National Theater of Guatemala

Date of Submission: 18/10/2022
Criteria: (i)(iv)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Guatemala to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Department of Guatemala, Municipality of Guatemala
Coordinates: N14 38 35 W90 30 48
Ref.: 6624

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The National Theater of Guatemala is located in the Miguel Ángel Asturias Cultural Center, named in honor of the Guatemalan writer winner of the 1967 Nobel Prize in Literature. This cultural complex is located on the top of the San José Buena Vista Hill and provides spaces to carry out cultural activities, ranging from the fine arts to the performing arts. All this in outdoor areas and buildings that harmonize with the natural environment. The Cultural Center is associated with the Civic Center of Guatemala City, which represents an important concentration of public buildings in which fine arts are integrated into their facades and walls. The Civic Center is considered the core of the development of the modernist movement in Guatemala at the late fifties.

The National Theater of Guatemala is unique and represents an icon of national and world architecture. It was made in the seventies and designed by the master of fine arts, the Guatemalan engineer and architect honori cause Efraín Recinos. He was considered a futurist, who intentionally set out to develop his own style to create a different monumental theater. His clear goal was to break away from the cubic forms of buildings of the time, and instead use abstract forms and fine arts to create an interpretive narrative on the building's facades and interiors. The message expressed in the Theater pays homage to elements of the culture and nature of Guatemala. Among them, the Mayan Civilization with its pyramids and stairways; the marimba, which is the musical instrument declared a national symbol; the volcanic chain typical of the country's central landscape, and the jaguar (Panthera onca), the largest feline in America, threatened with extinction. Likewise, the use of the tonal gradation of the color used represents the mixture of the theater located on the top of the hill with the nuances of the sky.

The design was conceived under a concept of values and attributes inspired by national identity. This concept of integration is defined as something distinctly Guatemalan, which is linked to the unification of painting, sculpture and architecture, resulting in a purely functional building that harmonizes with the landscape, creating a respectful parallelism between the work of nature and man.

The National Theater of Guatemala has an exquisite architectural language of lines, areas and volumes, as well as an adequate integration of the landscape with the Mayan iconography. This enclosure achieves the integration of a functional theater with original architecture and turns it into a habitable sculpture.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The National Theater of Guatemala is an outstanding and unparalleled architectural work that manages to integrate the building with its natural and urban environment through a local, integrationist and nationalist proposal. It is characterized by the use of techniques created by the author, such as high and low reliefs, dynamic shapes and volumes, as well as the daring combination of colors and complex and hidden figures, which blend into a whole.

The author, engineer and architect honorary cause Efraín Recinos, had the ability to appraise the Mayan ancestral history, one of the greatest civilizations in the world, visualizing and creating unique environments with that historical baggage and combining it with the landscape, architecture, sculpture and paint. This resulted in a functional building that shows an artistic architectural integration never done before.

The National Theater of Guatemala is an extraordinary manifestation of the modernist architecture of the 20th century, which does not correspond to a particular style. The Theater is the result that comes from a concept of total unification that involves the place where it is located, the volcanic landscape, the historical values and the symbolism of the native peoples of Guatemala. The author considered that the design should be done with a Guatemalan architecture, personal, that speaks its own contemporary language.

The creative nature of Recinos, merged with the need to satisfy a society that urgently needed a space dedicated to the operation and dissemination of the performing arts. The above also required an artistic design for the building itself. In the construction of the theater, effective use was made of simple materials, since it is basically built with iron, concrete, brick and stone, all produced in the country, and mosaics that were obtained from abroad.

The space where the National Theater of Guatemala is located is a hill whose natural conformation is not flat but rather irregular, which is why it was conducive to a sculptural design. The form of the building shows the use of curves, elevations, ingenious solutions of cultural elements and extraordinary slopes that, unlike the vertical constructions in its surroundings, make it harmonize with the hill, but also with the volcanoes that surround the city, which can be seen from its location.

The theater also pays homage to the Mayan pyramids. Without copying them, and knowing that these could only be used externally, it also presents a functional purpose design. As a result, architectural forms of truncated pyramids of the theater are wrapped with external facades that present intricate and elaborate ornamentation and planters that hide handrails, walls and stairs, which include emergency exits.

Additionally, the facades of the theater, true works of sculptural and pictorial art that point towards the four cardinal points, artistically cover the external emergency stairs that have a comfortable design extended to ascend to the terraces, which are the viewpoints of the city. With this, an unprecedented result was achieved, since the building can be used at the same time as a theater inside, but it can also be explored outside among the abstract representations of its facades until reaching its highest levels and being able to enjoy a viewpoint that dominates the landscape of the city.

The entire sculptural ensemble is complemented by the mosaic painting that covers the entire building and harmonizes it with the colors of the sky that surrounds it at the top of the hill. Its sloping walls stand out, presenting ascending tonal gradations ranging from black, turquoise green and blue where the upper part mixes with the blue of the sky and contrasts with the clouds. The sculptural details of the facades covered with white marble mosaic, which include the fan-like design of the front window which derives from an abstract form of the marimba or a jaguar that functions as a balcony, identity elements of the country's culture, contrast with the blue colors of the background.

This work is the culmination of a dream created with a social purpose that seeks entertainment, recreation and enjoyment of the human being. It was conceived and created as a splendid functional sculpture without comparison for the use of people who can see it, access it, admire it and take pride in a majestic work without equal ever carried out. The excellence that can be seen on the outside, in addition to the successful and timely interior design in all the spaces that comprise it, especially the great room that is the scene of Guatemalan and world art, places the National Theater of Guatemala in the universal context of the modern architecture. Without a doubt, it is an ideal candidate for being a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Criterion (i): The National Theater of Guatemala is a masterpiece of human creativity and is distinguished from any architectural work of the same kind in the world. This is because it presents a series of solutions and designs based on an ensemble of exceptionally sophisticated artistic and sculptural styles.

The National Theater of Guatemala stands out for its own style at a local and global level, which makes it unique. The National Theater integrates a vision that recognizes the historical values of the native peoples of Guatemala, the natural landscape and the importance of enunciating exceptional canons that exalt the identity traits of a country for universal knowledge and enjoyment.

Criterion (iv): The National Theater of Guatemala is an iconic monumental building that stands out among all the buildings and landscapes of Guatemala City. It is considered a formidable benchmark in Guatemalan architecture that mixes and brings together art, landscaping and innovative architecture in a single functional building, according to the characteristics of modernism, but with its own contemporary language.

The ingenious shape of the National Theater of Guatemala is masterfully integrated into the volcanic landscape of the city and the hill where it is located, which is a natural viewpoint. It is identified with the history of humanity since it takes as inspiration and reference to the unique Mayan Civilization, therefore, the building can also be used from the outside, in homage to the pyramids built by that ancient culture. The blue and white colors on its imposing walls evoke the color of the sky. The facades that point to the four cardinal points present stylized forms of identity cultural symbols of the Guatemalan identity. Such as the marimba or the imposing jaguar, which creatively emerge as protruding mimetics that give movement and dynamism to these splendid sculptural details. The theater shows a balance between art as a tool of the present, to change aesthetic paradigms and the respect of the human being for his environment in general. All this makes this unique building an impressive and extraordinary architectural sculpture.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity


The National Theater is considered authentic because its structure, design and function have been preserved with the original characteristics. Likewise, its authenticity is based on the values attributed by an entire nation that recognizes the National Theater as a sense of belonging to Guatemala at its finest. This is due to the fact that in its architectural and sculptural composition several elements that prevail in the collective imagination of Guatemalans are represented, such as the jaguar, the volcanoes, the marimba, among others.

The urban and landscape ensemble that surrounds and complements the National Theater have maintained their authenticity. Its structure has preserved its design and the original materials with which it was created, also fulfilling the function for which it was made. Therefore, it is a functional building that is respectful of its surroundings at all levels, combining shapes and colors, turning it into a unique habitable sculpture, with gardens and paths open to art and artists, maintaining it over time as a complex that combines, art, nature and society, as it was conceived.


The National Theater maintains its structural, social and visual integrity as it was strategically built on elevated ground 22 meters above the level of the Civic Center and is surrounded on the perimeter by natural and urban elements that protect it from external damage. It has been in continuous use since its inauguration, which has ensured the maintenance and care of the original structure, ensuring its use for future generations.In addition to the above, the creator of the concept of the National Theater and the Miguel Ángel Asturias Cultural Center, the master Efraín Recinos, was a permanent member of the institution until his death in 2011, which guaranteed the protection of the building, adapted to the growth of the city, without violating its original design and materials. All these factors have kept it intactfrom its creation to the present.

Comparison with other similar properties

The National Theater of Guatemala has a high potential to be included in the World Heritage List, because it could fill a specific gap regarding the combination of architecture with other arts, with nature and with national identity. Likewise, it is observed that in this list a large number of archaeological, historical or religious buildings stand out, but there are few registered theaters, especially those built during the same period.

On the World Heritage List there are some sites and spaces that function or have functioned as theaters. However, most correspond to archaeological sites such as Greek Theaters, Roman Theaters and amphitheaters. An example of this is the Roman Theater of Orange in France.

Another type of infrastructure is located as baroque theatrical architecture, for example, the Opera of the Margraves of Bayreuth in Germany, an old building from the 18th century. There is also another opera house that was built at the beginning of the last century, the Palace of Fine Arts in the Historic Center of Mexico City, which is also home to various stages and other artistic spaces. Due to the temporality and styles of these works, it is considered that there is no direct comparison with the National Theater of Guatemala, which corresponds to the decade of the seventies. That is, its comparison is limited to other types of structures from similar times.

The National Theater of Guatemala is characterized by being a functional public building that combines architecture with the fine arts, with the aim of developing an expression of Guatemalan identity and paying homage to the Mayan culture and local landscape. These nationalistic aspects can be partially compared with certain buildings of the Central Campus of the Autonomous University of Mexico, built in the fifties. In this campus, murals with themes that reflect the pre-Hispanic era and social movements of that region can be appreciated. However, they only make use of muralism as a means of expression to intervene the facades of cubic-shaped buildings. On the other hand, in the National Theater of Guatemala this expression is developed through architecture, sculpture and painting all combined together to capture elements of history and nature that are representative of a country. But mainly, it is characterized by intentionally breaking with the cubic form to create areas and volumes that abstractly convey the message of nationalism, both on the facades and inside the building. The substitution of the cubic form for curvilinear forms in buildings had already been observed in the fifties in the Chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut de Ronchamp, in France, the work of the architect Le Corbusier. In this case the objective was to revolutionize religious architecture. While in the National Theater these forms, far from the cubic modules or blocks of traditional buildings, were used for the purpose of artistic expression.

There are few buildings that function specifically as theaters or auditoriums, and that correspond to the contemporary modern movement registered as World Heritage. For example, the auditorium or main hall of the Central University of Caracas, Venezuela, made in the fifties by the sculptor Alexander Calder, is an example of a combination of art and architecture. In this theater the use of color is intended for its interior, while in the National Theater of Guatemala color is a fundamental part of expression both outside and inside. On the other hand, the Cláudio Santoro National Theater located in Brasilia, the work of the architect Oscar Niemeyer, built in the sixties, has an irregular pyramid shape, which could distantly resemble the shape of the National Theater of Guatemala. However, in the National Theater of Guatemala the form as such refers to the Mayan pyramids and to the volcanic landscape in addition to being characterized by the use of color and sculpture. Perhaps the work with which the National Theater can be compared more objectively is the Sydney Opera House, since it was built at almost the same time in the seventies. This work, which is located in a maritime landscape, stands out for its architectural forms and structural design that are considered innovative. The shell-shaped structures and their design represent an interpretation and response to the maritime environment where it is located. With the National Theater of Guatemala, it could be compared in that both handle unconventional forms for the construction of public spaces destined for theatrical arts. In addition, both carry out the interpretation of conceptual aspects, whether it is the maritime theme in the case of Australia, or national identity in the case of Guatemala. Both theaters are different regarding their design, style and facades.

The National Theater of Guatemala is considered unique, since from its design it was intentionally proposed not to copy or compete with the style of other existing theaters, but rather to develop its own and different style, considered ahead of its time.