1958, in the midst of the Fair called ‘Atoms for Peace’, Spain was immersed in a war for the control of Ifni. One hundred and fifty Spanish and French airplanes were fighting to defend Ifni from Moroccan troops. In June, the month of the Architectural Forum cover depicting the Pavilion, Spain finally agreed to reduce the territory of Ifni to only the capital, Sidi Ifni, ending a one-year-long war which was so unreported that historians still call it the Forgotten War. Historian and philosopher Lino Camprubí explains: “But few Spaniards heard about it: dictator Franco’s censorship ensured that little news reached the Iberian peninsula from the zone 900 kilometers to the south where Spain was at war”. Such a tremendous military effort to control Moroccan colonies is surprising. What made a piece of desert land so attractive? The answer lies under the sand of the Western Sahara desert: phosphates.

Phosphate is a scarce mineral needed for commercial fertilizers in agriculture. In the context of international isolation in the 1940s due to the Spanish dictatorship, the Spanish geographer Manuel Alía discovered phosphate deposits in Western Sahara in 1947 and Franco commissioned him to map the possible mines. Despite the fact that 1953 Franco’s alliance with United States’ President Dwight Eisenhower gave Spain access to cheaper phosphates than those extracted from Western Sahara, the prospections continued. Why were the West Saharan phosphates particularly so essential? Camprubí explains: ‘‘One factor contributing to this renewed interest was not agriculture but atomic energy. After confirming that the Saharan phosphate showed significant radioactive levels, Alía developed a research program for obtaining uranium from superphosphate’’.

World Fair 1958 was a homage to nuclear energy. Almost all the Pavilion showed samples of radioactive materials. The main Pavilion of the Fair, the Atomium, was a physicalization of an atom. The proud exhibition of colonial minerals in the pavilions was part of a longer strategy consistent with primitivizing territories, showing them as mere sources for extractivism. As an example of this propaganda, Spanish conservative newspaper ABC put on its cover in summer of 1958: “Spain at Ifni: Spain cultivates the inhospitable land and the minds of the nomadic tribes”. In interior pages, ABC published an article by Alfredo Nogales Martín, at that time commander of the Spanish military government of Western Africa, in which he referred to local people as a “primitive population who has been incorporated by Spain to the Western way of living”. According to Nogales, ‘‘nomad people of yesterday have become industrious farmers, craftsmen and merchants’’. Architectural historian Dennis Poehl affirms that the promise of a peaceful atomic era at the Brussels Fair was only possible thanks to the uranium extracted from Congo. In parallel, I argue that the Spanish Pavilion was designed also to express their optimistic discovery of super-phosphates in Western Sahara.

This primitivization of Sahrawi people in Spanish media was not present literally in the design of the Pavilion. In contrast with the rudimentary huts and natural materials by which Belgium presented Congo in their Colonial Garden in the Fair (white circle in the map), in the Spanish Pavilion palms were abstract, filtered through modernity and technology. The painter and architect Joaquín V. Turcios, member of the design team of the Pavilion, described the columns as “trunks of industrial palm”. He wrote: “It was needed to preserve the diaphaneity and transparency of this forest of subtle trunks of industrial palm. It was both an industrial and mystical space”. 



Tho Spanish Junker-Ju52 aircrafts flew over Sidi Ifni during the Ifni War.

Tho Spanish Junker-Ju52 aircrafts flew over Sidi Ifni during the Ifni War (1958-59). These were German aircrafts brought to Spain during the Civil War (1936-39). B/w photograph. Source: Historical Archive website.


Palm trees are one of the visual metaphors needed to understand the design strategy in the Spanish Pavilion to claim sovereignty over territories with nuclear materials. Palm oases are frequent on the southern flank of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco and also close to El Aaiun, the capital of Western Sahara. In the Pavilion, the stylized steel palm columns seem to be in their natural habitat. The reflections of these palms in the table-vitrines, which work as glassy pools, remind of the state of oasis in North Africa. Looking at the interior of the Pavilion, it is impossible not to think of the interior of the Mosque of Cordova, perhaps Spain’s most famous medieval Islamic construction.The architect himself, J.A.Corrales, referred to the Pavilion as a mosque in a letter sent to Professor Valverde: ‘‘There is a mix of glassy elements and bands that go upwards, like a contemporary mosque’’. 

Franco had won the Spanish Civil War with the collaboration of Moroccan troops and was aware of the potential of appropriating Islamic symbols to attract locals’ favor. Eric Calderwood, a hispanic historian, explains the appropriation of traditional Islamic architecture by both Spain and independent Morocco: ‘‘It may therefore come as a surprise that 80,000 Moroccans fought at General Franco’s side in the 1930s. What brought these strange bedfellows together was a highly effective propaganda weapon: the legacy of medieval Muslim Iberia, known as Al-Andalus. This legacy served to justify Spain’s colonization of Morocco and also to define the Moroccan national culture that supplanted colonial rule’’. Although in 1958 both Spain and Morocco claimed sovereignty over Western Sahara, each country approached the design of their Pavilions from an opposite perspective.

As Morocco did in World Fair 1958, Spain had appropriated the image of Al-Andalus in a historical, mimicking way in previous fairs. Since Spain started colonizing North Africa in the 1870s, almost all the Spanish pavilions were inspired by the Alhambra in Granada, frequently represented by its most iconic space: the Lions Court. The 1910 Pavilion, built right before the Spanish Protectorate over Morocco was established, was a literal sculptural and architectural reproduction of this Court (featuring the lions in the fountain, the intricate archery, the carved roofs, and other details). In 1958, Spain was not following this mimicking strategy anymore, but surprised the world with a modern design. Contrary to Morocco’s claims for an old national history in their nearby pavilion, the Spanish space presented Morocco as the future extraction place for nuclear technology.

However, even this futuristic design in the 1958 Spanish Pavilion incorporated some architectural resources borrowed from the Alhambra palace. The Belgian magazine La Technique des Travaux underlined the subtle connection between the two: ‘‘The layout of the columns, in the flexible and at the same time rigorous forest, is typical of a Mozarabic artist who expresses a strong affection for the Alhambra in Granada’’. To me, this column layout recalls the hexagonal pattern present all over the mosaics of the palace, while the Pavilion’s six-side roofs, leaving light filtering between them, seem to be inspired by the dome of the Two Sisters of Alhambra. Surprisingly, despite this evident inspiration, most of the critical texts about the Pavilion do not point to the Alhambra as a reference, but to the other major building of Al-Andalus: the Great Mosque. Since the architect Corrales himself referred to the Pavilion as a “contemporary mosque”, multiple scholars have commented on the influence of the Great Mosque of Cordova in the Pavilion. Considering that one member of the Committee in the architectural competition was Rafael Mazas, founder of Falange, the references to a mosque in Corrales’ letters and in almost all the descriptions of the time can not be seen as a politically innocent statement.

In my view, the reason behind the architectural shift from referencing the “exotic and oriental” palace of Alhambra to the more repetitive and austere construction of the Cordova Mosque is precisely the religious connotations of the columns. Built during the time of splendor of Al-Andalus (around 10th century), the building has been since then a religious space, first as a mosque, and since 1237 AC, as a church. Scholar María G.Pendás points out the specific propagandistic strength of Al-Andalus constructions that were conquered and evangelized by Christians, as is the case for the Mosque of Cordova, in which a Catholic Renaissance-style cathedral was built upon the existing mosque soon after it was conquered. Pendás states: ‘‘In Corrales and Molezún’s narrative of the project and in the images selected for the sparse exhibition, the Spanish pavilion explicitly drew on this neo-imperialist argument (…) By means of this orientalist reference, the Pavilion effectively reenacted a religious/architectural conquest’’. The static, eternal image of the Palms was filtered through the religious implications of the Mosque, to preserve the Moroccan colonies and to be able to extract nuclear resources from them. 



Interior of the Spanish pavilion at Expo 58 with columns resembling palms.

Interior of the Spanish Pavilion at Expo 58 resembles a palm oasis and a mosque, with the vitrines acting as oasis reflecting the palms. B/w photograph. Source: Housing Ministry of Spain, 2005.


Propellers are the second key visual metaphor that reveal how Spanish aspirations for nuclear power were materialized in the Pavilion’s design. In broader terms, propellers in the 1950s have been associated with progress, movement, technology, and advancing civilization. Look at this photograph of the interior taken from the lowest part of the Pavilion showing the Autogiro invented by Spanish engineer Juan de la Cierva. In front of the metallic six-fin capitals of the columns mimicking the propellers of aircrafts, the autogiro makes the space seem as the pavilion itself is taking off. This photograph, taken from below, creates a daunting vision of numerous propellers on a white sky. 

Propellers symbolize military prowess in the Pavilion, which required the metaphor of an empty sky. Present both in the Pavilion and in the Tangier stamp, this empty sky was part of the colonial propaganda arguing that there is nothing in colonized Morocco and it needed the colonizers to make the most of the territory. In this article, I am focusing on very specific propellers that do not relate directly to the production of energy but were a necessary factor to it. I will discuss how propellers in military machines played a crucial role to form an alliance with the United States which would bring nuclear technology to Spain, and at the same time, would allow Spain to keep control of Western Sahara and its radioactive phosphates.

The Strait of Gibraltar was, together with Ifni, the main setting of Spain’s geopolitics during the 1958 World Fair. Since the late 1930s, and especially during the Cold War, these 7.7 nautical miles that separate Europe and Africa had become a geostrategic apex. In 1953, the agreement between General Franco and the United States President Dwight Eisenhower led to the installation of a US Naval Base in Rota, on the Spanish shore, with capability for nuclear submarines. In order to have a better understanding of this context of the Cold War it is important to look back at the distribution of the national pavilions in the Fair’s map, in which every design decision was strongly political. The Cold War superpowers—the  USSR and the US were placed across each other (red circle in the map), as embodying physically the rivalry between both. 

The architecture of the Spanish Pavilion, particularly the propellers, evokes aircraft with its materiality: aluminum. Despite the fact that the propeller-columns are built of steel for structural purposes, the facade, which is the key element that encircles and defines the quality of the space, is of aluminum construction. This light material, which in Spain had prior to the Fair only been used for aeronautics, was utilized for construction in the glassy enveloping of the Pavilion. This historic use of aluminum coincided with the pivotal moment of Spain displaying its technological and military power to the world against the backdrop of the Cold War, which leads me to believe that wrapping the Pavilion with aluminum was a deliberate political statement. Aluminum embodied the political message of a new nation that left fascism behind and ready to be part of international enterprises. 

The material properties of aluminum go beyond its previously mentioned lightness. Aluminum is malleable, a metaphor of all the different shapes that a new nation can adopt, not anchored in the past formulation of Spain. Its high thermal conductivity, together with the glass facade that implied humidity in the interior, led to the design of a hexagonal heating network that hangs 80cm under the roof of the Pavilion. Considering such a technical effort to keep aluminum as the main construction material, we might ask ourselves why this was so essential in the design. 

Probably the key characteristic of the pavilion favored by aluminum was transparency, which represented Spain as a reliable ally who needed the building to look like a glass cage with no secrets to hide. Contributing to the effort of the extensive glassy surfaces to blur the difference between interior and exterior, the aluminum profiles that framed the glass reflected light and helped diffuse the borders. Artificial lighting was also carefully studied to emphasize the transparent surfaces; in addition to the linear lights, focal points were hanging on each vitrine, and each of the vitrine frames incorporated miniature fluorescent Liliput tubes.

However, transparency was not only literal in the Pavilion, but also phenomenological. Architectural scholar Beatriz Colomina explains how in Mies and Der Rohe’s pavilion for the Barcelona World Fair in 1929: “nothing would be exhibited. The Pavilion itself will be the exhibit’’. In the Spanish Pavilion in Brussels, almost entirely empty, the different planes delimited by the columns create the illusion of various layers of transparency even when it is a diaphanous space with no borders. Corrales himself, in a lecture delivered in 2006, stated: “In that political era, doing this Pavilion was a miracle, it is hard to understand how it was possible. Of course, the original emptiness of the Pavilion was filled with machines by the Ambassador and the curators”. And he added: ‘‘It was necessary to keep the lightness and transparency of the space’’. According to Pendás,‘‘It was in the reception by the international media that the pavilion most clearly met the mark of the Franquista masquerade. The reviews contained only a faint shadow of Franquismo and assumed a country that was honest, as metaphorized by the structure’s lack of cladding”. 

This demonstration of technological power presented Francoist Spain as a reliable ally to the US. In the night photographs of the interior of the building, the structure’s lack of cladding leaves visible the black propellers against the backdrop of the white sky to demonstrate technological power as a reliable partner to the US. Therefore, the moving Propellers against the static Palms became a symbol of Spanish colonial power in Morocco.The implications of these palms and propellers lasted decades after the Fair, as Spain only decolonized Western Sahara in 1975 after General Franco’s death. The image of a technological country able to extract resources prevailed and still today is a claim for sovereignty of Western Sahara against Morocco and the local Sahrawi people.


Interior of the Spanish pavilion at Expo 58 with columns resembling propellers of aircrafts.

Interior of the Spanish pavilion at Expo 58 with columns resembling propellers of aircrafts. Print on paper. Source: Digital library of the spanish newspaper ABC.


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