I love to travel. It is the best school I have ever attended- I learn so much from other people in different regions, and glean from them new ways to solve or even approach design problems. Also differing vocabularies of design language and style. We all want to keep the rain out, and make our lives more comfortable enjoyable and fulfilling, but there are so many various ways to go about solving for those simple goals. St Augustine said, “the whole world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page”.
I recently had the opportunity to visit with a client and friend, his native country of Guatemala. It was really just an amazing experience the food was great the people I met were fairly pleasant and American-tolerant; but the scenery was for me, transformative. I pay close attention to nature and especially plants- and saw only two or three that we have in the South. Creeping figvine, hydrangeas and bouganvilla were the only ones (unless you count ficus trees which only grow inside in the south), and if you ever tried to keep bouganvillia alive above south Florida you know its not REALLY a viable southern plant. There is not much more resplendent than bougainvillea and in all of plant-dom, virtually unmatched for just profuse and lush color. All the rest that met my eyes were totally new and foreign to me, also gorgeous and brilliantly colored. The national tree is a giant Ceiba, (pronounced SAY-BA) which grow to 180 feet tall, and would quite easily dwarf any oak tree. The word ”Guatemala” is derived from the Aztec name Quauhtlemallan, meaning “Land of many trees.” Another amazing tree- the Jacaranda, has unbelievably purple flowers that totally cover it. Of course- FOOD is always a favorite topic but I won’t have time to go into the steak asado and plantains and ceviche’ and cordon negros or huhevos rancheros or verde salsa and Gallos beer, but if you can find some Carlos Zacapa dark Rum or the XO version of the same, get it. If you don’t like I will buy it back from you! Sorry, but best coffee award still goes to Costa Rica…
Ok, now for the best part. We went to a wedding in Antigua and stayed there a couple days. If you have been to Alys beach down around seaside, the design of that place was patterned after Antigua, except for the lack of color part. The city has been there since the 1540′s (about 450 years) and is a small but uber dense network of una via (one way) streets all of cobblestones and almost all the buildings are walled enclaves which touch on all sides, so there are no front or side yards, just very interesting walls many topped with bouganvillea or other vines, and has acquired that ancient patina that builds up as only centuries of volcanic ash and rain and sun can achieve. The city is surrounded by three very tall volcanoes (Volcán de Agua, Acatenango,Volcán de Fuego), some still active which are upwards of 12,000 to 13,000 feet in elevation- yet the city is in a valley nestled cozily amongst these towering masses. There is nothing fake or false or remotely Disneyfied about it- is so rare to be in a truly authentic place. In my last post I talked about materials and their power as a design tool, and Antigua has that completely covered. It appears that they use the “why use one material when six different materials will do?” rule. I almost never saw the same paving surfaces on terraces or walls there were usually at least two or three. The result is kind of a patchwork quilt that looks anything but corny or haphazard, just the opposite effect it has a richness and variety (the spice of life) that is just Delightful.
But let me back up a step, I forgot to describe that one of the most interesting and unique things about the place is the use of courtyards and walls to gain privacy and protection by creating walled outdoor rooms- that you enter into right off the street through an always gated entry. These walls are about 7 or 8 feet tall and many have all kinds of growies atop which create some shade and kind of a crown for the wall. The gate connects to a covered porch which borders the courtyard and the cover takes you to the inside, which I use loosely because there is little distinction between inside and outside in the way we think of it in the States. Of course it helps that they don’t really have seasons like we do either, so the need for very airtight indoor areas really just doesnt exist in the same way we are used to. How nice to not have to worry with that whole indoor outdoor separation so much (but I wouldn’t trade Autumn for it)! But honestly, with all the colors they have, who would miss it? Inside these courtyards is a treat for all the senses- most of them have water, in cisterns, in fountains, in rills, in pots, in spouts you name it. So now we also have the element of sound well not just sound but pleasant sounds. Also they have brought into the experience, smell- through the flowering plants and also through another element we seldom use- incense. There were in places these large burners of incense with smoking embers (see last photo). The smell kind of wafts around and every so often you get a wonderful snoutful- because you know, your senses just needed one more thing to experience.
I really had a hard time taking all I experienced in, and of course it was impossible trying to synthesize it into a language I could understand fully and much less explain. In the end, I just enjoy- and know that it’s influence will come out in my work in it’s own intuitive honest way. But if I had to try and explain it I think it feels very layered, and lush and protected. When you walk through those gateways become portals to some other world, and that moment is transforming and resplendent. Henry Miller said, “The destination is never the place; but a new way of seeing things“, and that is the most transformative part of it all. As I was leaving, I realized I was personally richer, and truly would become a better thinker- than the one who arrived.