Architecture firm RootStudio has converted a historic convent building into a centre for celebrating the rich culinary legacy of Mexico’s Oaxaca region.

The Centro Gastronómico de Oaxaca occupies the former convent of Carmen el Alto in the city of Oaxaca – the capital of the state of the same name.

Historic convent building meets new metal addition
The rejuvenation of the convent complex involved restoring the original architecture and adding a new intervention

Dating back to the 16th century, the colonial-style structure has been carefully restored by RootStudio to create “an educational and multidisciplinary space where culinary traditions and sustainability create a sensory experience”, which hosts different chefs from across the region.

The cultural centre accommodates several areas and functions within the existing building and its grounds, including a study centre comprising an administrative office, classrooms and public library.

Arched tunnel within historic brick and stone
Strict preservation guidelines dictated that the old building had to be restored as it was first built

An array of commercial and recreational facilities are also incorporated, such as a restaurant, kitchen, cocktail and tasting rooms, gallery, cafeteria, multipurpose rooms, auditorium, courtyards, arcade gardens and retail premises.

The restoration work was carried out in compliance with guidelines provided by the Oaxaca division of the National Institute of Anthropology and History, which dictated the preservation of primary features and the original layout.

Works contributed by local artists include a mural by Demián Flores that depicts endemic corn species

A team of more than 20 designers and supervisors from the Instituto del Patrimonio Cultural del Estado de Oaxaca (INPAC) and the Instituto Oaxaqueño Constructor de Infraestructura Física Educativa (IOCIFED) took part in the project.

Over the years, the building had been used as a civil registry and a warehouse, among other functions, and several discoveries were made during the efforts to strip it back to its original bones.

Deep steps ascending through a long vaulted plaster room
Frescos uncovered during the project were restored and highlighted

Among them was an 18th-century sewer, which has now been transformed into a space for mezcal tastings and other culinary events.

The team also uncovered a diagonal window similar to one located in the convent of the same order in San Ángel, Mexico City.

Dark room illuminated by oculus in brick ceiling
Details were restored using traditional construction techniques and local materials

Wall frescoes, vaulted ceilings and the original floor levels were all recovered, while windows that had been walled-up were reopened.

Details were restored using traditional construction techniques, with materials like lime, brick, wood and Oaxacan Cantera verde stone.

Arched niche within a larger arched, plastered wall
The colonial-style building dates back to the 16th century

“[The] synthesis, which preserves the materiality and typology of the building, establishes a dialogue between the urban environment and the pre-existing building,” the studio said.

Extensive restoration work was also required across the building’s exterior and the surrounding landscape, which was planted with species that are either edible or associated with cooking.

An 18th-century sewer with a vaulted brick ceiling
An 18th-century sewer was also discovered during the restoration and is now used as an event space for mezcal tastings

Arcades in the former goods handling yard were converted into spaces for outdoor events, while a new intervention that juxtaposes the historic building was constructed in the parking lot.

“In order to contrast past and present, [we] installed an elevated contemporary element in raw steel, containing the industrial kitchens,” said the firm.

Hotel Flavia by RootStudioHotel Flavia by RootStudio RootStudio designs sculptural Hotel Flavia in Oaxaca “without plans”

This two-storey pavilion with a steel frame and vaulted brick ceilings also houses 12 commercial spaces and a large, flexible event space with a panoramic view of local landmarks.

Throughout the cultural centre, a variety of collaborations with local artists and artisans are displayed.

Steel-framed addition in an open courtyard space
A steel-framed addition was inserted into a former parking lot on the site

These include a mural by Juchitán-born artist Demián Flores that illustrates the various species of corn that are endemic to the region, and imagery that indicates the building’s different functions by Sabino Guisu.

Furniture was custom-made using Macuil wood, also called rosewood, which is known for its medicinal properties.

Vaulted brick ceilings above a retail space
The addition features vaulted brick ceilings and houses 12 commercial units

Close attention was also paid to accessibility in the new addition, which has multiple elevators.

“Accessibility and inclusion are fundamental principles in this project, as it seeks the interaction of individuals with their environment through facilities for people who have some type of disability,” said RootStudio.

Cutouts in the metal elevator gates cast patterns onto the concrete floor
Cutouts in the metal elevator gates cast patterns onto the concrete floor

RootStudio is led by architect Joao Boto Caeiro and is known for its approach to sustainability, with previous projects including a concrete hotel on the outskirts of Oaxaca that was constructed in stages.

Centro Gastronómico de Oaxaca is longlisted in the Heritage Project category for the 2023 Dezeen Awards, along with the redevelopment of Battersea Power Station in London and the conversion of a Beijing textile factory into headquarters for a Chinese pastry brand. See the full architecture longlist here.

The photography is by Lizet Ortiz.

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