By Mahasti Afshar

Whistler said of music that it is the poetry of sound, and of painting that it is the poetry of sight. He might have added that sculpture is the poetry of space, and architecture, of sound and sight animating space. One wonders what he would have said of a historic city, an organism that is all of the above and pulsates with human life as well? A symphonic poem?

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The metaphor would certainly apply to the historic center of Quito, capital of Ecuador, whose colonial architecture matches its splendid Andean setting 2,850 meters high on the slopes of Mt. Pichincha. Unfortunately, much of Quito's poetry is being silenced by the prosaic counterpoints of modern life.

Modern Quito

Comparing Quito's historic center today with the oldest preserved map of the city—drawn only thirty-one years after Quito's founding by the Spanish in 1534—reveals that its basic plan remains intact. The evenly proportioned city blocks and narrow streets connected by well-placed plazas have not been modified in the least. Still, the center's character has degenerated, partly the result of natural causes, partly due to the impact of 20th century technology, but mostly because socioeconomic factors have reduced the level of maintenance and care it enjoyed in the past.

Rural immigrants without a cohesive social base now populate the historic core with dire effects on the physical fabric of residential buildings. Property owners have forsaken the area, subdividing and renting their historic buildings to tenants, most of whom have neither the interest, the means, nor the incentive to maintain them. Some buildings are used as warehouses, others are treated like dumpsites. A chaotic mass of cables, billboards, posters, and other miscellanies dangle from walls and balconies, concealing the beautiful, orderly 17th-19th century façades from view.

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Although better tended, Quito's religious and civic monuments with their great collections of sculpture and paintings have also suffered damage. Poverty, population growth, pollution, earthquakes, an inadequate sanitation system, inordinate levels of human and vehicular traffic, and the superimposition of a fragmented and utilitarian outlook over the historically inspired, integral, and functional one have accelerated the decline

Efforts to reverse this trend are underway and already bearing fruit. During the day, Plaza Grande is crowded with townsfolk who appreciate the newly paved and landscaped main square and take full advantage of its well-placed benches to while away time. An impeccable new dining complex on the corner serves meals, snacks, and drinks to a full house every day. At nightfall, with many of the center's buildings beautifully lit, petty criminals and prostitutes are beginning to give way to street performers and spectators. Tourism is on the rise, and pickpockets seem to be on the decline—at least in the historic heart of the city.

Since 1978 when UNESCO designated Quito's historic center a World Heritage Site, the Municipality of Quito has administered a number of independent conservation projects, several of them undertaken with Spain, Belgium, and other European countries. The rhythm of activities within the center has quickened, and is music to the ears of all of those involved in preserving and rehabilitating Quito's remarkable cultural patrimony.

Saving the Colonial City

As with most historic cities, Quito's small colonial core is engulfed by a larger, modern urban complex. To the north is a financial, residential, and shopping district, and to the south, an industrial area where workers also live. Most people who continue living in the core do so out of necessity, not choice. An exception is the mayor, Dr. Jamil Mahuad Witt, who after taking office in August 1992 moved into a historic building on the Plaza Grande "to set an example." As he walks across the square to his office, people stop him to say hello, ask a favor, or lodge a complaint. He never passes them by.

"I will do everything in my power to improve the people's quality of life, which goes hand in hand with improving the condition of the historic buildings," he says. "The revitalization of the center is a great and long-term challenge. But with proper planning, adequate financial and technical help, and some luck, I feel confident I can accomplish the work begun by my predecessor, Rodrigo Paz." Former Mayor Paz, known as El Negro to his friends, initiated the historic center's conservation activities while in office and remains involved in preservation efforts.

A primary problem is traffic which the Municipality is trying to control with new legislation. From dawn till dusk the city center is an overcrowded corridor for transporting goods and people from the south to the north. Leaded gasoline turns the place into a veritable gas chamber, affecting everyone and everything along its path.

Another challenge to the Municipality is devising feasible controls on street vending which is generally controlled by a local mafia with territories organized roughly in 100-meter-long blocks. To trade goods in certain locales is a long-established tradition here as in other Latin American cities. But in Quito street vending has been illegal since 1981. Nevertheless, country folk—mostly Indians who have settled in slums in the nearby hills—flock to the center before sunrise to trade a variety of cheap, manufactured goods until late in the day (while 80,000 people reside in the district, 200,000 people crowd its streets each day). They leave behind a lot of garbage which is infrequently collected. A recent effort to divert this form of commerce away from the center by building concrete stalls along the broad Avenida 24 Mayo has met with only limited success.

The Municipality plans adaptive reuse of buildings as hotels, restaurants, quality craft shops, theaters, and art galleries to encourage tourism. Most visitors to Ecuador view Quito as a post to pass on the way to the Galapagos Islands. Typically, they spend only a few hours visiting its historic center where they find little or no merchandise worth buying. It is hoped that new accommodations and services will produce revenues that can help revitalize the center's economic base and improve its physical fabric as well.

The mayor's office is also developing strategies to better communicate its mission to the public. Recently, a series of television programs were produced to generate local awareness and interest in historic preservation, and a variety of educational and advocacy activities are planned to encourage broader community participation.

Other local institutions collaborate in the conservation program under the authority of the Municipality and its Planning Office—principally the Fondo de Salvamento, the Fundación Caspicara, and the Banco Central del Ecuador.

The Fondo de Salvamento was established after the disastrous 1987 earthquake which severely damaged numerous public and religious monuments. Headed by Dora Arízaga, the organization executes a variety of conservation and restoration projects approved by the Municipality. Its activities also include mitigating earthquake damage. "Difficult as it is to deal with earthquakes," says Ms. Arízaga as she wades through the multitudes and the merchandise along the narrow streets, "dealing with human problems is an even greater challenge. How do you accommodate people whose meager livelihood depends on the free use of street space, and at the same time create a sense of responsibility against abusing it in the process? What is the key to preserving monuments without turning a living city into a museum, or worse, into an artificial imitation of itself?"

Another partner in conservation is the Fundación Caspicara, a private, non-profit organization founded in 1989 and operating under the direction of Germánico Salgado and his general manager Manuel Calisto. With extensive experience in financial management and economic planning, they network to solicit a variety of contributions worldwide. "We have banked on our freedom from political ties and pressures, and this has served our cause in the international arena to great advantage," says Mr. Salgado. He adds, "I must say that Ecuador's extended political stability has also helped." Manuel Calisto elaborates on the organization's mission: "We take our inspiration from Manuel "Chili" Caspicara, an 18th century Indian sculptor who is one of the great prides of the famous Quito School of Art, and who inspired a creative, constructive, and fruitful dialogue through art between his native traditions and his acquired European craft." Presently housed with the Fondo de Salvamento in a restored building in the Plaza Grande, the Fundación Caspicara has been granted new quarters by the Municipality in a building which will house an arts and crafts gallery, as well as other cultural enterprises.

The García Moreno Project

The Getty Conservation Institute's activities in Quito began in 1990 with a conference on the conservation of historic centers co-sponsored with the Municipality and the United Nations Development Program. Since then it has collaborated with the Municipality and its affiliate organizations in a number of related conservation projects.

"Preserving the center's physical fabric is crucial to its socioeconomic revitalization," says Miguel Angel Corzo, Director of the Getty Conservation Institute. This symbiosis will happen, provided local authorities develop lasting partnerships with a broad constituency of conservators, experts in urban development, entrepreneurs, property owners, and the general public. Our own partnership with the Municipality, the Fondo de Salvamento, and the Fundación Caspicara has benefited from excellent political support and continues to enjoy exemplary human relations.

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"We do not view our involvement in Quito as only a technical exercise in architectural conservation," he continues. "Rather, we see it as a contribution to improving the human condition in a place that in the past has contributed so much to enriching the human spirit. The very essence of an historic center is that it shows you where you come from and where you are going. For me, this is what's important about conservation."

Guided by this broad, humanistic vision of conservation, the Institute embarked on a project to stimulate the center's rehabilitation with a study of Calle García Moreno, a thoroughfare that reputedly connected the temples of the Sun and the Moon in the Inca period. Stretching along Plaza Grande—historically the center of cultural, religious, and festive activities, and to date the seat of government—the street was the main urban axis in colonial times. Buildings here combine traditional floor plans, including Andalucian patios, with massive adobe-type mud walls considered to be of native, Indian origin. The roofs are typically made of light wood structures covered with clay shingles and insulated from living areas by horizontal systems of canes or reeds.

"Calle García Moreno was an obvious choice for our project because of its abundance of outstanding colonial and post-colonial religious, civic, and residential buildings," says Dr. Neville Agnew, Special Projects Director for the Institute. "Now it is deteriorated, polluted, unsanitary, overcrowded, and overused. Reviving its grace and vigor requires a many-pronged effort on a scale that matches the vision of the city's founders."

The Institute's detailed 1992-93 study of García Moreno was supervised by Jaime Ortiz Lajous, a Getty Conservation Institute consultant from Mexico who has devoted his life to architectural conservation. Working with the Municipality, the Fondo de Salvamento, the Fundación Caspicara, the Banco Central del Ecuador, and ten local assistants whom he trained in the process, Ortiz Lajous produced a remarkably comprehensive report which included fifty-seven photogrammetric maps of eight city blocks and covering about 60,000 sq. meters; pencil and ink drawings, damage registration, and detailed descriptions of architectural elements of twenty-seven buildings; the color history of about 17,000 sq. meters of façades; colored drawings reflecting historical color schemes applied since the early 19th century; stratigraphic color prospecting on a selected number of interiors as well as on all façades, some of which register up to six color strata beneath their currently white surfaces; graphic documentation of current exterior conditions including cables, signs, billboards, and other recent additions; and, finally, chemical analysis of painting materials. These data are complemented by nearly 500 color photographs.

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Collectively, this information provides a basis for the rehabilitation of the remarkable buildings along García Moreno. Indeed, the purpose of the study, which the Institute will present to Mayor Mahuad early in 1994, is to provide building owners with a blueprint for restoring their structures. The study includes both technical specifications and cost estimates for rehabilitation. The intent is to return the buildings as much as possible to their earlier glory. To encourage owners to implement the design package, the Fundación Caspicara is working with the Banco Central del Ecuador, another key player in matters of cultural heritage, to provide low-interest, long-term loans.

During the Conservation Institute's study, team members established relationships with residents and property owners whose support from the start was recognized as a key to the project's success. The first acknowledgment came in July 1993 when Santiago Mantilla, owner of a commercial structure on the corner of García Moreno and Olmedo Streets, voluntarily spent funds to repaint his building, including its roof, ornamental elements, and signage, in accordance with the project's guidelines and the city authorities' decision to create a harmonic color scheme compatible with colors used during the eclectic-historic period in the 1870s.

Other Efforts

The Institute has pursued other activities to promote the rehabilitation and maintenance of Quito's cultural heritage, among them the production of a video documentary on the historic and artistic significance of the center and its conservation needs. In addition, in the spring of 1993 the Institute cosponsored an international colloquium on seismic stabilization—the first event of its kind in Quito (see Dealing with Earthquakes: The Quito Colloquium). This will be followed in mid-1994 by a training workshop on the same subject for architects and seismic engineers employed by the city and other official organizations.

The continued use of leaded gasoline in Ecuador has profound long-term consequences for public health and cultural property in Quito. Because the transition to unleaded gas remains a distant reality, traffic reduction is critically important. With this in mind, the Institute installed an environmental monitoring station adjacent to Calle García Moreno to measure the center's climatic environment in order to better understand the dynamic relationship between meteorological conditions and the dissipation of pollution. The data will be used in designing a system to control vehicular traffic and reduce the damage caused by toxic fumes.

Several of the Institute's sister organizations in the Getty Trust are assisting in the conservation of two historic churches in Quito. The Getty Grant Program has awarded grants for the structural stabilization of the Church of La Merced which was last damaged in the 1987 earthquake.

The Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities plans to train priests of the Library of La Merced in cataloguing its collection of rare books and early newspapers, as well as in collections management in order that public access to its holdings can be increased. The Getty Conservation Institute is providing conservation assistance to save library materials, with on-site work to be supervised by a local specialist in paper and book conservation. A few blocks away at the Jesuit church of La Compañía, Gordon Hanlon, an expert from the J. Paul Getty Museum, has advised conservators there on handling the deterioration problems of the church's interior polychromy and gilding, much of which resulted from structural damage due to earthquakes.

The main challenge in Quito is to collectively find approaches that respect the built environment without overlooking human needs, ones that bridge the gap between strictly purist and pragmatic conservation strategies. The Getty Conservation Institute and its partners in Quito are looking for solutions that best mediate the values of times past and present. Ultimately, the test of this collective response to history will be history itself.

Mahasti Afshar is Program Research Associate with the Getty Conservation Institute.


Quito and Ecuador


Ecuador is divided into three regions: the coastal lowlands, the Andean mountain range, and the jungles of the upper Amazonian basin. Nestled on a mountain plateau in the Andes, the city of Quito, at 2,850 meters (9,300 feet), is the second highest capital in the world. The city consists of three main districts. At its core is a small historic center. At its northern end is the city's modern and prime residential and financial area. To the city's south is working-class housing and an industrial zone.


The official population of Ecuador in 1987 was 9,120,000. Of that, about 40% are Indians, 40% Mestizos, 10% white, Quito is the second largest city at about one million.


In the 1970s, Ecuador went from an agricultural to a predominantly petroleum-based economy. Petroleum exports accounted for half the total by the 1980s although agriculture, including fishing, still employs a third of the labor force. Ecuador is the world's largest exporter of bananas, and shrimp farming has become a booming industry.

Early History

Quito's name is derived from the Quitus—one of the original tribes to inhabit the area in the 11th century. Conquered by the Caras then the Shyries, invaders from the coast, the territory fell to the Inca ruler Huaina Capac toward the end of the 15th century. In 1531, the Spanish, led by Francisco Pizarro, landed in Peru, subsequently capturing and executing Atahualpa, Huaina Capac's heir. Sebastián de Benalcázar, one of Pizarro's lieutenants, took possession of Quito in 1534, though the settlement was razed to the ground by the Incas. On December 6, the town of San Francisco de Quito was established. The following year, construction of the city's first religious building began on the site of the present Cathedral.