The deterioration and abandonment of urban centers usually generate grandiloquent projects that begin by knocking everything down and promising new idyllic atmospheres. These urban renewal projects are usually, with the complicity of the State, good business for commercial developers.
Miguel Rodriguez, dean of the School of Architecture of the Polytechnic University, regrets this routine imposition of rupture models, proposing an aesthetic appreciation of Puerto Rico based on its environmental tragedy instead. Santurce ”s case is a useful example.
Santurce is a lot like -Puerto Rico. The more I look at it the more I encounter the pieces of trinket urbanization that confirm it, the Caribbean chaos of unconcluded initiatives and permanencies that were born of provisional solutions to problems nobody remembers. Since no one ordered the creation of Santurce, no one knows how to finish it. Santurce is what is left over; what it was or wanted to be does not matter. There are more than enough examples to demonstrate it. The former National City Bank, now worn and abandoned in the midst of the stop 18, was the gamble on urban growth all along Kennedy Ave. that never happened. The dead end town squares of Minillas and the Center of the Performing Arts are redoubts of the visions of urban redevelopment of the 1960s and 1970s that were luckily left unfinished. More recently, Centro Europa tried to be model of a new postmodern urbanism that was useful to simulate its inability to produce. That is the last great conspiracy of the banking industry-that so-called philanthropist and art collector-over the Tábula Rasa that they invented in Santurce.
Ciudadella, name given to the new development on the stop 22 by some marketing magician with a degree in semiotics, highlights the excluding intention. The city corpses and zombies of urban revisionism remain as silent symbols of ability to dream, frustrated by inconstancy. That is Santurce, which is also Puerto Rico.
We adopt initiatives of urbanism with adolescent enthusiasm. Then we reject them as if urbanizing was the sexual experiment of wild promiscuity and hit and run ethics. Santurce is the love nest of a womanizing urbanism. Its unconnected, individually analyzed episodes show a virtual void of meaning, an insignificant dumpster of thwarted metropolitanism. One can even appreciate the beauty of this tribute to our improvising talent. But Santurce is more than a postcard of picturesque townscape; it is also unsuspected vitality, deciphering the ownership of a property that is downtown and suburb at the same time.
Santurce confuses everybody. The State thinks it knows what to do with it but in the end it does not have the slightest clue. It sells it without knowing what it is selling. Santurce is a curly mane that faces the incomprehension of domestication: new sidewalks, police raids, streetlights imported from Europe, and genetically altered trees. Santurce lives a jumble of accidents and ruptures which it cannot, should not, and does not escape.
Santurce’s curls are not uniform. The humidity of the previous swamp still circulates through this mane of disorganized streets and incongruent design, frustrating the desperate intervention of the urbanizing blow dryer. There is not a straightening method in the world that can tame this unruly mane of construction. Nor is it necessary to. The multi-shaded blond mane of those who decide what to do with Santurce has nothing to do with the mystery of urban hair that is anything but uniform in texture or in color. They are six shades of separation. The new developers of this beauty parlor of urban experimentation promote an infusion of protein capital. This blond rationalism does not understand. Peroxide clouds their understanding.
Even the urban planner, Leon Krier, understood the fragmentary and incoherent nature of this unconcluded city project. Poor people in the 1980s lived with their own swarm of indecision. He had the metaphor to decipher Santurce in the form of a curly mane inherited from Frankenstein’s European girlfriend. He had never been as lucid as when he visited Santurce. Those were the years in which urbanism had settled down as a fixed franchise. It was the time in which lawyers did not exercise their closeted vocation for architecture from a frustrated game of power and did not influence the decisions of architects.
If something is to be learned from Krier’s afro it is that nobody had all the right answers, not then and not now. The guy that led the campaign for a return to European cities’ origins (defending the invention of an urbanism entrenched in the precedents of a mostly pre-industrial and tyrannical Europe), said that this had to be accepted and that its unavoidable diversification had to be stimulated.
There are hairs that are better left to themselves, freeing them and surrendering them to a meteorological will, gambling that the sun and wind will regulate them in a symphonic way. That, with regard to the city, requires undoing decades of learning from the positivist inheritance of the Ancient Regime. Architects have to look for a way of thinking as if they were not architects. Maybe it is time to model ourselves using the beautician’s logic, sharing the same deviating interest on pleasure and beauty.
The stylist’s premise is the ability to invent nature from the puerile, dirty and mistreated mane. It is the capacity to administer dirt and abuse-more than erasing it in an act of denial and fraud. The beautician of my imagination works on the skull in real time, without moving his attention to something other than the face. It can cover certain features, even minimize them to the point that they do not exist, but what this professional truly demonstrates is a tremendous display of talent in making a supporting complement to an aesthetic plot elaborated on the face, not over imposed to it, from the grotesque and dissonant. Good hair and bad hair do not exist in the stylist’s hands. A face pre-exists the chemical product, and the stylist will eliminate or add-from the point of view of illusion- without the surgeon’s amputating alternative or the provisional Botox. Developers want Santurce to undergo plastic surgery when all that it needs is a stylist that understands its mane and accepts illusion as a strategy.
Santurce has bad hair. The noise in Santurce is tremendous and only few want to recognize the glorious impurity of these parts of the city that speak of what we are. Our true grandmother does not live in uppers class Miramar. She lives locked in a kitchen in Santurce. Our Malinche is from Santurce. She is not white and does not come from Europe.
Condado is another thing. The chaos there has several layers of hairspray and an invigorating backcombing of cosmopolitan illusion that delights tourists and those who live as though they were. Each hateful inflection of the elegant Condado sector finds accommodation in the urbanizing hairspray that tries to maintain the hairstyle in its place. But teasing, faithful to its skillful origin in the aesthetic ideal of the 1950s that did not even allow breasts to hang naturally, is nothing more than to create the illusion of volume through the trick of a comb and two cans of hair lacquer. Condado is not as urban as it looks; it has not even been able to dispose of its own excrements, which return to the street from time to time in an improvised sequence of urban fountains of unmistakable smell.
Santurce, on the contrary, has more than enough volume, more than enough city, so much that the straightening urban planners cannot deal with its entangled curls. They rather drop the comb before working on hair that requests that they understand its excesses before acting. They equally believe that they are taking care of what they perceive as urban pathology, imposing a Pedrín wig from Miami, with the sponsorship of the developing force that is also usually from Miami.
The issue gets complicated when the beauty parlor is administered by the Government with its indulgent calendar and expert ignorance. But even government stupidity can be mitigated with urban planners transmuted into beauticians with the ability to style the city, recognizing its fiber and function. The problem is still the stubborn client; the one that goes to the hairstylist with the picture of “I want to look this.” The problem is that the whole country is carrying a picture of “I want to look like this.” They brought it from Orlando, Fort Lauderdale or some American campus where they went to college; from where they imagine Puerto Rico and the rest of the world. And when the country does not look like that, the suspicious politician reminds his urban planner-beautician that clients are always right and that they are entitled to see themselves in their own mirror, particularly when elections are near and the mirage becomes the rule.
It is the client”s supposed infallibility, and his unbalanced perception of fact and ideal, that which keeps our city”s mane in a state of perpetual emergency. That is the true crisis that has to be faced, not the neo-liberal monster that the new merchants of trauma have invented for our political kindergarten.
The reality of Santurce (and Puerto Rico) is that we do not understand nor do we accept the nuances of its beauty. We know even less how to translate it in a discourse of possibility. We have the country hidden under a wig of first world pretenses that covers the corrosive chemical of a bad do-it-yourself straightening. We will never be able to find the cut that better suits our cities if we do not face their physiognomies and wills. There are professionals to do that. And the State exists to impose controls on the capital that pays for campaigns.
Let”s let the hair of our cities go loose. We will nurture it so that it can enjoy the wind. We will comb it lightly, with careful carelessness, assuming, once and for all, that our alleged chaos produces moments of great beauty and that order is not always found in the eradication of the exceptional, but in the acknowledgement of the accidental. It is a diversity that, artistically retouched, can transform daily life into a lyrical experience. Go see Santurce”s remodeled marketplace, for example, and see for yourself what a good haircut can do for the city, even it`s if been a while since it last washed its hair.
Miguel Rodríguez Casellas
Architect and Dean of the Architectural School
Politecnical University of Puerto Rico
Author: Proyectos FPH
Published: September 23, 2010.
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