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THE NEW YORK TIMES
After The Bombs, Retrofitting Paradise
By RAUL A. BARRENECHE
August 28, 2003
PHOTO: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
On tiny Vieques, off the coast of Puerto Rico, an architect is practicing tropical minimalism
Here Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and the Rev. Al Sharpton were arrested as they protested the presence of the Navy, which had occupied 27,000 of the island's 33,000 acres since the early 1940's. Bombing tests and war games angered the inhabitants, known as Viequenses, for decades.
After much resistance, the Navy departed this troubled paradise on May 1. But the Navy's absence has opened opportunities for the development of the largely uninhabited acres that it left behind. (Nearly half has become a wildlife refuge overseen by the Interior Department.) The question now is how bucolic Vieques population 9,106 and known for beaches, wild horses and the micro-organisms that make bioluminescent Mosquito Bay sparkle and glow can preserve its pristine landscapes while encouraging new homes and accompanying amenities.
The island has been a small but vibrant tourist destination for decades, but "Vieques hasn't really been designed yet," said Monica R. Chitnis, 34, a Bombay-born banker. She left New York in 1997 to open a restaurant here with her husband, Ricardo Betancourt, a native of Puerto Rico. "What has been built has been a lo loco, a bit crazy. There's no method to the madness. To turn Vieques into another St. Barts would be a grand mistake."
John Hix, an architect from Canada, is providing an example of what a renewed Vieques could look like: spare, environmentally sensitive buildings of concrete, equipped with wooden shutters or overhead steel security doors. He has designed an addition to the Betancourts' restaurant, Café Media Luna, in the capital, Isabel Segunda. He has also created a seaside compound for Thomas H. Wright, the vice president and secretary of Princeton University, and his mini-resort, Hix Island House, has been hailed for ecological sensitivity.
Mr. Hix, 65, born in Iowa and trained in the United States, has become an éminence gris of tropical minimalism, Vieques style. His houses have no conventional windows, to take one example, only glass-free openings framing verdant views. "The island is in your face," Mr. Hix said. "We have a tree practically growing into our living room."
Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency honored Mr. Hix with an Environmental Quality Award in the category of business and industry. Hix Island House, which comprises 13 loftlike guest rooms in four buildings, as well as a pool and a yoga studio, was cited for green amenities, including solar energy and the recycling of bath water.
In 1990, Mr. Hix and his wife, Neeva Gayle, 58, came here to build a vacation home on five hilly cuerdas with a sea view. (One cuerda, a unit of land measurement used on the island, equals 0.989 acres.) The triangular building, part of the Hix Island House complex, was constructed of concrete in response to Hurricane Hugo's destruction of many of Vieques's wood-framed houses in 1989.
"You tend to think of the Caribbean as being a gentle, wonderful place, and most of the time it is, but it can get quite violent," said Mr. Hix, who spends half the year in Vieques, the other half in Tottenham, Ontario.
Concrete is forgiving, too. "It doesn't matter if the floor gets a crack," the architect said. "It becomes part of the aesthetic. For a lot of modernists, everything has to be perfect. If you get a crack in a white wall, it's game over."
Mr. Wright, 63, was drawn to the possibilities of Mr. Hix's serene style, which recalls the architecture of the modernist Luis Barragán, though without the color, and the concrete buildings of Louis I. Kahn, Mr. Hix's onetime professor, though without the high polish.
"I wanted one big room that was open to the outdoors and the pool to be almost part of the living room," said Mr. Wright, who plans to move to Vieques next year after he retires. He bought the property of roughly one acre for $160,000, a fraction of what it might cost on more fashionable Caribbean islands.
Land may be inexpensive on Vieques, but the cost of construction is high. A cubic meter of concrete on the main island costs $65, Mr. Hix said. On Vieques, it costs $130. The cost of gasoline and other commodities is also higher because goods must be brought in by ferry or small airplane.
Limitations or no, Mr. Wright was adamant that Mr. Hix find alternatives to the island's ubiquitous metal security grilles, or rejas. (Petty theft is a concern throughout Vieques, especially for absentee owners.) First, he elevated the house on concrete columns, a safety feature that will, he hopes, allow storm surges to pass underneath. He then installed a single controlled entrance on the ground floor: the front door leads to a walled staircase open to the sky.
The house, which has about 2,500 square feet and includes two bedrooms for Mr. Wright's grown children and their spouses and a dormitory for his six grandchildren, cost $250,000. But he does not hold a title to the land under it. Many properties and buildings here are untitled, which broadly means that owners cannot seek mortgages or get title insurance on land. It also makes it more difficult to prove ownership in disputes with heirs and claimants. Mr. Wright said that the local government is offering titles to residents district by district.
Edward S. Lewis and Glen J. Wielgus have been navigating these complex issues for Monte Brisas, a neighborhood they are developing with Mr. Hix. Mr. Lewis, 50, and Mr. Wielgus, 47, who live in New York, bought an 11-acre hilltop site, then subdivided it into four parcels from 2.07 cuerdas, roughly 2 acres, to 2.79 cuerdas. The smallest lot is for sale for $300,000, while the largest is $400,000. The Monte Brisas sites will come construction-ready, with paved access roads and water and electricity lines installed. The developers do not mandate that Mr. Hix design the houses, but they suggest his services to prospective buyers.
"I've solved everyone's problems," Mr. Lewis said. All any purchasers have to do, he added, is "dream and build."
Make that dream and build under certain guidelines. Restrictive covenants will be attached to the deeds of sale, defining what areas can be built on, which ones can be landscaped and which must remain untouched. Houses must be constructed of plain concrete. And no hip, gambrel or gabled roofs that recall the standing-seam metal roofs crowning the Wyndham Martineau Bay Resort and Spa. Since opening last winter, that hotel the first full-service resort on Vieques and its plantation-style design have become a punching bag for locals.
"It reminds me of Boca," said Mary Martha Llenza, referring to Boca Raton, Fla. Ms. Llenza, 44, owns Tropical Baby, a café on the seaside promenade in the town of Esperanza, and much prefers the work of Mr. Hix. "His designs are very integrated into nature, which is how we live on Vieques."
Nevertheless, the Wyndham style is something many locals aspire to, Mr. Hix said. "If a Viequense was to build a new home, he'd probably do a Florida house," the architect acknowledged. "In their eyes, a house with bare concrete floors is a poor man's house."
Another apparent challenge to Vieques's future is cultural. Several business owners on the island said they have detected an atmosphere of anti-gringoism among some islanders, as well as resistance to off-island investors by the mayor of Vieques, Dámaso Serrano. The sources, who did not want to be identified, reported that Mr. Serrano has been a no-show at scheduled meetings.
"The mayor is absolutely impossible to deal with," a New York-based landowner said.
Mr. Serrano was traveling and unavailable for comment. The vice mayor of Vieques, Victor Emeric, did not return repeated calls for comment.
Resistance to development would appear counterproductive. Nearly 65 percent of islanders live below the poverty level and per capita income is just $6,562, according to the Census Bureau. The Navy's land appropriation put an end to sugar refining, and the bombing tests disrupted fishing. Plans have been announced for a wharf in Esperanza that would incorporate a fish-processing complex, but critics have denounced it as a potential source of pollution. Tourism keeps the island going, but few hotels, restaurants and services that cater to tourists are owned by Viequenses.
"We need more people with brains and money, because the people here aren't going to do it," the Puerto Rican owner of an island restaurant said. "They'd rather spend money on a status-symbol car than invest in the future of the island."
Mr. Wright, for his part, is taking pains to integrate himself into the island's community. He has hired local craftsmen, and last Christmas he ate lechón asado, or roast pork, at holiday parties.
"I'm reaching out hard," Mr. Wright said, adding that mastering Spanish is one of his goals.
"The basic disposition of the local people is entirely positive, although the recent political history has complicated things for some," he added. "But I think we can get back to the basics. I want to be a helpful part of what this island becomes, because the future can go in lots of different ways."