Articles

The Politics of Architecture in Nicaragua

by Laura C. Mallonee on May 28, 2014

The Concha Acustica (All images courtesy of Glen Small)

The Concha Acustica (All images courtesy of Glen Small)

In March, I wrote about Nicaraguan First Lady Rosario Murillo’s massive construction of public art projects as symbols of state power, into which the government has funneled millions of dollars. Now, in a bizarre twist, the state has destroyed the most iconic of these structures, the Concha Acustica.

Concha Acustica torn down

The Concha Acustica’s destruction in early May

According to the Nicaragua Dispatch, the government claimed the $850,000 structure — which stands alone in the middle of an empty field for most of the year — was unsound and unsafe, pointing to the recent wave of earthquakes Nicaragua has weathered. It took six days for construction workers to tear it down in early May. 

Some are now calling political foul, including the architect Glen Small. Small claims the structure was sound. He says the government didn’t seek his insight or the opinion of the original engineer, Sergio Obregon. 

“I personally feel molested, my best built project senselessly murdered,” the 76-year-old told Hyperallergic via email. “I thought I was leaving something of significance to Nicaragua that would be loved and respected after my death.”

Small first went to Managua in 1986, excited for the chance to witness the creation of a democratic, socialist country. He married a Nicaraguan woman and worked on various projects in the country under the patronage of Managua’s late mayor, Herty Lewites.

“Managua desperately needed an obvious place to be,” Small said. “I did a master plan that sat in the mayor’s office to entice and project what Managua could be. We were geared to set a new world standard.” 

In 2005, Mayor Lewites commissioned him to design a free-to-the-public outdoor concert space with the help of Lewites’s nephew Roger. The design for the Concha Acustica was inspired by the volcanoes that dominate the landscape, “lifting the eye upward … flames reaching skyward.”

Then in 2013, Murillo transformed the structure into an homage to her uncle, the Marxist revolutionary Augusto Sandino, installing electric trees and signage that overshadowed the bandshell. She used it as a gathering point for political rallies on July 19, the day in 1979 that the Sandinistas toppled the Somoza dictatorship.

Concha Acustica

First Lady Rosario Murillo added electric trees, a statue of Sandino and other signage to architect Glen Small’s design

Some saw the bandshell’s transformation as political payback against Lewites. As Oregon Live explains, Lewites had fought alongside President Daniel Ortega in the 1970s Sandinista revolution, but like many former rebels, he disagreed with Ortega’s later policies and was expelled by the FSLN. He helped to start another party, the Sandinista Renovation Movement, and was joined by the poet and former culture minister Ernesto Cardenal. In 2006, Lewites died from a heart attack while running against Ortega for the presidency.

“Last July, when [Murillo] drove holes through the shell to put a ridiculous political sign up and statue of Sandino forty feet hight, and a buzz-saw medallion blade with her carnival dead trees blocking the shell, I lost all hope for Rosario,” Small said. “The holes without proper rain protection to the shell, in hind sight, should have been a message the shell was coming down in the near future. I was outraged and saddened.”

The architect is considered to be the father of Green Architecture, and he is one of the founders of the Southern California Institute of Architecture. His eccentric personality — he claims to be an “outsider genius” in the United States — was the subject of a documentary created by his daughter, My Father, The Genius. He is incredibly passionate not only about his work, but also about Nicaragua.

colon fountain

The Colon Fountain by Glen Small

Which makes it all the more painful that the Concha Acustica was not even the first structure he’s designed in the country that the Ortega presidency has destroyed. In July 2013, they tore down his Colon Fountain, also commissioned by Mayor Lewites in 2004, to replace it with a monument to Hugo Chavez.  

hugo chavez monument

The monument to Hugo Chavez that replaced the Colon Fountain

“Architecture is neutral, to be used by all,” Small argued. “To think architecture is political is a petty mind. [Mayor Lewites] … is dead, long gone. Significant leaders for progress forgive and unite to move on. Herty Lewites believed in bringing together vying factions in Nicaragua.”

But why would the Ortegas tear down a structure they’d already transformed, with the people’s money, for their own political benefit? It turns out that Palestinian investor Mohamed Sabri Nouman Alqazah has promised $35 million to develop the waterfront where the Concha Acustica was located, according to a master plan released by El Nuevo Diario. A luxury hotel will replace the formerly public bandshell.

“Is architecture just a fleeting blimp on the radar screen?” Small asked. “If architecture just stage sets for the moment, has my professional life been for naught?”

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  • Daniel Fleming

    Disappointed to hear. Saw “My Father, the Genius” years ago and have since been intrigued by the guy and his designs. Always seemed like he was a great mind with an idealistic and combative personality, and the latter usually managed to trump the former throughout his career….though many seem to fall into that trap.

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