Visiting beautiful Guatemala

Paseo de Cayala, in Guatemala City. (

Paseo Cayala, in Guatemala City. (

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.

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza. (

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza. (

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

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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6 Responses to Visiting beautiful Guatemala

  1. Pingback: Guatemala’s peaceful Cayala | Architecture Here and There

  2. Incidentally, regarding crime – often the justification for gating, especially in Latin America. That is making crime conditions outside the gates worse — and creating horrid urbanism. There are alternative models, many of them from Latin American history. For example, the open street with “gated” homes behind strong walls, but with open grilles and railings. This provides “eyes on the street” and a combination of openness and security. It worked well enough for many centuries of relative lawlessness, e.g. on the Colonial frontier. There are other techniques including gating only the internal alley, using monitor stations, etc.

    Gating is a terrible idea, treating the symptom while accelerating the cause. (The same is true for “vertical gated communities,” i.e. skyscrapers.) Cheers, m


  3. I think this is something we all struggle with: how do we create more open, “natural” cities? How do we avoid falling into the existing patterns (especially pronounced in Latin America) of economic segregation by geographic zone? This trend has been an aspect of city-making from the beginning (e.g. Londoners leap-frogging higher-income development upwind, to the west) but it is elevated now to a kind of core supply-side economic theory. As in, take care of the wealthy folks in wealthy neighborhoods, and the benefits will trickle down to everyone else. I am observing this first-hand in Portland, OR, where a kind of “magical Vancouver” model is being embraced. Let the tall luxury buildings proceed, and from that wealth we will carve off affordable housing, historic preservation and public spaces. The problem, of course, is that the public benefits become a band-aid on a runaway economic process…

    Contrast that with a more mixed, open, connected model – something like what Jane Jacobs advocated. Increasing income — “gentrification” — is no bad thing if it provides more economic diversity and opportunity. “Affordability” is no good thing if it’s in a monoculture that offers highly limited opportunities for human development. But if gentrification gets out of hand, the answer is not “hypertrophy in place” (hello Manhattan) but geographic diversification. Can Queens benefit from more mixed income and increasing wealth? Can Detroit? Baltimore? We need to reverse the scandalous geographic segregation we have allowed to happen — sometimes caused to happen.

    I think Paseo Cayala is a splendid design, but this remains a larger challenge. In Ecuador, Joanna Alimanestianu, I and colleagues, developed a plan that included a mixed-income community, with a market at its core and facilities to accommodate existing small businesses (and some larger ones). The latest I have heard is that the owners have failed to move forward on it. All the incentives, disincentives, regulations, standards etc. discourage it. We must not only make better designs, we must systematically reform the failing “operating system for growth” that continues to exacerbate our worst problems.

    By the way, the perception that New Urbanists do not take this kind of issue seriously, and are mere tools of neoliberal economic forces, is belied by the evidence. Like the above. Cheers, m


  4. Living as I do in Antigua Guatemala, I find Paseo Cayala not to be all “bread and roses.” Instead, it embodies all of the contradictions of new traditional towns, except at a much more sophisticated, self-segregating level. While architecturally beautiful, Cayala is a highly selective, elitist place to live which only the most well-off Guatemalans can afford. It is implicitly a “no-go” zone for ordinary Guatemalans (read, plain-clothes security guards everywhere) and paints a picture of a Guatemala that does not exist. While I applaud the creative effort to design and build this traditional town, as well as the extraordinary architectural talents of Sanchez and Godoy, I fear that Cayala is closer to theme park than real world. Respectfully, Russell Versaci


    • johnberk says:

      While I have to agree with you that segregation is never good for the citizenry, very same happens almost everywhere. In Paseo Cayala, the differences are only more visible. Guatemala remains one of the poorest countries in the world, depending almost entirely on its drug trade. It is obvious that places like Paseo Cayala are a sad reminder of the power of the drug trade – but it is definitely not a theme park.


  5. SteveMouzon says:

    Paseo Cayala is not gated… anyone can shop there. I was just there a few months ago. It is a really beautiful place. And the crime rate has dropped precipitously in the last decade, since I was in Antigua Guatemala photographing the whole town as precedent for Alys Beach.


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