Puerto Rican Architecture Ripens

Event: PUERTO RICO NOW: Recent Architecture and History
Location: Center for Architecture, 10.29.09
Speakers: Segundo Cardona, FAIA — Partner, Sierra Cardona Ferrer; Luis Flores, FAIA — Owner, Luis Flores Arquitectos; Jorge Rigau, FAIA — Principal, Rigau Arquitectos
Moderator: Warren James — Principal, Warren A. James Architects + Planners
Organizers: AIANY Global Dialogues Committee
Sponsors: AECOM; Turner International; AIA Puerto Rico Chapter; Landair; Rums of Puerto Rico

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City Skyline, San Juan, PR.

Courtery: WAJAP New York, 2009

Architecture in Puerto Rico has come a long way in a short time. “When I started in 1966, there were barely 150 architects in a population of 2.6 million people,” stated Segundo Cardona, FAIA, of Sierra Cardona Ferrer Arquitectos. “Now there are 1,350 architects and 4 million people. The number of architects in the population has multiplied by six.” Cardona was one of three architects in New York to describe their body of work on the island.

Cardona speaks of his work in reference to the roots of Puerto Rican architecture. The island’s architects take inspiration from construction limitations and from the pervasive nature of the tropical climate. For his visitor center in the Yunque Forest, the building was created simply from timber and concrete and is in the shape of a cruciform. “I wanted to integrate the medium with the message,” he said. “The cruciform expresses a sense of reverence towards nature.” Cardona purposefully left a hole in the middle of the roof so that people would get wet when it rains. “You can’t ignore the climate, so why not pay homage to it.”

Luis Flores, FAIA, of Louis Flores Arquitectos, described how architects in Puerto Rico had established their own identities since the island’s architecture schools opened in the late 1960s. At first, architects were educated to build in a North American style rather than using the traditions of Spanish and Caribbean architecture. “Since then there has been an extraordinary revolution in terms of our awareness and our search for identity,” he said. Flores presented Balneario El Tuque, a pool complex made from concrete blocks and timber pergolas. “What architects in Puerto Rico learned was that you can use the tropicality and the breezes and the sun to their advantage. A minimalist architecture in this climate suggests space.”

Jorge Rigau, FAIA, of Rigau Arquitectos, was the youngest of the speakers, and his take on Puerto Rican architecture was less about handcraft than about style. He explained that he was influenced not only by traditional Spanish architecture, but also by late 20th-century tectonics. A career immersed in architectural education also contributed to his urban thinking, he claimed. This was best represented in a project in Isabela that re-imagined 35 kilometers of irrigation channels as landscaped nature trails for tourists and school groups on the island. “Design is not necessarily just about buildings, but also about making something happen,” he said.

The post-talk discussion centred mainly on sustainability, and how Puerto Rico is reacting to the climate change agenda. Cardona said that the primacy of the tropical climate meant that all Puerto Rican architects had to think about sustainability, but added that the stipulations of LEED ratings would not work in his country. Rigau explained that there was more skepticism about green architecture on the island. “In Puerto Rico, there is a saying that when things are green, we have to wait for them to ripen,” he said. An audience member asked if air-conditioning is the largest obstacle to lowering energy use. Cardona responded that air-conditioning is not needed. “We have a blessing — our climate,” added Flores. “We have another blessing,” cut in Rigau. “We can’t afford it.”