Interpreting Cerro de Oro: In Conversation with Vincent Juillerat
Perched atop a rocky hill in the Cañete Valley of Peru, the archaeological site of Cerro de Oro represents three periods of occupation over a span of a thousand years. Elaborate funerary bundles, textiles, and residential structures are just some of the discoveries revealed through excavation.
Cerro de Oro was included on the 2018 World Monuments Watch in response to constant looting and illegal encroachment that threatened the site and its potential for social use and sustainable tourism. Following inclusion on the Watch, and as a result of our partnership with Proyecto Arqueológico Cerro de Oro and the District Municipality of San Luis de Cañete, looting and encroachment has ceased, and new features are being put in place to enhance the visitor experience while protecting the site.
We sat down with Swiss architect Vincent Juillerat to unpack the process behind the design and construction of a new interpretation center, completed alongside a student workshop from Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, that is giving visitors a rich, new experience at Cerro de Oro.
How did the landscape inspire your design?
The landscape of the valley was above all an inspiration to define the location of the interpretation center at a point in the middle of the path, with an impressive view over the valley but also a view over the vestiges of tapestries in the upper part of the hill. That is why the interpretation center was conceived as an articulating landmark whose ovoid-shaped ceiling does not point to any specific orientation.
What was the greatest opportunity in designing the interpretation center and trails?
The most positive, or interesting, aspect for the students' work has been to reflect on and design an intervention of a place whose vestiges are almost invisible at first sight. Knowing there are many structures and pre-Hispanic objects underground, but not being able to see them, requires a more challenging creative process to define how to intervene and interact with the site.
How much did the design of the center and trails consider sustainability?
Sustainability is a fundamental element in our workshop and largely defines the choice of materials. Wood is an entirely undervalued material in Peru despite having very interesting mechanical, constructive and sustainable characteristics. Raw earthen blocks are also a completely sustainable material as they are made of dirt and clay and do not require baking in an oven.
What do you perceive as the biggest challenge to safeguarding Cerro de Oro?
In this case, and since I am neither an archaeologist nor a historian, I can only give my opinion as an architect in functional, spatial and scenographic terms. In my opinion, the biggest challenge of the site is to convey its pre-Hispanic occupation, now not so visible, and to understand the different stages of occupation. The challenge of Cerro de Oro also involves an adoption of its history, its meaning and its materiality by the surrounding community to value and protect it.
There have been mainly two big challenges we have encountered at Cerro de Oro with the students: logistical and constructive. Logistical because it was a challenge to bring 10 tons of materials and equipment to the summit of Cerro de Oro without any vehicular access on the way up. It took a lot of energy and time to move all our building material from the bottom of the hill to the top. In constructive terms, the challenge was to adjust the planned design and prefabricated wood elements in Lima and adapt to the inherent contingencies of wooden construction in an archeological site.
Can you tell us about the architecture university students who are helping construct the interpretation center? Why is their involvement in the project so important?
The project was defined by the architecture students. Obviously, the professors involved set the guidelines, lead and support the students during all of the project’s phases. But it is the collective process of design and construction by the students, their creativity, their energy and their commitment that allows carrying out a project of such magnitude and transforming an academic activity into a unique collective experience.
What is the impact you hope visitor improvements will have on Cerro de Oro, on visitors, and the community of San Luis de Cañete?
Firstly, the interpretation center is now a landmark on the hill, visible from far away. It indicates to anyone who passes by that something happens in this place. Secondly, the interpretation center offers a quality space to display information about the site, but without visually disconnecting from the surrounding context. In addition, the covered space gives the opportunity to organize social and educational activities with the community of Cerro de Oro and San Luis de Cañete.
What personally inspires you most about Cerro de Oro?
I found it fascinating to be able to work with the students in a location with such an impressive view over the valley and the sea. It was stimulating to reflect with them on the potential of an architectural intervention to increase the value and meaning of an archaeological site in need of better protection.