In Mexico City, the dovela (the Spanish for an arch keystone) is synonymous with the famous Aztec basalt Sun or Calendar Stone found near the city’s central square called the Zócalo. The round sun and rays engraved on its surface represent the Sun God, symbol of man’s need for light and energy.
For the Aztecs, Incas, Mayans and Egyptians, the sun was the spirit of life, the link between the material world and the soul. In Aztec culture alternating solids and voids, raised and excavated shapes, light and shadow, symbolize the duality and complementarity of matter and spirituality.
Ensamble Studio’s project for the Cervantes Theatre takes the dovela in its meanings as both sun symbol and keystone as their central conceptual reference. The result is a building that lends itself to many layers of interpretation. On the one hand, the ancient Aztec sun symbol is directly referenced in the programme’s use of light and shadow, which in turn harks back to the country’s deep cultural roots. On the other, it speaks to how the new structure relates to its surrounding contemporary urban context.
Just as the carved out areas on the Sun Stone create patterns in relief, light and shadow, so the enormous grid of orthogonally placed metal plates positioned at different distances and inclinations creates a varying series of light and shade on the ground beneath that continues down to the underground theatre.
In its urban context the suspended horizontal grid of the Cervantes is the only sign of the new underground theatre’s existence, a feature in diametrical contrast to the surrounding architecture whose hallmark is verticality and transparency. Resting on four different, irregular-shaped metal supports located just a few metres from the Plaza where the theatre is entered, the canopy also performs an urban public service as a semi-covered open space.
The Aztec dovela reference is also a way of linking past, present and future, and layers of history and culture in one building - stratification and sedimentation recalling the artistic, cultural and religious traditions of Mexico. This is achieved with light. Like sculpture, architecture here gives shape to this intangible element. Light excavates, illuminates and fills the void, the negative shape par excellence.
As a keystone, the dovela protects the space under it. It also stands as an element separating earthy materiality from heavenly intangibility. Raised aloft on its singular pillars, it is at once imposing and ethereal, a “stone of the air”, marking out earth and sky, emphasizing the underground dimension and its heavenly counterpart. A striking horizontal line of demarcation, it intimates the presence of the vast structure hidden underground.
This latter is reached by a series of escalators leading first to a large below-level open space, the point of departure for the distribution circuits. On this first underground level are a restaurant and small conference hall while at subsequent levels, again reached by escalators, there are two large auditoria and smaller performance halls.
Only the above ground structure has been completed, however. Work on the underground spaces has been halted. It is almost as if the past, present and the uncertain future have taken shape in a single (unfinished) form.