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Museum for Mayan Artifacts Designed to Draw Tourists

By T.R. Witcher

Guatemala City hopes to draw both expatriated artifacts and tourists who want to view them with a new museum that will reflect the imagery of ancient Mayan temples.

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The intricate façade of the Museo Maya de América, which evokes the Mayan tradition of weaving, will admit light and natural ventilation, bringing the massive structure to a human scale. Courtesy of Harry Gugger Studio and over,under

March 11, 2014—The Bilbao effect, by which city leaders seek to put their lesser-known municipalities on the map by luring tourists to a show-stopping piece of architecture, is by now a well known tactic. It certainly worked for the eponymous Spanish port city, home of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum. And it may now work for Guatemala City, which is planning a major museum, the Museo Maya de América, to house its world-class collection of Mayan artifacts.

Right now just less than 3 percent of Guatemala's gross national product (GNP) comes from tourism. Fernando Paiz, the president of the board of the Maya Museum of America Foundation, hopes this project will bring in another 600,000 tourists to the country, moving the GNP needle by one percentage point. The benefits, he hopes, will redound to everyone—from hotels in the city to craftspeople in the rural interior of the country.

Additionally, he says, 60 percent of the country's 15 million citizens share Mayan heritage. The project "celebrates and gives pride to that community, so we can be proud of that heritage and its rich past," he explains. 

The museum will have facilities for students, archaeologists, and researchers, including laboratories for restoration, libraries, and storage. The museum aspires to be a world center for research on Mayan archaeology; it may have to be. Currently, the Guatemala's national collection of 40,000 pieces is housed in the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. The building is in poor condition and items are piled atop each other—more like what you'd find in a warehouse than a museum.

"It's a beautiful building but not very well suited to the safekeeping of national heritage," says Roberto de Oliveria, AIA, a principal of the Boston-based architecture firm over,under, which is leading the design. "This makes it difficult to persuade collectors to return items." Right now there are many pieces outside the country in other museums that are not being sent back because the country doesn't have the right storage for those pieces. For instance, the Mayan bible, Popol Vuh, written in the Mayan's native language, K'echi', has been at Chicago's Newberry Library for decades. Other important artifacts are held in Dresden and Madrid.

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The upper exhibit floors of the museum will cantilever more than 20 m over the first floor. Courtesy of Harry Gugger Studio and over,under

"The document should be in its place of origin," says Paiz, of the Popul Vuh. "An initiative like the Museo Maya de América will have the right facilities to repatriate these treasures."

The plan is for the museum to house the more than 40,000 pieces of the national collection, as well as join together significant private collections. The Foundation La Ruta Maya will also donate its own 4,000-piece collection. 

The project is still in the early stages of design and preliminary structural analysis—the foundation is beginning to raise the $60 million that will be needed to complete the project. In addition to over,under, the building's design team includes the Swiss firm Harry Gugger Studio and the Guatemalan firm Seis Architectos.

The site sits in a complicated location. It borders the airport, the city's zoo, and a group of other museums. "The site is actually occupied by the existing Artisan's Market that is to be relocated between the museum and the zoo," says de Oliveira Castro. To the south, he says, is open space that the government uses for horse training and stables. Eventually that open space will become a future city park. 

"We want to set up a strong cultural spine running from east to west that caps a series of public buildings and museums," says de Oliveira Castro. "At the same time, the project will help enable the creation of a park to the south. Essentially, we're building a museum in the middle of a larger park—that's the ultimate goal."

He likens this to approaching a Mayan temple in a place like Tikal National Park, in Guatemala—viewed from the top of a temple, you're surrounded by greenery; from the horizon, a few other temples appear through the tops of the trees. The goal is to recreate a similarly poetic image of a "building in the trees, while establishing a strong public identity for the city," he says.

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A portion of the museum’s roof will be given over to public space. Courtesy of Harry Gugger Studio and over,under

"We're trying to avoid imitating Maya architecture," he continues. "We're reinterpreting the elements of Maya architecture, especially its strong, earthy, and massive character." 

The designers wanted to explore a contemporary vocabulary of heaviness and openness while avoiding the literal surface appearances and direct imagery of ancient Mayan temples. Additionally, they wanted neither metal nor complex geometries, but instead a bold, back-to-roots structure.

According to the museum, much of the more than 59,456 sq m of floor space will be given over to large open expanses. Staggered blocks of stone will border a central courtyard and act as the foundation for staircases that will provide access to elevated galleries. The bulk of the building will rest atop smaller rectangular bases, thus enabling circulation beneath the structure as well as within it.

Galleries will occupy the top three floors of the building; 1,000 parking spaces will occupy two basement levels. The ground level will serve as a public plaza, and half of the roof will also function as public space.

In the center of the museum will be a large void that the designers are labeling the cenote, after the region's sinkholes. "The whole Mayan culture developed in a limestone environment," says Héctor Monzón-Despang, of Sismoconsult, the Guatemalan structural consultant on the project. "It's full of caves. Rivers disappear in sink holes and pop out in other places." 

The cenoteis meant to symbolize this important element of the region's topography. "It is open air, so water will trickle all the way down to the parking level," explains de Oliveira Castro. "It's really linking the base of the building all the way up to its roof via the use of light, water, and air."

The cenotealso establishes a progression through the building—a hint of natural light will pull visitors up from the parking levels to the ground floors, where they can grab their ticket, explore the cenote, and then ascend to the upper-floor galleries. "The cenoteis intended to provide a visual link between the public plaza and the sky, with views to some of the galleries," de Oliveira Castro. "It's really the heart of the building. It's where everybody shares space and interacts with one another."

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The museum will house Guatemala’s huge national collection of Mayan antiquities—many of them as tall as 21 ft and weighing 6 to 8 tons. Courtesy of Harry Gugger Studio and over,under

According to Monzón-Despang, preliminary structural plans call for supporting the building with a dozen or so Vierendeel trusses, some of them up to 50 m long and spaced about 10 m apart across the 120 m length of the museum. The bridgelike trusses will provide additional support for the upper exhibit floors while generating a wide, freely accessible open space on the ground.

The city is located in an active seismic zone (about on par with central California). Thus, notes Monzón-Despang, the large spans and reduced number of intermediate supports are structurally difficult. To address this, the museum will use a box concept, its long perimeter walls wrapping around the building.

In addition, the architectural design calls for the upper exhibit floors to cantilever more than 20 m over the surrounding ground plazas. In such a challenging seismic environment, in which vibration control is critical and earthquake resistance essential, "The only thing you can manage on the overhang …is to have very deep structural elements," says Monzón-Despang. "You cannot work that out with girders."

So the structural elements that support the overhanging will be a transverse pair of longitudinal walls measuring three stories high, about 15 m in total effective depth. "Since the larger box that contains the exhibit floors is in the air," says Monzón-Despang, "we have to support it with another smaller box at ground level that pierces down through the basement floors."

The plan in its present form gives the museum, he adds, a "relatively flexible inner vierendeel structure encased in strong shear walls—this contributes to the architect's intention of attaining the strong, massive character of an ancient Mesoamerican building, while providing the necessary seismic strength."

The museum's facade will be particularly complex. From far away it presents as a precise rectangle, a "strong shape floating up in the air," says de Oliveira Casto. "As you get closer to the building, you realize it has many layers." The facade will comprise horizontal rows, like shelves, and into these will be placed a lattice of stones intermixed with window-sized openings. This will create both a vertical element as well as a diagonal one. The resulting subtle texture is meant to call to mind the tradition of Mayan weaving—and the openings allow light and natural ventilation, a plus given the country's mild year-round climate.

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The heart of the Museo Maya de América will be a large void called the cenote, named after the region’s many sinkholes, that will admit light and serve as a central gathering point. Courtesy of Harry Gugger Studio and over,under

The carefully articulated facade will also help humanize the massive museum, and those little windows will provide museum patrons "direct contact to the outdoors," as de Oliveira Castro puts it, so they don't experience a sense, common to many museums, of being trapped inside an abstract world.

In addition to donations from private enterprises, the museum plans to raise funds by initiating a worldwide social media campaign and selling bricks engraved with patrons' names to be used in the ground-level plaza (they can be purchased for $100). Paiz, who once owned Central America's largest supermarket chain, hopes to raise half of the $60 million by next February and start construction, which should last around two and a half years.

"It will be the biggest building visible at the entrance to the city," says de Oliveira Castro. "In many ways, it is going to put the Maya legacy and contemporary architecture as a new face of the city."


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