Thomas S. Marvel Faia, Humanist of the Year 2010
First of all, I would like to express my deep gratitude to the Puerto Rican Endowment for the Humanities for the honor given to us. It was a surprise because we have done what has come naturally in completing our professional work, come what may. Many thanks for the honor.
I have a very clear memory that in the 1960s, before our own School of Architecture and Architects Association existed, there was a debate on various occasions about whether a Puerto Rican style of architecture existed. In public forums, sponsored by the then Institute of Architects, a vigorous and active group of architects with representatives from all generations tried to identify the characteristics that describe our architecture. The results of the debate did not lead to a clear vision on the issue, and I think it is because when one is overseas, you don’t see the entire planet. In other words, we were so concerned about designing daily architecture that we did not have the distance of time to have a perspective and meaning to clearly detect and dig up the answer. In my personal case, as the past five decades have passed, I believe enough evidence continues to appear to reopen the question. But this time, instead of asking if a Puerto Rican style of architecture exists, it is better to ask: Is there a style of architecture for Puerto Rico?
The search for an answer to the question is valid. Anthropologically, given enough time, in terms of centuries, an island society develops its own culture. For example, in Puerto Rico there are customs, words, music, rites and traditions that are not found in other places. They still exist, though they are disappearing little by little after a century of global modernization. By the same logic, it is valid to ask: Does architecture have characteristics of its own place that differentiate it from other cultures?
In architecture and urbanism circles around the world, there has been a debate, an intellectual discussion, on the topic of Genius Loci, or the spirit of place. Philosopher and architect Christian Norberg Schulz proposed it in his book, Genius Loci: Toward a Phenomenology of Architecture, 1980. Since then, the idea has expanded and been debated by critics in the world of our profession. The general consensus is that yes, it exists, but it is difficult to define it. Norberg Schulz describes the concept as the totality of the physical environment and cultural landscape, or in other words, what makes a place unique. Architecture and urbanism play a large role in this perspective, especially when you consider the influence of the natural environment on its execution. How can we apply this concept of Genius Loci to Puerto Rico’s situation?
In the Spanish Americas, in the 400 years between the discovery of the New World and the end of the 19th century, the physical intrusion of urbanism in the natural environment was minimal, due to the Indies Laws, promulgated in 1573 by King Ferdinand of Spain, for planning new towns, towns that were compact and efficient nuclei of streets and buildings. Mobility was on foot or horse. Many of these towns were located near water, either rivers or the sea, and were surrounded by agricultural farms. These laws set the pattern of urbanism and the architecture was simple, at first using wood from nearby forests and later, bricks and masonry, also usually from materials common in the area. It can be said that the constructed environment was created from what was available at hand. There were customs of having a master builder lead the construction. This day-to-day architecture was architecture without architects, with customs brought from Spain and modified as necessary, given a site with specific characteristics.
In the 19th century, Puerto Rico experienced a unique prosperity due to the demand for its agricultural products, coffee and sugar. The towns of the island grew, but under the regulations of the laws of 1573. Streets were laid out at right angles, following the original plans. The architecture of the most important buildings was designed by Spanish military architects, almost always with a Neoclassical vocabulary, according to María de los ángeles Castro in her book, The Architecture of Old San Juan.
Yes, they were sophisticated designs, but they used the same construction traditions, walls of brick and masonry, flat roofs with beams made of local wood, mostly double doors with a minimum of windows, facades with spaced openings and solid walls, closely spaced columns with wide bases framing doors, corners and roofs. From simple to detailed, the basic architecture was based on techniques continued by tradition, the way it had been done for a long time. It is clear that Ponce and many towns had more elegant residences with balconies and facades with great detail and delicacy, but their fundamental design was similar to the traditional roots. I think that any person visiting the island in the 19th century would have found a spirit of place. In other words, Puerto Rico had its own character in its towns and its architecture, created from its natural materials and under common norms of construction. My opinion is that a style of architecture made for Puerto Rico existed.
1898 – The impact of the change of sovereignty in Puerto Rico left its mark for almost half a century. The recently published book, Puerto Rico in the American Century, Its History since 1898, by César J. Ayala and Rafael Bernabé, makes it clear that the change of sovereignty brought hope, rage, desolation and promises both met and unmet. All of this anguish and memory is still too fresh in the minds of many people for them to be objective, either to overlook the negative or the positive.
Beginning in 1899, the Foraker Act defined the immediate actions that the federal government wanted to implement on the island, such as Education, Health, Governing and Infrastructure. The first three have been widely studied and researched. The development of infrastructure has received less attention and considered merely project, design and construction programs. Clearly, many programs, such as those of Education, were ill-advised and poorly implemented. English was made the principal language in the public schools in the early decades of the 20th century and the result was a disaster that was corrected many years later, but a better effort by the federal government, which has not received much attention, is the program of building public schools throughout the island. As an architect, I am interested in how the physical development of Puerto Rico was completely transformed in the first 20 years of the century. Highways connecting all the towns, potable water and sewage treatment systems, telecommunications, and public buildings elevated Puerto Rico to a modern situation. The most impressive part was the massive program of design and construction of public schools throughout the island. In the book My School, Education and Architecture in Puerto Rico, ángela López Borrero described this program in detail. In 13 years, 600 public schools, 1050 rural schools and 4 high schools were built at a cost of $13,000,000.00. Even more impressive was the way it was done. All were located in already urbanized zones in the cities and towns. They were conceived as an integral part of the urban areas, close enough that students could walk to their school. Their architecture was monumental and prominent, emphasizing their importance as an institution. The architecture mainly followed neoclassical lines in the beginning, but varied. Later, architects in private practice were used for designs.
Their construction was innovative for its time. Reinforced concrete was used for the structures instead of the traditional masonry. In the beginning, the Department of Education had architects working for it, but later, designs were done by independent professionals, and as a result the styles were varied, from lines from the Prairie School to Neo-Mediterranean and Art Deco. From the beginning, the design criteria included natural ventilation and illumination, appropriate for the tropical climate. Although the designs and styles varied, the schools were totally integrated into the urban areas and added an institutional aspect to the sense of place of the towns. Interestingly, the construction of schools in our towns was integrated, in terms of location and prominence, into the urban fabric of our traditional towns. The Public Schools construction program lasted until the 1940s, when the Government Design Committee was organized.
During the first half of the 20th century, many styles of architecture were introduced to the island. Although the architecture and construction of past centuries continued, it disappeared little by little as other construction techniques and styles were introduced to society in general.
Architects José A. Canales and Carlos Del Valle Zeno designed monumental buildings in the classic Spanish and French styles, and Antonio Nechodoma introduced the lines of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie style of architecture. He also introduced the bungalow style for affordable residences. Nechodoma also introduced modern conveniences in his houses, such as kitchens, bathrooms, laundries, electricity and plumbing.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the Spanish Neo-Mediterranean style was imported from California and Florida and was a way to reflect Puerto Rico’s Spanish ancestry. It became so popular that Arlene Pabón Charneco and Rafael A. Crespo, in their book Architecture, History and Heritage, commented that it could be called “a national style.” Pedro de Castro was an architect who designed many prominent buildings in this style and could have built many others, if he had not died prematurely in an airplane accident.
In the 1930s, Art Deco arrived from Europe and the United States, and I believe if it had not been for the beginning of World War II, it would have influenced much of the island’s architecture.
Until the beginning of World War II in 1941, the architecture of Puerto Rico reflected all of the world styles that existed, a situation that was an exploration of styles based on traditional styles. Forms of Modernism remained from the early part of the century in architecture, but did not become universal until later, after the end of the war (1946).
In Puerto Rico, Governor Rex Tugwell organized the Design Committee in the Department of Public Works in 1944 and invited renowned foreign architects such as Richard Neutra and Henry Klumb, and combined them with young Puerto Rican architects such as Osvaldo Toro, Miguel Ferrer, Horacio Díaz, Jesús Amaral, and others.
The government also sponsored public works such as the construction of annexes to the Capital, the Supreme Court and the Hotel Caribe Hilton. Modernist architecture came to be the new image of a modern Puerto Rico. This image projected the new Puerto Rico, both in its government and in its society, in a tropical setting, and for 20 years the island was transformed into a model of development for the Third World. The opportunity existed not only for the development of architecture and planning for the future, but also the possibility of expressing the “spirit of place” in new terms. Eventually, the urban planning field failed in its promise to create a healthy and efficient urban environment, but the architecture, both private and public, came to be recognized in the world for its tropical, economic and social context.
Freed of the straitjacket of tradition, young architects responded with talent and enthusiasm. They designed architecture that responded to the environment, using reinforced concrete, the indigenous material, open internal spaces, wide doors and windows, roofs to protect from the sun and rain, and a contemporary language. The Hotel Caribe Hilton came to be an icon for post-war hotels in the world, with its vestibule and public spaces open to the sea breeze, which entered under control. Modern technology was present, but did not dominate the architectural design at the beginning of its development. It was used carefully, but effectively, in all of the new buildings. Architects were creating designs within the economic limitations and their architecture expressed their place and time. It seems to me that between 1945 and 1975, architecture speaking Modernist language expressed, from its beginnings, its “spirit of place.” They were designs that did more with less, recognizing the limits of materials and economy.
Since 1975, there has been a trend toward accepting technology as the imperative in architecture. We live in air conditioning, a world of telecommunications dependent on energy that is expensive but essential for operating everything around us. We overburden the environment in a fragile economy that says that something more expensive is better. Currently, we are not living within the economic and social limitations that surround us.
The current economic crisis offers us the opportunity to reflect on our living conditions. Demographic change also requires us to design in an intelligent way for future citizens.
Even more important, the architecture profession has the potential to lead construction toward a scale that is sustainable and appropriate for the natural setting of Puerto Rico. With three schools of architecture producing young architects, we hope they will consider the Puerto Rico of the future, not only using new technology in a prudent way, but also taking advantage of our climate to the maximum. Puerto Rico has all of the ingredients in its culture and its natural environment to achieve its own architecture.
I think at this stage we should not emulate the architects of other places in the world or appropriate their styles or their cultures. The sooner we realize we are Caribbean and belong to a climactic region unique on this planet, we will be better architects, if we recognize our own spirit of place, our own Genius Loci.
Author: Thomas S. Marvel Faia
Published: April 30, 2015.
This post is also available in: Español