About a century ago, José Alvarado would invite highbrow Cuenca families to his home on Calle Simón Bolívar to choose their favorite tin paneling for walls and ceilings. At the time, plastering everything from tip to toe in tin plates with pastel colors and fleur-de-lis relief patterns was the latest fad in interior décor. You can visit Alvarado’s three-storey residential building, today the Cuenca Biennial’s showy headquarters, and stare in awe at what’s left of its original showroom capabilities. This used to be an ever-changing wall-to-wall flight of fancy wherein some 650 square meters of Cuenca’s flare for imitation of French and Victorian designs were available for purchase and immediate installation. Today, La Casa de las Palomas, la Casa de los Cocos, La Fundación Municipal Turismo para Cuenca, Mansión Alcázar, la Corte de Justicia, even the Old Cathedral, flaunt these fossils of refined taste, testimony to the descent of many a Cuencano into tin-paneling mania.
Atop the Biennial building, the eye is drawn to another of the city’s architectural signatures: its tiled roofs. Mile upon mile of thigh-high size tiles, molded on the laps of potters centuries ago, slope throughout the entire Old Town when seen from above, endowing the city with an unmistakably earthy hue, witness, this time, to a less obvious, deeper colonial past.
Along the city’s streets, the walls of boutique hotels and museums, shops and restaurants – many of which you can’t help but imagine were the homes of canny wealthy paja toquilla magnates – are sheathed with marble or textured in whitewashed adobe. Some are fancily decorated with swirling wrought-iron inspirations that jut from their walls like embossed calling cards. Other homes, by contrast, exhibit only cracking façades or weathered wooden doors, promising little inside. Yet beyond these apparently dull fronts, lie inner worlds of courtyards with hardwood staircases and verandas, backyard patios with delectable gardens, and frescoes depicting pastoral riverbanks and flying doves. These can’t help but make one think there’s an underlying, unuttered rivalry at play here. Even the most modest of homes is part of this never-ending, architectural castle complex.