Nicaragua: Metropolitan Cathedral of Managua
I have yet to meet anyone who actually likes the Metropolitan Cathedral of Managua, better known as the new cathedral*. I’m referring specifically to its architectural style.
This is how the conversation usually goes (but in Spanish).
- Me: I visited the new cathedral today. It’s a wonderful building, isn’t it?
- Friend: No, it’s ugly. Yuck!
And that’s the long and short of it.
The dialogue is usually over before I get a chance to go on at length about why I think it’s beautiful and why it merits serious appreciation, especially since it sits isolated in the middle of a field with no buildings close enough to make any comparison or take away from its stunning visage.
If you are standing on the cathedral grounds, you are forced to contemplate what you see on its own merits. Yet, understandably, that can be difficult for many if the first reaction is some form of revulsion.
Part of the issue is that people today don’t know what to make of it, much less when it was inaugurated in 1993.
There are simply no buildings of the cathedral’s size and architectural style in Managua from which to draw any frame of reference.
What is the style, you ask?
It’s called Brutalism or Brutalist architecture, whose characteristics are marked by exposed concrete surfaces and noticeably geometrical shapes (or patterns). It developed into a recognizable style (also called a philosophy) in the decade following the Second World War.
Brutalism’s progenitor and early champion was the great Swiss-born French modernist Le Corbusier, who found virtue in the raw effect that highly geometrical concrete structures produced.
The new cathedral was designed in the early 1990s by Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta—recently passed away at the age of 80—and was among his most well-known designs (it won the Premio Arquitectura Religiosa AIA the year after the inauguration).
Legorreta was a disciple of another distinguished Mexican architect, Luis Barragán, who was himself highly-influenced by Le Corbusier. And while the lineage can be clearly traced (supposedly), the are questions that come up when I compare the new cathedral with earlier examples of Brutalist work, namely, where do the touches of saturated color come from? I don’t see anything but bare, exposed concrete in traditional Brutalism.
The touches, for the lack of a better word, also appear in Barragán’s designs, yet as far as pinpointing how that development came about, I have no idea**.
It’s worth noting that both the English and Spanish Wikipedia entries for the new cathedral make no mention of the architectural style except to say that it “has created much controversy,” whatever that means.
Nevertheless, whether from afar or up close (or within), the new cathedral is a startling work of genius, an edifice to be appreciated in the eye of the beholder.
It remains poignant memory for the architect, something deeply touching:
In this life, there are few experiences as moving as the images of events that remain indelibly etched in the memory. The cathedral became the symbol of faith in a suffering country, in the struggle of Nicaraguan Catholics, in the devotion of a cardinal, and in the humanitarian hope for Nicaraguans.
*”New” is used to distinguish it from the old cathedral, left in ruins after the earthquake of 1972, whose surviving shell is now a tourist attraction in downtown Managua.
**I can think of one other Brutalist building with such touches of color: the equally imposing Musical Arts Center (MAC) of the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, designed by the Indianapolis firm of Woollen, Molzan and Partners in the early 1960s. Having spent many years in the town and taken part in countless performances and rehearsals within its walls, I have always been struck by its aesthetic beauty. Much like the new cathedral, the MAC, too, can be viewed from a distance without any obstruction and, therefore, appreciated in equal measure.
- Obituary: “Muere a los 80 años el arquitecto mexicano Ricardo Legorreta” (El Pais)
- Biography: Ricardo Legorreta (Wikipedia)
- Video: Interview with Legorreta in Spanish (CNN México)
- Catedral Metropolitana de Managua (Legorreta + Legorreta Firm)
- “Brutalist architecture” (Wikipedia)
- Work of Luis Barragán (Barragán Foundation)