The west facade of the Miguel Ángel Asturias Cultural Center Complex in Guatemala City, designed in 1978 by Efraín Recinos.
Blaine Brownell, AIA The west facade of the Miguel Ángel Asturias Cultural Center Complex in Guatemala City, designed in 1978 by Efraín Recinos.

On a recent trip to Guatemala City, I visited the Miguel Ángel Asturias Cultural Center complex, or the Teatro Nacional (National Theater), designed by celebrated local architect and artist Efraín Recinos. Opened in 1978, the theater represents a notable effort to embody a distinctly Guatemalan architecture during a time when local architects were preoccupied with models from Europe and the U.S. A native of Guatemala, Recinos advocated the development of a representative architectural identity for his homeland based in part on its rich history as a center of Maya civilization.

The main building of the Teatro Nacional is a large, geometrically complex structure with an expansive sloping facade decorated in multicolored bands of mosaic tile. Sweeping concrete surfaces outline an idiosyncratic collection of enclosed walkways, mezzanine spaces, and viewing portals that are inspired by Maya architecture and evoke a striking resemblance to naval architecture. According to one of the theater staff who graciously offered to act as my guide, the building's form is meant to resemble an abstracted jaguar resting on its haunches with forepaws outstretched regally.

Cultural identity was a prominent theme at the annual ASODI design conference in Guatemala City on Oct. 10. Marco Mora von Rechnitz, director of the School of Design at the Latin American University of Science and Technology in Costa Rica, called on the practitioners and students in attendance to embrace the opportunity to develop a distinctly Guatemalan form of contemporary design. He praised the country's rich cultural and artistic history as a source of inspiration and, to the audience's delight, elevated its importance above the artistic history of his own Costa Rica. Rechnitz finished his talk with an invitation to participate in his new publication Viviendo el Diseño, which celebrates notable design projects in Central America.

Rechnitz's plea comes at a challenging time. According to Maria del Carmen de Terraza, an ASODI member and longtime professor of interior design in Guatemala City, today's students and designers remain obsessed with models from other countries. Support for contemporary projects with a distinctly local character is low, as evidenced by the growing dilapidation of the structures at Miguel Ángel Asturias Cultural Center.

Mosaic-tiled walls near the complex's west entrance.
Blaine Brownell, AIA Mosaic-tiled walls near the complex's west entrance.

As an architect visiting Guatemala for the first time, I find Rechnitz's advocacy for Guatemelan design to be self-evident. However, how many of us place a high value on such an approach in our own countries? I am not suggesting that we simply emulate historical styles but rather that we embrace the opportunity to encapsulate local history in contemporary form. Recinos certainly demonstrates one example of this aspiration, from which there is much to learn.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.