Mind & Matter


Archaeology Adopts a Modern Aesthetic

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Renovation of the Santo Domingo priory in Oaxaca, by Enrique Lastra. Photo by Blaine Brownell.


In my previous post, I wrote about Mexicans’ embrace of modern architecture in their most important religious building. Here I would like to recount another surprising use of modernist sensibilities—in the archaeological reconstruction of a significant cultural monument.

The grand former priory at Santo Domingo in Oaxaca, the largest Dominican establishment in Mexico, was founded in 1570. Since its construction, the complex suffered extensive damage by earthquakes and then military occupation during the revolutionary wars. A multi-disciplinary team of architects, archaeologists, and conservators began a massive renovation of the former convent and surrounding galleries at Santo Domingo under the auspices of INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia) in 1994. Led by architect Enrique Lastra, the team restored over 6,000 square meters of vaulting throughout the complex.

What is surprising about the renovation is the use of modern sensibilities in the treatment of materials and surface treatments—an approach that would be unfathomable in U.S.-based archaeological reconstructions. Throughout their centuries of use, the priory vaults were covered in stucco and ornate paintings—yet in their refinished state, many of the vaults are reconstructed in unfinished brick that were laid on meticulously crafted formwork. According to colleague and Mexican architecture expert Lance LaVine, Lastra’s modern reconstruction in brick, stone, and undecorated plaster has received accolades not because it is new but because the project—which respects traditional construction techniques and spatial sensibilities—was so masterfully designed and executed. Illuminated in the amber Oaxacan light, the lovingly-reconstructed cloisters are marvels that both modernist architects and archaeologists may adore.




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.