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A cultural and historical gem, lost in plain sight

A cultural and historical gem, lost in plain sight

Posting in Architecture

MEXICO CITY and OAXACA CITY -- How a 16th century convent was lost, found and renovated to marry antiquity with 21st century design.

MEXICO CITY and OAXACA CITY – How the southern Mexican city of Oaxaca managed to lose a sprawling and historically significant 16th century convent is anyone's guess.

The snail's pace sell-off of parcels over more than 300 years had something to do with its retreat from the colonial landscape and its subtle erasure from collective memory. But the recent rediscovery of the ex-convent known as San Pablo opened the doors to the recuperation of a cultural space and the opportunity for a cutting-edge contemporary architectural intervention.

Dating to 1529, San Pablo was the first known outpost of Dominican friars in Oaxaca City and the seat of studies in indigenous languages including nahuatl, zapotec and mixtec. A devastating earthquake in the first decade of the 17th century was said to have destroyed much of the convent; during the next centuries the grounds were broken up and new buildings were built, slowly closing in the convent until it all but disappeared. Homes, a bakery, a hotel and an auto repair shop took over while the alleyways that gave access to the convent's green-and-pink sandstone façade were closed off.

No one had a clue until the Alfredo Harp Helú Foundation – run by the billionaire cousin of Mexico's richest man, Carlos Slim – decided to buy the Posada San Pablo hotel in 2005 with the idea of gutting it and converting the space into a local headquarters.

"We knew from oral tradition that the San Pablo convent was here but it was believed it was totally destroyed," said Bas van Doesburg, head of the foundation's restoration department.

He began peeling away layers of paint and cement and was shocked to discover the remains of the convent were largely in tact – much had survived the passage of time and development. That the convent could survive and yet "disappear" just two blocks from the city's central plaza was astounding.

"After a few months we discovered the whole convent was here," he said.

The Helú foundation shifted its plans and embarked on a seven-year, $15 million journey to buy up the surrounding properties and begin full-scale restoration. Workers hauled out 6,000 tons of building materials over the course of a year as they dug to find the original walls and layout of the grounds. The auto repair shop? Well, that was the convent's chapel.

Celebrated Mexican architect Mauricio Rocha Iturbide joined the restoration and proposed a series of interventions that would transform the property from historical artifact to modern cultural center.

Van Doesburg and his team of historians and archeologists restored the convent as close as possible to its original state. Meanwhile, everything Rocha did – including construction of a three-story glass-walled addition to the atrium that serves as a study space – is modular and removable. The contemporary additions coexist with the building but do not alter it physically.

The restored San Pablo Cultural and Academic Center opened in November 2011 and has won awards including one of Obras magazine's Best Works of 2012. Obras lauded the project's "integration of a multidisciplinary team of specialists in history, archeology and restoration to rescue the building's symbolism, minimize alterations and recuperate the original spaces."

Today San Pablo has a café, a children's reading room, an exhibition space and a library; conferences on local tradition are held in the sunlit atrium.

Perhaps the greatest example of the project's marriage of the past with the present is the return to San Pablo of a vibrant indigenous language studies program that was its raison d'etre to begin with nearly five centuries ago – a testament to the endurance of the region's linguistic and architectural traditions.

Photos courtesy Taller de Arquitectura Mauricio Rocha and Bas van Doesburg

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Lauren Villagran

Correspondent (Mexico City)

Lauren Villagran has written for the Associated Press, Dallas Morning News and Christian Science Monitor. She holds a degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure