Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza recently visited Guatemala at the invitation of the Central American nation’s commerce secretary. Elorza – whose family hails from Guatemala – hopes to have persuaded the national airline to schedule regular flights to T.F. Green State Airport. This sort of active pursuit of business for their cities is precisely what mayors are expected to do.
Of course, it goes without saying that Mayor Elorza has been unjustly criticized for the trip. No improprieties have been discovered, but why didn’t the mayor invite all citizens of Providence to fly down with him to such a beautiful place? Don’t’ we all need a vacation?
Seriously, I hope the mayor was able to tour Cayalá, a new town on the edge of Guatemala City that I wrote about in 2012. It mixes classical Spanish and Mayan influences. He would have found it alluringly beautiful, and he will be doing an impressive job if he imports not just an airline but some of the lessons of Cayalá’s beauty to help Providence.
Before Elorza won the Democratic mayoral nomination, my family and I attended a festival at the west end of Broadway and had the opportunity to speak with the candidate about the importance of beautiful architecture to the city. His thoughts seemed simpatico with my own, and I voted for him partly on that basis. I wonder if he remembers the conversation.
Here is my column from 2012 about Cayalá. Its now-famous market area – the Paseo Cayalá – is the center of a community, allegedly “gated” [see correction below], whose apartments above shops are far beyond the means of most citizens of Guatemala. But that nation’s drug-fueled crime rate is far, far and away higher than what we in Providence can imagine, and those of means can be expected to try to protect themselves. Cayalá has been criticized for this, and perhaps with some justice, but its beauty transcends that issue. Its lessons are no less appropriate in Providence than they are in Guatemala and throughout the rest of the world. I hope Mayor Elorza understands this.
Correction: The original version of this post stated that Cayalá is a gated community. It is not, but is open and accessible to all. And while the average income of Cayalá is higher than that of Guatemala City as a whole, residents of the partially completed community inside the boundaries of the capital will be drawn from a range of income groups.
A new classical flower in Guatemala
February 2, 2012
A classical city is being built anew in the degraded modern shadow of two great merged civilizations from the distant past. Steeped in Spanish and Mayan tradition, Ciudad Cayalá may be the first Central American town to renew its embrace of the proud cultures that created historic Guatemala – a nation that once also included El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras and the Chiapas region of Mexico.
Guatemala City was founded in 1776, centuries after the apogee of classic Mayan civilization in 900 A.D., but only half a century after Guatemala established its independence from the conquistadors of New Spain. Its predecessor, the colonial capital of Antigua, was founded in 1541 after a previous capital was flooded from the collapse during an earthquake of the lagoon-filled crater of a mighty volcano. That capital was itself destroyed by a string of earthquakes in 1773-74, and was moved five miles east to the site of today’s Guatemala City.
So what, in the modern era, becomes of a capital city born of such natural violence? Following colonial rule, independence ushered in a long string of dictators – elected, “elected” and unelected, including those deposed or installed by the United Fruit Co., eventually with help from the CIA. At last, following a civil war that concluded only in 1996, a genuine democracy seems to have taken root.
By then, Guatemalan society, mimicking so many other more recently enfranchised elites of the Third World, had already embraced the Nuevo Conquistadors of modern architecture. They surrounded the capital with high-rise office and residential towers, and encircled these with gated suburbs for the nation’s corporate elites and burgeoning middle classes.
Meanwhile, the other old capital, Antigua, was rebuilt, and in 1979 was named a World Heritage City by the United Nations.
Now, with Antigua among its mentors, a classical flower has just bloomed outside Guatemala City’s modernist cacophony.
Ciudad Cayalá is a new town being built on open land beyond the city center but within the city’s broad boundary. Developed by the landowner, Grupo Cayalá, and masterplanned by Léon Krier, who spearheaded Prince Charles’s new town of Poundbury (outside Dorchester, England), Cayalá’s Phase I was finished in November. It incorporates Mayan ornamental detail amid a robust Spanish classicism. Streets and squares are lined with colonnades. A monumental set of steps ascends to the Athenaeum, designed by Notre Dame Prof. Richard Economakis, forming a pyramid of Mayan descent, topped by a Spanish temple. Photos hint at the glory of ancient Rome, whose classical buildings mounted to an urban epiphany with a seemingly natural, unplanned grandeur.
How did Cayalá come to pass? The developer, Grupo Cayalá, originally imagined the project as a continuation of Guatemala City’s suburban theme. But then, apparently dissatisfied, Grupo held a charrette – a brainstorming session to which international architects were invited to consider alternatives. Krier’s classical concept emerged triumphant.
Two graduates of the architecture school at the University of Notre Dame, María Sánchez and Pedro Godoy, of Estudio Urbano, played a crucial role in guiding the design. As the project advanced in the aftermath of subsequent charrettes, the two architects shepherded construction planning away from conventional practices that treat classical ornament as arbitrary decorative add-ons toward a proper classical recognition of the vital role that decoration plays in the logic of load-bearing structure. They saved the project.
I was unaware of Cayalá (pronounced ky-ya-LA) until I asked the TradArch list – an online classical discussion group – to suggest nominees for the 2011 “world roses & raspberries.” So far as I know, Cayalá has few if any peers in the ambition of its classicism. The Prince of Wales’s Poundbury is gloriously unpretentious. So is Seaside, Fla., a tourist village that is the founding project of New Urbanism.
If classical proposals had not been frozen out of the 2002 competition to rebuild the site of the World Trade Center, Cayalá might now be part of a well-established trend returning beauty to our world. How curious that so pacific a trend is getting such a boost from a new town set in a Guatemalan cradle rocked by mankind’s bloodshed and nature’s violence.
Copyright © 2012. LMG Rhode Island Holdings, Inc