Pioneering Conservation Project Saves Earthquake-Damaged Peruvian Church

The work was part of a larger initiative to retrofit earthen buildings that are vulnerable to seismic activity

Exterior of the church of Kuñotambo after conservation. Anna Flavin, Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust

In the remote Andean village of Comunidad Campesina Kuñotambo sits a centuries-old earthen church, beloved by locals. The building has been used as a place of worship since it was erected in 1681, and it also served as a hub for community events. But over the years, the Church of Kuñotambo became dangerously compromised by earthquakes that are common in this mountainous region of Peru, leading to the building’s closure in 2005. Last week, however, the church was re-opened with a grand celebration, thanks to a pioneering conservation project that bolstered the site’s resistance to seismic activity.

According to Nancy Kenney of the Art Newspaper, the project was carried out by the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) in partnership with the Dirección Desconcentrada de Cultura de Cusco, which reports to the Culture Ministry of Peru. The Church of Kuñotambo was made from thick mud brick—and like many other earthen buildings in the region, it was highly vulnerable to earthquakes. When work began at the site in 2009, the church’s roof was leaking, its walls had been weakened by the loss of exterior buttresses and the foundation had settled, causing the walls to split from the main structure, Alexandria Sivak explains on the Iris, a Getty blog.

Experts used engineering technologies to assess how different parts of the church would behave during seismic events, and then came up with a retrofitting plan. Crucially, this plan was designed with the village community in mind. The conservation effort was part of the GCI’s larger Seismic Retrofitting Project, which seeks to adapt advanced technologies to locally available materials and expertise. “This is important for the Getty’s conservation field projects, as it enables communities to carry out the long-term care of their heritage,” Sivak writes.

Working with local partners, the team undertook a number of measures to improve the church’s resistance to earthquakes. They strengthened the foundation, rebuilt the buttresses and constructed the roof. At the same time, conservators were busy preserving the building’s beautiful wall paintings, which depict saints and other figurative and geometric scenes. Various artworks within the church, including a gilded 18th-century altar, were also conserved.

The Church of Kuñotambo was one of four buildings selected as case studies for the Seismic Retrofitting Project, and it is the first to be completed. Experts say that the success of the initiative offers a model for the conservation of other earthen structures, which are “among the oldest and most prevalent building types in the world,” according to James Cuno, president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust.

“The work of the GCI and project partners at Kuñotambo is not only valuable to the community, but significantly advances ways we can protect earthen buildings around the world from the destructive effects of earthquakes,” Cuno adds.

On June 19, residents of the 500-person village celebrated the re-opening of the church with a re-dedication ceremony and a special mass. A ceremonial cape, gifted by the Getty, was also hung on a statue of Saint Santiago, patron saint of the village.

Ultimately, Susan Macdonald, head of field projects at the GCI, tells Sivak the conservation project “demonstrates how conservation professionals can work effectively with a local community to protect a treasured part of their cultural heritage from a long-term threat.”

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