The splendor of central Mexico has long pulled at the heartstrings of architects, artists and those who appreciate the cultural history of the west. San Miguel de Allende, in particular has been an inspiring place for generations – tucked in the Bajio mountains northwest of Mexico City, this colonial town in the state of Guanajuato grew out of the silver mining trail in the 16th and 17th centuries, flourishing with civic and religious monuments marking the primary plazas and the gathering spaces.
La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel, the main cathedral, lies at the city’s heart with its later added, playful interpretation of a neo-gothic façade – the creation of a local artisan bricklayer and self-taught architect, Zeferino Gutierrez. Its spires stand out above the horizon and the skyline of the city, a guiding image day and night to both the spirit and place.
Cobblestone streets reach out across the rise and fall of the terrain, flanked by walls of richly colored plaster or the strong textures of hand-laid stone, dotted with its tradition of small chinking stone within the mortar. These walls are punctuated by the carved stone surrounds, decorative iron grilles, ornamental niches and ornate wooden doors of the shops and residences.
The plazas serve the lifeblood of the city, where it’s residents live, eat, gather and celebrate. These spots seem to be filled at all hours of the day and while some are open and active – filled with merchants, tourist, festivals and taco trucks, others are more quiet respites like Jardin de San Francisco, filled with the iconic shaped trees of the city that offer shaded resting places out of the bustle of the busy life of the street.
But it is once you get behind these walls that you begin to understand and discover the real San Miguel, where homes and merchants’ shops open onto lush courtyards, both large and small, and where light fills the interior – the garden courts filled with benches, fountains and ornamental elements – as an open air room, extending the living and gathering spaces from shaded arcades.
Abstract qualities translated from the fusion of colonial sensibilities still inform the modern aesthetic. This sense of timelessness permeates the architecture, whether in the fabricated blending of forms when the designs of the colonial period were informed by the much earlier, indigenous people’s sense of space and form like this at the Bibilioteca de San Miguel…
or in those baroque influences that mark the nearby restrained exuberance of the apse at the colorfully Basilica of Our Lady of Guanajato in its namesake city.
Originally, San Miguel de Allende, the “heart” of Mexico, left its mark on my spirit some twenty years ago on my first visit, and its vibrant essence still captures my imagination today.
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