From Pre-Hispanic Ruins to Enhanced Reality Designers

I landed in Guatemala City and headed for the historic center to meet the Friends of La Merced, a private group working with the Ministry of Culture in the rehabilitation of a religious complex completed in 1813. The neighborhood of La Merced has retained the historic character and charming low scale of 19th-century Guatemala. This is the place where the capital of the Capitania General de Guatemala, the center of the political and military leadership that ruled over the Spanish colonies of Central America, from Chiapas to Costa Rica, from 1524 until 1773, was moved after several earthquakes left Santiago de Guatemala, better known as Antigua Guatemala, the early capital, in ruins. La Merced has a neoclassical façade and lavish Baroque altarpieces and decoration brought from the earlier church of La Merced in Antigua, a reversal of the most common church phenomena: Baroque churches losing their ornate altars for a more academic neoclassical interior scheme.

My next stop was Kaminaljuyu, or “place of the ancestors,” an early Maya site that flourished around the 4th century A.D. and was influenced by the architecture of Teotihuacan in Mexico. Squinting under the protective roofs, one can see the central stairs and talud-tablero (step pyramid) configuration of the stone Temple of Quetzalcoatl, made of mud bricks and packed dirt instead of stone. This 2010 Watch site is all that remains of a much larger mud-brick city that was engulfed by the modern Guatemala City, and although it is protected by a “living” fence made of plants and used as a park, the signage is minimal and there are no interpretation facilities to explain the meaning behind the massive mud-brick structures now scattered under leaky corrugated metal.

Leaving Guatemala City for Antigua was like going back in time to a calmer and safer place. After being partially abandoned for over a century, Antigua was reclaimed in the late 20th century by Guatemalans trying to escape the bustle of the capital. Some of the old convents and houses were converted into boutique hotels, restaurants, and Spanish-language schools (for foreigners studying in the city), giving the town a feel similar to that of San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, where English-speaking tourists and expats mingle with huipil-wearing (a huipil is a traditional embroidered shirt), Maya-speaking native women balancing bundles on their head. Antigua escaped the destructive modernization process that transformed many Latin American cities and, since its inscription as a World Heritage City in 1979, its development has been carefully monitored.

However, Antigua's modernization occurred inside the ancient building shells, and is also evidenced by the cosmopolitan character of its inhabitants. One of these individuals is Carlos Arguello, a Guatemalan Oscar-nominated virtual reality designer who decided to return home to create educational and job opportunities for young people interested in virtual technology and digital art. His local team, Studio C, is developing the content for the interpretation center for the city of Antigua, which will be installed in the Capitanes Generales Palace, a 2008 Watch site and an ongoing WMF-sponsored project to be inaugurated in 2011.