As our car bounced down the cobblestone streets of Antigua, I got my first glimpses of the small but vibrant city. I’ve been to many Spanish colonial towns, but one thing immediately struck me as unique about Antigua’s buildings… the windows. Yep, that’s right, windows—in hexagonal and octagonal shapes! By the time we reached the hotel, I’d spotted half a dozen of these geometric apertures which I could not remember seeing anywhere else I’ve been. Immediately I was intrigued and wanted to learn more about the architecture of Antigua, Guatemala.
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Antigua’s history in a nutshell
Antigua stands today despite Mother Earth’s best efforts. Volcanoes, mudslides and especially earthquakes, have challenged the city. Its current location is its third Guatemalan address. After the Santa Marta earthquakes of 1773, the Spanish finally threw in the towel and created Guatemala City as the new capital. This left “la Antigua Guatemala,” meaning “Old Guatemala City” relatively abandoned. However, in the 200 years that Antigua was being developed as the would-be capital of the New World, great planning, design and craftsmanship were poured into making it an outstandingly beautiful city.
Renaissance town planning
Antigua is laid out in an Italian Renaissance-inspired grid of north-south and east-west streets. Though the colonial buildings that make up Antigua today are largely from the 17th and 18th centuries, the 16th-century layout remains. Other 16th century survivors include the cobblestone streets, and plazas with fountains that were historically as important for water distribution, as they were for decorative purposes.
Spanish colonial and earthquake baroque architecture
Guatemala sits on what is called the Pacific Rim of Fire, where tectonic plates meet, producing exaggerated volcanic and seismic activity. The architectural style of colonial Antigua is specifically called barroco antigueño, an adaptation of Baroque which was trendy in Europe at the time. The traditional Baroque style was tailored to weather earthquakes with single-story buildings, thick walls, and low bell towers.
Many characteristics borrowed from Spanish Baroque can be seen in Antigua, including churrigueresque (busy, totally OTT decorative stucco carvings), squiggly column shapes (technically called solomonic columns), and cupolas to let light in and smoke out.
As you’d expect from a Spanish colonial town, there are plenty of more general Mediterranean references in the architecture too. Leafy courtyards shielded by thick outer walls, fabulous hardware including door knockers, low pitch roofs of terracotta tiles and wooden window grills are all commonplace. Not to mention enormous doors tall enough for a nobleman on horseback and wide enough for a carriage, with smaller human-sized doors cut within. Note, there aren’t many genuine colonial-era doors left in Antigua, they are generally reproductions.
Mansions and private residences often have tiled window sills, hexagonal or octagonal medallion windows and stone doorframes.
Not only is Antigua awash with colour, but distressed walls show a history of different hues. The National Council for the Conservation of Antigua Guatemala (CNPAG) now regulates the rainbow of possibilities, with a list of official options based on archaeological studies of lime-based paints that date back to colonial times. The palette includes sky blue, rust, mahogany, ochre, white and shades of yellow in mustard and maize.
Architecture of Antigua, Guatemala, to see and experience
There are many beautiful and significant buildings to explore in Antigua. Some particularly noteworthy examples are the Palace of the Captains General, San Jose Cathedral, the Universidad de San Carlos (now the Museum of Colonial Art), and the partial ruins of churches and monasteries such as Las Capuchinas, La Merced and Santa Clara.
Baroque architecture was full of complex shapes due to advances in science and technology. Engineers and architects were really stretching their wings at this time and building structures based on more and more complicated shapes.
The geometrical mystery, SOLVED!
As for those hexagonal and octagonal features such as the many windows and the hexagonal shaped vault in the cloister at La Merced monastery. Well, it turns out that these shapes come from Mudéjar, which refers to the application of decorative Islamic art motifs and patterning to Iberian Christian styles of buildings. This style appeared in the former Al-Andalus region (Muslim-ruled area of the Iberian Peninsula i.e. modern Spain and Portugal). The Mudéjar style was at its height between the 13th and 16th centuries – about the same time Spain was colonising Guatemala.
If you have an opportunity to see the architecture of Antigua, Guatemala in person, I would embrace it whole-heartedly. Antigua’s architectural cred punches far above its weight for the size of the city, especially one plagued by natural disaster. Not to mention all the other inspiring experiences to be had in and around the city.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,