Architecture in Puerto Rico has evolved from the simplest structures made of wood and thatch to monumental buildings of glass and steel. Architecture, of course, is an indispensable and constant part of our reality, providing the stage where we carry out our daily lives. Although architectural forms and building technologies have changed, architecture has always sought to satisfy the needs of the society it shelters. A long list of architects and designers have left their mark in the buildings and public works of the island. Their work has helped to transform and preserve our cities and towns, establishing urban patterns and making our dreams of a better life a reality.

Upon their arrival on our island’s shores, the Europeans noticed that the settlements of the indigenous people were constructed of perishable materials. They perceived that this was an indication of the natives’ backwardness and limited knowledge. The Europeans viewed these inhabitants as comparable to the first humans in the Garden of Eden. Chronicles of the period documented images of these structures by means of engravings, which Europeanized these simple structures by presenting them in regular shapes, rounded or rectangular, which added a hint of classical Greek architecture (considered to be the origin of architecture during that period in European history) to these rudimentary huts.

The archeological reconstruction of some of these villages and the interpretative comparisons of findings in other Caribbean communities have facilitated our understanding of how the Tainos lived in Puerto Rico. The circular arrangement of their villages, or yucayeques, has been reconfigured with the courtyard, or batey, in the middle and the huts and family houses, known as bohíos and caneyes, surrounding it. The areas paved with stone were rebuilt as ceremonial centers.

The first European settlements in Boriquén must have amazed the “natives.” In Caparra, the main structures were built of stone, following construction techniques that were vastly different from those employed at that time on the island. Even though stones were employed as religious objects in ceremonial parks, the use of stone blocks in construction was unknown. Laying solid foundations in the ground and using hard to find materials with a high level of craftsmanship were completely new concepts. Likewise, dividing the interior of the buildings into separate rooms according to function was in stark contrast to the way things were done on the island. There is no indication that the “natives” mimicked the construction systems or the space divisions of the newcomers, however, it seems that the knowledge of those first inhabitants did impact the colonizing culture. In his Historia Geográfica, Civil y Natural de la Isla de San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico (Geographic, Civil and Natural History of the Island of Saint John the Baptist of Puerto Rico), Fr. Iñigo Abbad y Lasierra describes how the Europeans copied indigenous building techniques, raising the structure with wooden posts and beams, and fashioning walls and roofs from perishable and easily obtainable materials. This construction method prevailed as a form of “marginal architecture” until well into the 20th century.

As the colonial power became firmly established in Puerto Rico, architecture acquired a European look. Living on the island changed the colonizers` approach to building, since they needed to take into account the weather as well as military circumstances. Spanish settlements were arranged along the traditional grid, with areas organized to accommodate public spaces, government buildings, as well as religious, military, commercial, and residential structures. Puerto Rico, the new outpost of the Spanish crown, was protected by imposingly thick and strong walls.

The increase in population within these protective walls meant that space was at a premium and thus buildings were often quite narrow, requiring the use of interior courtyards as a source of light and ventilation for rooms. This scheme was also well suited for defending and protecting both streets and structures.

Commercial and public spaces were generally located on the first floor, while residences occupied the higher floors, where they were protected by the vestibule, stairway and courtyard. The residence of Puerto Rico’s Captain General, built near the mouth of the bay, was heavily protected by walls with round towers. Seen from the sea, it resembled a fortress, but from the city it seemed more like a palace; thus the dual name: La Fortaleza (The Fortress) and the Palacio Santa Catalina. Churches also offered the city a form of protection, with bell towers functioning as sentinel posts from which possible dangers could be readily detected, whether from land or sea.

These defenses were essential given San Juan’s status as an important military post with the Empire’s domain conceived as “both the key and door to the West Indies.” (Adolfo de Hostos, Historia de San Juan: Ciudad Murada, 1983). Therefore, the city required continued capital investments for improvements.

The city featured a system of defense works, which were completed in the 18th century with the construction of the defensive walls and majestic castles created by Thomas O’Daly. Almost immediately after completion, the fortifications proved their effectiveness in repelling the invading forces of the British commanded by Abercromby in 1797. These fortresses eventually became so invincible that it was not until one-hundred years later that they at last succumbed to a foreign invasion during the Spanish-American War. The monumental and protective image of the walls thus served their desired effect for many years.

Palacio de la Real Intendencia

Palacio de la Real Intendencia: Currently is the State Department.(Fundación Puertorriqueña de las Humanidades)

A century of peace, coupled with great confidence in its fortifications, allowed San Juan to focus on itself and develop this citadel into the capital city. San Juan was no longer merely the seat of military and religious power, but the center for government, commerce, and a burgeoning social elite. During this century of peace, while Spain witnessed their empire`s collapse in the Wars of Independence, Puerto Rico continued to be the most Spanish of the American colonies. Through all the battles with foreign forces or local rebellions, Puerto Rico proved its unconditional loyalty to Spain. (La Correspondencia, April 23, 1898)

Throughout this era, the private sector and the Spanish crown made large investments that influenced both the city plan as well as specific public buildings, which often assumed the contours of modest palaces. The stone walls defined the boundaries of the city, and within it the urban morphology, strengthened with cobbled streets and plazas, redefined with fixtures and ornamentation. Policies were also established to improve the new structures within the walled city, with new gates inaugurated to facilitate the flow of people both inside and outside the stone enclave. Meanwhile, new roads and better access to the rest of the island were being built beyond the city walls.

The construction of military, public, and religious buildings demanded great sums of money. While great sums were lavished on strengthening defenses by means of constructing new military barracks and an arsenal, architects during this period also focused their attentions on embellishments and commodities for the city. Halfway through this century, the Spanish crown renovated the Palacio Santa Catalina, giving it an elegant neoclassical façade and renewing its interiors. In place of the old jail, the Palacio de la Real Intendencia was built in a privileged location facing the Plaza de Armas, which was given the royal name of Alfonso XII. Likewise, civic buildings were constructed as an indication of a society at peace: a new palace for the administration of the city, a building for the Provincial Deputy, a theater, a market, centers for the care of the ailing, an insane asylum, a jail designed following the latest concepts in incarceration, and a new building for the Department of Public Works with a modern meteorological station.

Public funds were also directed toward construction and improvement of new religious structures, such as the cathedral, the Carmelite convent and the seminary. Similarly, religious educational institutions came into being, including a new primary school, and, outside the city walls, the Sacred Heart School and the Jesuit Institute, which were both located in the nearby municipality of Santurce.

Demolition of the walls at the end of the nineteenth century

Demolition of the walls at the end of the 19th century to expand San Juan city. (Courtesy of Fundación Luis Muñoz Marín, Orraca collection)

San Juan was growing not only in terms of civic pride, but also in population. By the 1870`s, the city’s Spanish merchants demanded that the Spanish government demolish the city walls to facilitate the movement of goods through a new port, south of the San Justo Gate, and to further extend development onto the island of San Juan. After a one-night visit from Princess Eulalia in 1893, while she was en route to the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, the Spanish crown approved the demolition of the southern walls of the city so that the port could be opened. Plans for San Juan did not stop here, but included the demolition of the most significant part of the city’s defense: the Santiago Gate, also known as the Puerta de Tierra. In 1897, just one hundred years after Abercromby laid siege to San Juan, the metropolis bestowed two privileges upon Puerto Rico: the Autonomic Charter was approved, and the city government authorized the demolition of the defensive walls from the San Justo ramparts to the Santiago Gate.

The demolition of the Santiago Gate opened the old fortified city of San Juan to the rest of the island. During the 19th century those who had promoted the razing of the gate, which was not merely a response to the merchants’ demands for more space and easy port access, continued to call for more urban growth as a sign of progress and modernity. By 1893, San Juan had launched its first electric lighting system to celebrate princess Eulalia’s arrival, a new plaza with a monument commemorating Columbus was erected in front of the municipal theater, and plans for establishing an underground sewer system were being discussed in the city council. The plan for extending the city was made in the form of a grid, following the old, proven formula that had been effectively used within the walled city. The city was preparing for imminent growth.

Nuestra señora de Lourdes church designed by Antonín Nechodema

Nuestra señora de Lourdes church designed by Antonín Nechodema: Built in 1912 originally was a Methodist denomination. (Courtesy of Sacred Heart University collection).

The Spanish-American War completely disrupted the crown’s plans for autonomy and modernization. The city’s defensive systems, brilliantly designed to ward off attacks in keeping with 17th-century military technology, were hardly a match for the might and supremacy of the U.S. Navy. San Juan was powerless before the occupying forces. The idea of modernity was no longer a simple matter of demolishing city walls. The invading Americans viewed the island as a network of interconnected entities, all tied to a central executive power. The welfare of communities and towns in the island’s “interior” would thus mean that San Juan would assume far greater importance from an administrative standpoint.

The separation of Church and State was evident in the urban and architectural choices applied by the Protestant denominations to erect their churches. The location of these places of worship was very important, and wherever possible they were built close to the central plaza of the town and opposite a Catholic church. In San Juan, the first Episcopal church was erected across from the city’s cathedral, while the first Baptist church rose in a lot located in front of the San Francisco church and monastery. In Santa Isabel, Guayama, Juana Díaz and Peñuelas, churches were built in lots facing the main plaza. With this urban strategy, the Protestant churches physically asserted themselves against the predominant Catholic majority within Puerto Rico’s traditional urban setting, thus affirming the principle of freedom of worship.

Architectural forms that were familiar to Puerto Ricans were used as a way of convincing people about the new gospel. However, the type of construction, as well as the materials and floor plans employed in these new churches, evidenced the beginning of a new era. Since they were part of a newly organized institution, during these years these buildings were quickly erected but often poorly made. From 1907 onward, more rigorous architectural standards began to be applied to the construction of such religious sanctuaries. The first churches built in Puerto Rico during this time, which were featured in architectural publications in the United States, were designed by architect Antonín Nechodoma.

The task of educating young people led to the creation of a public school system, which inevitably included the island’s first university. The function of this latter institution was quite practically aimed at eliminating ignorance and hunger. Thus, the first structure to rise in Río Piedras in 1902 was a Normal School, the graduates of which would leave after completing the two-year program to teach in the public schools that quickly sprung up across the island. The Normal School was a paradigmatic academic structure, one that followed a new vision that took hold in Puerto Rico in the early 20th century. Built of brick, with a massive roof and belvedere, it was strongly reminiscent of the images of U.S. public schools that appeared in the Teacher’s Manual for the Public Schools of Puerto Rico which the insular board of education published in 1900. For several years, this building, along with the Model School and the principal’s residence, were the only structures to occupy the large university campus.

In 1908, the model school received a new façade, which transformed it from a modified shack-like structure into a shining example of a new architectural vocabulary, the “California mission style”, which had enjoyed popularity in the United States since the turn of the century. Interestingly enough, in Puerto Rico, the use of this style—with its own clear Spanish influences—was seen as an attempt to mitigate cultural imposition by the new Anglo-Saxon colonizers. Inspired by 16th-century Spanish missions, it became the preferred style for designing Protestant churches, the headquarters of corporations that had established operations on the island, and the schools in Puerto Rico’s new public education system. Architect Antonin Nechodoma referred to these designs as a “Hispanic-American style,” which had “evolved from rather primitive forms of the original quasi-Spanish buildings…” The fascination with the California mission style persisted in Puerto Rico until the early 1920`s.

During this decade, the University underwent a process of expansion. Several buildings were erected, including the most important one, Memorial Hall. This building was designed in a classical revival style, which had always been seen as representing authority and order. It was used to house the university’s administrative offices. At the same time, remodeling proceeded at the Normal School, which was given classical porticoes. Over the years, this architectural element would become the iconic symbol of the University. In the mid-1920`s, a U.S.-based architectural firm, Bennett, Parsons and Frost, drafted an initial master plan for the University, which was largely inspired by the academic approaches of the Ecole des Beaux Arts de Paris. The plan included a new structure—the present-day Felipe Janer building—which was inserted to give the University a more symmetrical façade. A central quadrangle was also designed to serve as the architectural focal point for the new buildings.

Another priority for the new colonial government during the 1920`s and 1930`s was the overall improvement of the island’s public health, which included the establishment of a local and municipal hospital system. Several private hospitals also benefited from this initiative. By 1908, Auxilio Mutuo in Río Piedras, the Presbyterian Hospital in Condado, and Hospital San Lucas in Ponce, were already showcases for modern medical treatment. These last two hospitals initially began as a series of large wooden structures, which were evocative of English cottages or bungalows, a style that was popular among transplanted statesiders residing on the island.

Old casino of Puerto Rico, currently Govermnet Reception Hall

Old casino of Puerto Rico, currently Govermnet Reception Hall: Built in 1912 by the architecture firm Del Valle Zeno. (Fundación Puertorriqueña de las Humanidades)

The reaction of Puerto Ricans toward U.S. colonization can also be seen in the architectural styles that were favored on the island. While most of the projects sponsored by the government or its ancillary institutions were largely Hispanic/California mission inspirations designed by U.S. firms, the island’s own architects and engineers responded with a new architecture that was drawn from French Renaissance models, following their vision of the great city of Paris. The evocation of French style was seen as an affirmation of the legitimacy of the island’s intellectual elite, and as a subtle snub to the U.S. colonial government.

The generation of engineers and architects living on the island at the time the U.S. invaded Puerto Rico in 1898 comprised a small yet active group of approximately forty professionals. Some had studied engineering in Spain, France, Belgium or other parts of Europe, while others had attended universities in the United States or Venezuela. Older members of this group had held various administrative positions while Puerto Rico was under Spanish rule. The period leading up to World War I was most active professionally for those who had recently finished their education.

A general feeling of indignation existed among many of those in the profession. Rafael del Valle Zeno and other engineers had decided that the situation was such that they could no longer endure the atmosphere of contempt that prevailed under the new colonial government. In the afternoon of June 16, 1904, at his office on Calle Fortaleza in San Juan, del Valle convened the engineers José A.Canals, Juan Bautista Rodríguez, Tulio Larrínaga and Ramón Gandía Córdova, for the purpose of establishing the Society of Engineers of Puerto Rico. One of the main objectives of this new organization was to ensure that laws were passed to protect Puerto Rican professionals from government abuses and to block foreigners (“carpet baggers”) from being hired for work that local talent was qualified to perform. The society also proposed to “foster the profession of engineering in Puerto Rico, as well as all ancillary arts and industries; strengthen collegial bonds among members, and establish ties with analogous associations in other countries.” (Bylaws of the Society of Engineers of Puerto Rico, 1904).

These engineers and architects felt that the work undertaken by the society, “could lay the groundwork for just and reasonable legislation, especially as pertains to the engineering profession, thus providing a major impetus for all types of public and private works, given that this would establish the most solid indication of the country’s own progress.”

The work that best exemplifies the masterful manipulation of this French architectural vocabulary in San Juan, and possibly throughout the island, is the Casino de Puerto Rico. This structure would ironically represent a culmination for the Del Valle Zeno Hermanos firm, as well as its death knell. The firm dissolved in 1913.

Residence La Giralda in Miramar, designed by Francisco Valines Cofresí, architect, in 1903.

Residence La Giralda in Miramar, designed by Francisco Valines Cofresí, architect, in 1903. (Courtesy Colección Universidad del Sagrado Corazón)

The early 1920s brought marked stylistic changes to the architecture of Puerto Rico. The same institutions that had fostered the application of French revivals sought to articulate a more authentic sense of identity, one that included the island’s Spanish roots. The architecture that would appear over the next two decades (1920-1940) sought stylistic approaches inspired in traditional Spanish modes, a movement that would be paralleled in literature, painting, and even politics. The complex and critical situation that the island endured through the 1930s meant that this revival of Spanish style would also reflect a range of conflicts and issues that permeated Puerto Rican society at the time.

The Spanish paradigm, which was drawn from that country’s “golden age”, and not from nostalgia for the island’s former colonizer, was embraced by Puerto Ricans who had been educated at architecture schools in the United States. During the 1920s, the first real applications of this vision began to appear across Puerto Rico. In 1918 the first local professional to graduate with a degree in architecture from a U.S. university, Pedro Adolfo de Castro y Besosa, returned to Puerto Rico

De Castro y Besosa had been trained in French beaux-arts theories from the 19th century, although Puerto Rican students had received exposure to a range of styles which at the time were considered valid in the profession, Spanish revival being one of them. With the return of the foreign-educated architects, these styles were applied quite naturally, without any question as to their validity. The 1920s confirmed the success of this approach. Identifying with its Spanish heritage actually facilitated the legitimacy of U.S. cultural domination. Publications from this period promoted an image of Puerto Rico, symbolically ensconced in traditional Spanish attire, in the grips of romance with the U.S. government.

France Returns and Hollywood Arrives

While structures featuring roof tiles, arches and Solomonic columns proliferated during the period between the great wars, another style triggered the imagination of many young architects: Art Deco, which had exploded like a bombshell at the Decorative Arts Exhibition held in Paris in 1925. The earliest examples of Art deco architecture appeared that same year in Puerto Rico. The first was the plan for a school drawn up by Fidel Sevillano (it is unknown whether this structure was ever built), and the second was the design for a moviehouse, the Cine Puerto Rico, in Santurce, by Pedro A. de Castro. Art deco would reach its apogee on the island in the 1930s, in the works of such architects as de Castro, Pedro Méndez, Rafael Hernández Romero and Jorge Ramírez de Arellano.

At the time, local newspapers described the style as “modernist and functional, efficient, hygienic and economical.” Art deco was seen as far less expensive given the overall lack of polychromed terracotta and other ornamental work, which were characteristic in Spanish revival structures.

However, given the overriding Spanish tastes of the island, art deco was often refracted through Spanish Revival elements in the hands of Puerto Rican architects. Pedro Méndez, for example, used Salamancan arches in various residential designs, while on the Edificio Miami traces of Spanish-inspired symmetry and verticality were also employed. Others, such as Francisco Porrata-Doria, combined art deco forms with terracotta roof tiles and glazed decorative tilework from Seville.

In the 1930s, this modern hybrid style was used largely in the design of private projects, particularly residential structures. The prevalent adjectives used in association with buildings of the time include clean, luxurious, efficient and futuristic. By the end of the decade, Art Deco began to appear in public works, as well. Various designs were produced by the Department of the Interior’s Division of Public Buildings, which at the time was headed by Pedro Méndez.

College of Architecture, University of Puerto Rico.

College of Architecture, University of Puerto Rico. (Courtesy Archivo de Arquitectura de la Universidad de Puerto Rico)

World War II had a massive impact on the public and private life of Puerto Rico. From 1948 onward, however, once Puerto Ricans were granted the right to elect their own governor, the island’s role as a “Bridge between the Americas” shifted to “Showcase of the Americas,” in order to reflect the dramatic and progressive vision being fostered by the island’s leaders. In tandem with this bold new public identity, Puerto Rico began to overwhelmingly adopt the principles of the “modern movement”, which professed an explicit denial of the role of history in the architectural design process.

Through a newly formed Public Works DesignCommittee, the government attempted to modernize architecture across the island. Drawing on talent from abroad, most notably Germans and Austrians who had settled in the United States, the committee acted as a regulating force for all government design projects, while also influencing private professionals. One of the most important architects in this group was Henry Klumb. Invited by Governor Rexford G. Tugwell, Klumb assessed the country’s situation in the following words:

“There is no real architecture of the tropics in Puerto Rico. Everything is bastard Spanish, which was never the heritage of more than 10% of the Puerto Ricans anyway. And the Spanish enclosedeverything behind thick walls and grilles. Their women weren’t to be seen; everything was protected. Then you superimpose the Anglo-Saxon traditions on top of that, and you get the most wretched architectural results imaginable.” (“Designs for the Tropics,” Interiors May 1962: 116).

By 1949, when the Caribe Hilton—the design of architects Osvaldo Toro and Miguel Ferrer—inaugurated its sumptuous facilities, there was no question that the Modern Movement had firmly established itself as Puerto Rico’s architectural paradigm. The government felt comfortable with this anonymous style, in which regional identities and differences could be easily ignored.

While the design committee provided the state with a mechanism for guaranteeing that all public works be designed according to the canons of modern architecture, it was not until 1966 that these canons were actually taught on the island, at the first School of Architecture, which was organized at the University of Puerto Rico under Jesús E. Amaral. The school soon became an essential part of Puerto Rico’s academic and professional life. The nniversity’s Río Piedras Campus was thus given a center from which a new university could be planned and developed, and the people of Puerto Rico now had a new class of locally educated professionals who would contribute to designing, building and protecting the island’s environment.

The contemporary architecture of Puerto Rico has evolved as a result of the efforts of graduates from the University of Puerto Rico` school of Architecture, as well as those educated in North and South America and Europe. While the Modern Movement exerted a tremendous influence, recent construction in Puerto Rico, according to Andrés Mignucci, “reflects a diversity of production and a multiplicity of forms of expression, which defy any single stylistic analysis […].” By the 1980s, the modern movement had all but disintegrated in Puerto Rico. Architectural practices began to diversify, exploring ideas and forms already prevailing in Europe and the United States, where this new approach had been termed “postmodernism”.

In 1996, a second school of architecture was founded at the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico, thus providing students with alternative strategies in the teaching of this profession. The impact of this new academic center is already beginning to be felt on the island.

What paths will the island’s architecture take in the future? The answer to this question is as difficult as knowing what direction Puerto Rico’s culture will take, in general. Architects do not have any particular ability to predict the future, only to understand and interpret the present within the context of what history has shown us over the centuries. The architect measures and appraises—with a sense of what is beautiful, useful and well-built—our habitat, the setting of our daily lives. With this responsibility, the architect should not only be a good designer, one who knows how to do things properly, but must also be able to interpret and bring to fruition the cultural vision of our people.

Author: Dr. Enrique Vivoni Farage
Published: September 08, 2014.

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