Walking the History of Cuenca

Archivos de Cuenca

I went to lunch the other day with a new friend. He had told me he worked for the Municipality of Cuenca, but beyond that I knew little about his role within the city government. We began our lunch conversation with chisme (gossip) and talk of enamorados (love). Rather quickly though, we began to discuss the architectural gems easily found around Cuenca – the Former Bank of Azuay blocks away from Parque Calderon; the Casa of Juan Jaramillo, located on the Calle Juan Jaramillo, among other buildings that fascinate us both and that enabled the city’s historic center to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.

While I could talk about and appreciate the aesthetics of these buildings, my friend, 30 year old, Quito native Esteban Herrera, could discuss the architectural importance, history and genealogy of these buildings. His eyes lit up and his hands expressed his enthusiasm about the famous Benigno Malo high school that currently resides along Av. Fray Vicente Solano. Esteban recounted that is was designed by the Quiteno Luis Felipe Donoso Barba in 1923, and that Barba, like many in that era were highly influenced by French Beaux Arts. Because of that, the building displays neo-classical Greek and Roman-style structures. That is, columns, high arches, heavy masonry and highly decorated surfaces (Beaux Arts). My friend pointed out that, rather than utilize the stone and shale that characterized Beaux Arts buildings in its native France, designers and constructors in Cuenca used what was readily available – clay bricks and tiles.

Colegio Benigno Malo

Colegio Benigno Malo

“So, what did you study at university?” I asked Esteban. “Cultural Studies from the Universidad de Hemisferios in Quito and a Master’s Degree from the Universidad de Sevilla. I wrote my thesis on the patrimonial and artístic influence of the Andaluz región of Spain on Iberian countries, particularly Ecuador, between the 16th and 18th centuries,” he finished. Oh, my. Not only was Herrera a good person, but is nearly a walking encyclopedia of Cuenca’s architecture. This is my kinda friend!

It turns out that for over a year Herrera has been working as an archival researcher within the municipality’s Department of Historical and Patrimonial Areas. Previously, he worked for a combined 3 years as a historical researcher for the Metropolitan Institute of Cultural Patrimony of Quito and for the Museo de Carmen Alto, also in Quito.

Cuenca Archives

Cuenca Archives

He came to Cuenca from Quito to learn more about its amalgam of architecture and the different eras within which the city was designed and constructed. Cuenca’s principal historic center buildings hail from the late 1500s to the early 1900s. As such, the city demonstrates colonial, neo-romanesque, art deco and neo-colonial designs. This is in contrast to Herrera’s native Quito, which displays mainly baroque and rococo architecture in its historic center.

At present, Herrera’s work for the municipality includes investigating the patrimonial importance of several barrios within the historic center, including San Roque, now complete, and San Sebastian. At a practical level this means sifting through archived books that document notarized economic transactions that occurred within San Sebastian until the late 1800s. Until that time the municipality tracked each item bought and sold, to whom and by whom in its barrios. An important finding from this information, Herrera explains, is that during the 1600s, when San Sebastian was initially formed, it was inhabited with mainly indigenous ceramicists who produced and sold household earthenware items. By the end of the colonial period, higher class white and mestizo populations began to buy property in the neighborhood, pushing out indigenous families.

Cuenca Archives

While this project isn’t directly related to the architecture, Esteban says this is his favorite project because…

“…archived registries are a direct reflection of the different ways of life within these barrios in the past, and we can understand our present-day society by reading our past.”

This is the first time Cuenca’s municipality has attempted to create a comprehensive historical analysis of its barrios, including their architectural, economic, social and religious elements. The city wants to complete this project, to be released in book form by December 2017, in order to make this information more accessible to residents of Cuenca and so that residents can feel more connected to the city they live in, notes Herrera.

In addition, Esteban is a part of the team of researchers within his department that is working to register Cuenca’s Paseo del Niño, a city-wide parade that occurs each December 24th to commemorate the Catholic religion’s birth of Jesus Christ, on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list (UNESCO Culture).

Herrera has been accepted to study his Ph.D. at the University of Leon in Spain to research the social, economic and cultural influences of the Castillo y Leon región of Spain on the Audience Real of Quito (Audience Real of Quito). He hopes that all of this rich professional experience will enable him to continue to investigate the historical art and architecture of Ecuador while teaching young historians.

Estebean Herrera

Esteban Herrera


Herrera recommends this Architectural Walking Tour of Cuenca

CATEDRAL EL SAGRARIO (Old Cathedral)
Catedral El Sagrario, on the southeast side of Cuenca’s Parque Calderón, first constructed in 1557, was the first Catholic church in Cuenca.

MUSEO DEL MONASTERIO DE LAS CONCEPTAS
This monastery, which constructors started in 1599, was the first to be erected in Cuenca and only the second in Ecuador. It’s located on the street Hermano Miguel between Juan Jaramillo and Presidente Cordova

PUMAPUNGO ARCHAEOLOGICAL PARK
Located at the current Calle Larga and Avenida Huayna Cápac, this site is what’s left of the Inca-founded Tomebamba, after driving the Cañaris civilization north of the region in 1470. The site demonstrates terraced landscapes, the Temple of the Sun where priests performed religious ceremonies, and even houses a small bird zoo.

Cuenca archives

Cuenca archives

For further reading on architecture in Cuenca (both publications also exist in English):
1. Jamieson, Ross William. De Tomebamba a Cuenca: Arquitectura y Arqueología Colonial. Simon Fraser University. Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada: Simon Fraser University, 2003.
2. Kennedy T., Alexandra. “Aprobación y re simbolización del patrimonio en el Ecuador. Historia, arquitectura y comunidad. El caso de Cuenca”. Procesos: revista ecuatoriana de historia. 25 (I semestre, 2007): 129-151. http://hdl.handle.net/10644/323


Erin Fiorini is a researcher, writer, photographer, and mentor with the nonprofit Global Citizen Year. You can find her working in coffee shops in Cuenca.

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