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The New San Juan

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  • The New San Juan

    Will A New Wave Of Tropical Modernism Restore San Juan's Luster?

    James S. Russell, AIA

    July 1, 2002
    Copyright 2002 McGraw-Hill, Inc.
    All rights reserved.

    With its sparkling beaches, bay, and lagoon, all protected by the brooding mass of the El Morro fortress, San Juan, Puerto Rico , has as blessed a setting and as deep a history as any Caribbean city. But Havana has captured the world's imagination, and Miami's South Beach has become a visitor magnet. San Juan has many of the same ingredients, but somehow seems a little pale and unfocused.

    A development site of enormous promise could define a new image for the city. The Hotel Development Corporation and the Government Development Bank of Puerto Rico are negotiating terms of a competition-winning development proposal for what is called ``The Condado Trio''--named for the three derelict hulks that occupied this two-block stretch of prime beachfront. One was once the Gran Hotel Condado Vanderbilt, an elegant Spanish Renaissance-revival villa built by New York Central Railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt as the luxury destination in San Juan's steamship era. Completed in 1919 by Vanderbilt's Grand Central Station architects, Warren & Wetmore, its red-tile roofs and elegantly grilled arcades owed more to Santa Barbara than San Juan, but nonetheless opened an era of genteel tourism. Local architect Marvel and Marchand will restore the structure and add two modern wings, augmenting the 93 existing rooms with 160 new ones.

    At the eastern end of the site is what could be the real gem of the redevelopment: La Concha, a masterpiece of tropical Modernism. Its original architect, Toro Ferrer Arquitectos, although still in practice is little known on the mainland, but this early work could take its place near the top of the postwar International Modernist heap. Even in its moth-eaten current state, the 1958 structure sails along the beach with enormous International Style panache. With its shutter-clad breezeways, its delicate precast-concrete grillwork, vaulted retail arcade, and curvy pools and waterfalls, La Concha is as suave and sensuous as anything built in the postwar era. ``It will be renovated to pretty close to the original design,'' says principal Thomas Marvel. That will include restoring the fluted, conch-shell-shaped roof of the old supper club that gives the hotel its name. The shell will once again hover over a reflecting pool.

    The third building in the ``Trio,'' an unloved convention center (amazingly, also by Toro Ferrer), has been demolished, opening a welcome window to the sea in this high-rise enclave. A new plaza is under design by Andres Mignucci.

    A few years ago, such an encumbered site would not have attracted much interest. Indeed, an earlier $250 million attempt to redevelop the properties depended on demolishing La Concha. After a public outcry, preliminary demolition was stopped and a court eventually revoked approval.

    In the meantime, Miami's South Beach has solidified itself as a major urban-resort destination built upon its restored Art Moderne splendor; the boutique-hotel trend has taken off; and Latin American modern architecture--from Brazil to Havana--is fast being rediscovered. Downtown San Juan is now the only Miami alternative for visitors who want the beach, the pool, and the weather within easy reach of big-city shopping, restaurants, nightlife, and cultural events. As a result, the Condado district has attracted renewed investment.

    Successful redevelopment of inner San Juan could reestablish a uniquely Puerto Rican architectural and urbanistic identity. This relatively small island now exerts outsize influence in popular music and cuisine. The Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (with a recently completed new wing by architect Otto Reyes, added to a restored landmark) makes a persuasive case for local fine artists. Is it architects' turn? It won't be easy: San Juan's urban development tends to follow the generic real estate formulas of the mainland.

    But the La Concha controversy came along at a time of rekindled interest in the extraordinary architectural legacy of the 1950s and 1960s. The firm of Sierra, Cardona, Ferrer has added a respectful wing to a law school at the University of Puerto Rico originally designed by Henry Klumb, a postwar master of suavely grilled sunscreens and delicate garden courtyards. Davis Fuster, in renovating the Plaza del Mercado, a covered farm market, scraped away years of accretions to expose the handsomely engineered concrete vaulting designed by architect Pedro Miranda in 1968. (Other examples of this golden era abound in the book Ever New San Juan: Architecture and Modernization in the 20th Century, edited by Enrique Vivoni Farage, published by Archivo de Arquetectura y Construccion, University of Puerto Rico ). The best work deploys the brise-soleils, concrete grillwork, and attention to natural ventilation that were emblems of climate-sensitive international Modernism.

    Urbanistically, San Juan has not found a way to exploit its extraordinary setting. With a poor bus system and a local attachment to the automobile that rivals any place on the mainland, traffic is ghastly. The perilously narrow sidewalks are generally empty, in spite of the temperate climate. Safety concerns, of course, don't make the streets appealing, either, and even the casual visitor will notice the impressive array of grills, walls, and gates that increasingly fortify both homes and businesses. A highly developed highway system carries people from overburdened city streets to clogged new suburban enclaves. (Most observers put little faith in a new high-speed train line, currently under construction, to allay the congestion.)

    San Juan residents and mainland snowbirds alike, however, are rediscovering the handsome buildings and beautiful settings of such inner-city districts as Miramar and Santurce. But for every renovated Moderne apartment building and every restored traditional, porch-wrapped house, many more are displaced by generically styled high-rise condos fortified by high gates and fences. A number of landmark-quality hotels have been restored, notably the exuberantly Art Deco Normandie, but shortsighted operators often deprive the structures of much that's distinctive. The handsome Gropiuslike massing of the 1948 Caribe Hilton remains, for example, but the bravura sweep of the interior of what can only be regarded as one of Toro Ferrer's masterpieces has largely been lost in generic, hotel-chain renovations.

    A younger generation of designers is building on this legacy, taking tropical Modernism in new directions, primarily in houses, like one by Toro Ferrer's younger generation (photo this page). Though the city has a wide architectural talent pool, it's not easy being an architect in San Juan. Like other Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico has struggled to make a workable economy in a world where someplace else is always cheaper or better connected to global markets. The island has a hard time attracting and retaining highly skilled construction specialists, which means that quality often suffers. Architecture depends more on the public sector here (as in Europe), which means commissions wax and wane according to whether the government in power values the contributions architects can make, and whether money is available for public works. Since being awarded the commission to design the new architecture school at the University of Puerto Rico in 1996, for example, architect Bermudez and Delgado watched the scope go down, then up partway. ``The university went through two presidents and three chancellors,'' said principal Eduardo Bermudez, ``and the building was moved to a whole new site.'' After several redesigns, the project is now in construction.

    The current governor, Sila Maria Calderon, recently commissioned modest urban revitalization projects in several cities. Looming in the future is the fate of the island of Vieques . Although the Navy has long used parts of it for bombing practice, much of it remains pristinely natural. Whether it stays that way, or is sensitively developed, will test Puerto Rico 's commitment to the future as well as its design talent.