At 10:30 pm on October 28, 1746, an 8.7-magnitude earthquake struck near Lima.
For three minutes, the earth shook. When it stopped, a city that had taken over two centuries to build was decimated. Entire neighborhoods lay in ruins. The Peruvian capital’s major buildings—the Spanish viceroy’s palace, the Inquisition, the Royal University, all 64 churches—were either damaged or destroyed. More than 1,000 people were killed.
The movement of the Nazca tectonic plate under the South American plate over the millennia has triggered quakes that have brought devastation to the people and places of Peru. But, they have also inspired remarkable ingenuity and innovation in how they construct buildings—particularly those from earthen materials like adobe.
As the quakes keep coming, the work to keep Peru’s historic monuments standing runs apace, today enlisting an inventive conservation approach in the continuing battle against plate tectonics, time, and the tenacity of termites.
“Houses were to have thick adobe walls on the first floor and thin reed walls on the second, so as to have flexibility in case of a quake and avoid collapse on people. The same rules were applied to churches.”
Luis Andres Villacorta Santamato—known to all as “Lucho”—stands in the middle of the Cathedral of Ica, explaining the significance of the eighteenth-century building.
An architectural historian at Universidad Católica Sedes Sapientiae and the gregarious former host of a popular TV show about Peruvian culture and history, he looks at ease in the dry heat, even in a dark blazer and hard hat. “When these Hispano-American cities were founded around the sixteenth century, it seemed clear to mankind that beauty was the splendor of truth. This is an ancient Greek idea, transmitted through medieval Europe. Since we cannot see eternal beauty in all its splendor, we create instead beautiful things that are a pale reflection of the transcendental beauty for which man was created.”
Built in 1759, the Cathedral of Ica is a textbook example of the Viceroy-mandated construction techniques—and proof that they work. The church survived earthquake after earthquake for over 200 years, serving as a place of worship and a landmark for the city’s residents. Then in 2007, almost directly under Ica, an 8.0 earthquake struck. The central barrel vault partially collapsed, the towers shifted, cracks appeared, plaster rained down in chunks and dust.
Much of the damage ended up being credited to termites, which had been quietly eating away at the walls and vaults for years. Nevertheless, the cathedral stood thanks to the thick exterior adobe walls and to a unique feature—a huarango tree trunk planted in the middle of every central pillar, not one of which was found to have suffered termite damage.
Preservation work began following the 2007 quake, but in 2009 it happened again. A 7.0 earthquake rocked Ica. Already weakened from the first quake, the domes of the cathedral collapsed and the termite-riddled walls buckled. Keeping the building standing suddenly became a larger, more urgent problem.
Claudia Cancino grew up in Lima. When she was a little girl, her family would go to her uncle’s house every Sunday. The neighborhood he lived in had many earthen archaeological sites, their buildings made from unfired earth materials like adobe. “My playgrounds were these sites.”
She also had a cousin who was studying architecture. “Sometimes he’d just sit me at the drawing table. I started making drawings, and I loved it.” She grew up to be an architect. In 2002, she joined the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) where today she manages the Seismic Retrofitting Project (SRP), part of the institute’s Earthen Architecture Initiative.
The SRP builds on an earlier GCI project, one that established best practices for retrofitting historic adobe structures in California. The cultural heritage community applauded the results, but as they rely on high-tech materials and professional expertise, noted they would have limited use in countries where funds and training for heritage conservation are in short supply. The SRP addresses that problem by applying the strategies of modern conservation to traditional building reinforcement techniques and materials to make them more effective.
Peru’s long tradition of constructing buildings from unfired earthen materials made it an excellent test bed for this research. Besides featuring architecture as diverse as its terrain, Peruvian engineers and architects have been focusing on adobe construction and reinforcement for years.
The international team is designing techniques that will be easy to implement at the local level and across different locales throughout Latin America—really anywhere earthen structures need retrofitting, no matter how remote.
The Church of Kuñotambo is the most prominent building in the town of 500, its long gabled roof easy to pick out from afar. It has been in continuous use as a place of worship since being built in 1552.
Quakes, settlement, and erosion have all left their mark on the building. Bedrock at its foundation is exposed; the roof leaks and some connections between the rafters and their supports are weak or simply missing. Cracks run down the walls.
With walls of mud brick and stone and a wooden roof, the church is at high risk for sudden collapse. Testing retrofitting strategies here will allow the SRP team to write guidelines for stabilizing churches throughout Andean villages that follow this typical design, including how to safeguard the murals that adorn the interior walls—a particular challenge.
The church has never before been the focus of conservation work. Now, conservation technicians are busy reinforcing the foundation, erecting wooden supports to shore up the walls, assessing the condition of the murals. They all work for Peru’s Ministry of Culture, a key to the SRP’s success: earthen buildings require proper and regular maintenance to withstand quakes. Training site managers and resident architects like Cusco native Dennys Olivera to implement the SRP’s recommendations is the difference between preserving Peru’s cultural heritage or not.
Claudia takes stock of the SRP inside the Cathedral of Ica, now criss-crossed with slim metal girders that support its walls and vaults. At Kuñotambo, they have figured out how to reinforce the church without removing the murals from the walls. Both are significant innovations: effective, economical, and following international conservation principles.
The next and final phase will help the SRP’s results find wide traction. International experts will review the effectiveness of the retrofitting guidelines for buildings in Peru and throughout Latin America. Guidelines and training will help the Ministry of Culture’s site managers and resident architects to build knowledge and skills in maintaining earthen historic buildings: workshops planned for this spring and fall at Kuñotambo will also give hands-on training to masons, as well as report on the SRP’s progress to the community.
Meanwhile, the clock ticks away. But so does the team.
It’s not glamorous work. Pigeons congregate in the open vaults of the Cathedral of Ica with no regard for the workers below. In Kuñotambo, the team camped out in the classrooms of the local school, sharing scarce facilities.
But, the rewards are a different matter. While camping in Kuñotambo, the team was often awakened at 4:00 am by a voice calling in Quechua over a megaphone. The community of farmers was being gathered for a town meeting. The team didn’t understand the words, except for one: “Getty.” The meetings produced letters that petitioned the Minister of Culture to nominate the Church of Kuñotambo for national landmark status, which qualified it for preservation funds from the government, and then requested conservation work to start. (Update: The town celebrated the completion of this work in June 2019.) The second was signed by all sixty families in the village. Claudia says it “is one of the nicest documents I have seen in my professional life that expressed the love and care of a community for its heritage.”