Pope Francis’ recent call for “a poor church for the poor” didn’t quite make it to Nicaragua in time to dissuade the Diocese of Granada from embarking on an expensive and unsightly three-story addition to the city’s stately cathedral.
The renovation, which reportedly will include the colonial city’s first elevator to whisk churchgoers from the street level up to third-floor meeting rooms where they can discuss ecclesiastical matters in air-conditioned comfort, is being built with holy haste. The diocese will not divulge how much the construction costs or who is bankrolling the project, which is advancing at the clip of spot-motion photography.
For the past few months, Granadinos—some with mild dread—have watched as construction workers erect a monstrous steel frame covered by a cheap covintec façade that is jarringly dissimilar from the rest of the cathedral’s architecture. The original building, constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is made mostly of stone and adobe. The diocese promises the addition will blend seamlessly with the rest of the church upon its completion. But a local expert in historic restoration argues that’s a false promise because the newly constructed wing of the cathedral will be a cheap counterfeit of the original building.
“They are falsifying the nature of the building,” charges Luis Medal, a Nicaraguan architect with several Masters degrees from Spain and Italy in restoration, repair and conservation of historic buildings and cultural patrimony.
Medal claims the construction project, which he warns will age differently from the rest of the building and threatens the original foundation of the church’s adobe walls, violates more than a dozen UNESCO recommendations aimed at regulating the restoration of historic patrimony. In addition, Medal says, the cathedral’s slapdash construction violates various Nicaragua laws and municipal ordinances that deal with the protection of cultural patrimony.
“They are violating the whole essence of historic conservation,” Medal told The Nicaragua Dispatch in a recent interview. “The new structure is a totally inappropriate addition to the existing building; they are trying to imitate the original building without knowledge of historic architectural practices or proportions.”
Medal says the construction project also goes against the global trend of repairing sloppy renovations from the past. While other countries are fixing shoddy restoration jobs from the past century, Nicaragua is causing “irreparable damage” to Granada’s Cathedral with its steel-and-chicken-wire construction project that completely ignores the past 50 years of accumulated knowledge of best practices for the preservation of patrimony, Medal charges.
Church leaders have been reluctant to discuss the project in any detail. They diocese has, however, posted a poster-sized rendition of what the final renovation might look like at the entrance of the cathedral.
In response to criticism in the newspapers and on social media websites, several neighborhood religious groups have signed letters of support for the church’s expansion. Granada’s bishop, however, has declined to explain the project in any detail.
‘Falsifying’ Granada’s colonial past
Medal says the metallic monstrosity is only the latest example of Granada “falsifying” its history by fiddling carelessly with its colonial authenticity.
Medal, a purist when it comes to preserving patrimony, likens old buildings to “historical documents” that tell the tale of the city’s past. By altering the structure of an old building, the city’s handlers are essentially “falsifying history,” he charges.
Medal says there are examples of this all around the city’s center, where Granada’s architectural history has been altered dramatically over the years. The clergy are not the only culprits. Private home owners—foreigners and locals alike—are also guilty of altering Granada’s patrimony in a plethora of perverse ways. (Just in the past seven years, one particular foreigner with unabashedly garish taste is responsible for converting two city-center homes into faux-Ionic, neo-Egyptian psychedelic funhouses that look like weekend retreats for the mentally insane.)
Medal says the current curators of the cathedral, which was built in the post-William Walker era of reconstruction, have a “moral obligation” to preserve the building according to its original design and material for the next generation to enjoy. Instead, the architect notes, in just the past few years the diocese has changed the original color of the cathedral from white to yellow, erected an iron gate around the property to “divorce the church from the center of the city,” and are now disfiguring the building with an ill-constructed addition.
Medal says the changes are part of a more worrisome trend to separate Granada’s population from the city’s historic center. Calle La Calazada, a former residential area that has slowly displaced families with bars and restaurants, has become a protagonist in the city’s radical transformation from a functional residential area to a tourist trap, Medal says.
“The center of Granada is turning into something that the people who have lived there for generations don’t remember,” Medal says.
Tourism, he says, is not incompatible with historic preservation. But it has to be done in a way that respects the nature and history of the city. The challenge for Granada, the architect says, is to avoid an unnecessary identity crisis by continuing to become something it’s not.
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