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April 20, 2000

Puerto Rican Architects Return to Green Pastures


SAN  JUAN, P.R. -- MARIA ROSSI'S search for a fulfilling career took her around the world -- and home again.

In 1987, fresh from Cornell's architecture school, she headed to Europe to look for work. She spent a year and a half in the Berlin office of the British architect James Stirling, where she labored quietly, speaking not a word of German.

Jason Schmidt for The New York Times
A Latin color sense and the local practice of paving with broken roof tiles is shown above.

Next stop: London, and a year with the design doyenne Zaha Hadid. Ms. Rossi's peripatetic path took her to New York, but she was put off by the grim recession-era job prospects and quickly moved on -- to Washington, and a tour with the interior designer José Solis Betancourt, a former classmate. Then it was back to Berlin for another year.

After her globe-trotting, it was time to solo. Not in London, Berlin or New York, rubbing shoulders with the giants in her profession: Ms. Rossi headed back to her native land: Puerto Rico.

"All those years I was a stranger in strange places," Ms. Rossi, 36, recalled. "I kept jumping around, establishing very superficial connections wherever I went. It's very hard to understand idiosyncrasies that aren't yours, especially when you're doing something as culturally dependent as architecture." Being from Puerto Rico, she said, "I'd never had to build 12-inch-thick walls like you do in cold climates like Germany's -- I just didn't get it."

She is not alone in her thinking. Many young Puerto Rican-born designers who study and work on the United States mainland or abroad are giving up jobs there with prestigious firms to work on the island, which has a population of 3.5 million. For some, moving back means an opportunity to build on the island's strong Modernist tradition; for others, it is a chance to address polemical issues of nationalism and identity in design. Most agree that it is simply easier to hang out their shingles in a place where they have friends and family. Whatever the motivation, there's something profoundly comforting about coming home.

Especially when times are flush. In Puerto Rico, as on the mainland, the economy is strong. There is no shortage of clients willing to foot the bill for a beachfront high-rise apartment or a rambling manse on a secluded hillside. Some are affluent New Yorkers with connections to the island; others are just seeking a vacation retreat.

Aside from being a fertile training ground for young talent, Puerto Rico offers a rich contemporary vernacular. It is not the imitation Spanish colonial fluff found in Florida and California, but a budding Modernist's dream of painted concrete, perforated skins, and buildings that appear to float on pilotis, the free-standing columns that are an enduring legacy of Le Corbusier.

Young architects in Puerto Rico have their own strong ideas on designing appropriate buildings for the island's climate and culture. José Toro and Gonzalo Ferrer adapt International Style Modernism to the light and climate of the Caribbean.

Mr. Toro returned to his native San Juan 11 years ago, after spending more than a decade on the East Coast earning architecture and urban planning degrees and working for top corporate firms, including Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

"I thought for a long time that I would never come back to Puerto Rico," Mr. Toro said, though, he added, he had bouts of homesickness while living in New York.

After his father, who was also an architect, became ill, he returned home. He worked for a series of firms before joining Mr. Ferrer, a Cornell University graduate whose uncle had worked with Mr. Toro's father. The original Toro-Ferrer firm had been Puerto Rico's version of Wallace K. Harrison. Toro-Ferrer spent 40 years designing important civic monuments, like the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico and a breezy yet elegant annex to the island's beaux-arts-style capitol building, as well as glamorous resorts like the Caribe Hilton. Their signature style was a tropical-Corbusian language: painted concrete, pilotis and playfully patterned sunscreens.

The younger Mr. Toro, 39, and Mr. Ferrer, 31, are at the helm of an office of eight people that is brimming with work. They are designing a loftlike five-bedroom house in San Juan's beachfront Ocean Park neighborhood; commercial, institutional and civic projects; and a house in Panama. Friends are amazed at their opportunities, Mr. Toro said.

There is a downside to the bounty in their homeland: small-town blues. "Everyone knows everyone else," Mr. Toro said. "You always feel under the microscope."

Toro-Ferrer created a new steel fence and concrete entry canopy for a San Juan house designed by the original Toro-Ferrer, now owned by a couple who relocated from Manhattan. The project was a chance to address the original streamline design with new influences.

"We draw heavily on architecture from the 1940's and 50's, as well as from contemporary work in Spain and Brazil," Mr. Toro said. "We make spaces that let you enjoy the incredible light and breezes." F OR Nataniel Fúster, the draw of building on the island isn't style, but the chance to deal with cultural and political issues.

He returned home last spring after finishing a Doctor of Design program at Harvard and set up shop with J. R. Davis, 47, an architect who grew up in Puerto Rico with whom he has worked for 10 years.

"I love working here because it's possible to address so many themes with one's work," Mr. Fúster said. "You can wrestle with complex issues like the Puerto Rican identity as a people. Although Puerto Rico is technically a freely associated commonwealth of the U.S., we consider it a nation. Architecture is ultimately a cultural statement, a way to express a community's identity."

For Mr. Fúster, one way to express this identity is with design that -- like Puerto Rico itself -- mixes styles from Europe, the United States and elsewhere with homegrown traditions.

A visit to the island, where the pro-statehood party is vociferous despite recurring defeats of statehood referendums, reveals a complex political and physical landscape.

In many ways, metropolitan San Juan is a bilingual version of mainland suburbia: shopping malls with Sears and Kmart, Burger King and Citibank.

Yet the city also treasures its 500-year-old Spanish heritage and its cultural and architectural traditions, which anti-statehood islanders fear they would lose if Puerto Rico becomes the 51st state.

Old San Juan is an almost perfectly preserved enclave of 16th-century architecture. Other parts of the capital have leafy neighborhoods with a mix of historic and contemporary homes that, regardless of period, best capture island living: generous outdoor living and dining rooms with natural light and ventilation.

They give credence to Mr. Fúster's view of the island as a mélange, not a melting pot. "The traditions of the Caribbean are a mix of styles and architectures," he said. "You could call it a mulatto architecture or an architecture of mixing."

Indeed, his approach is celebrated in a beachfront house he and Mr. Davis designed in Ocean Park. The house, with separate guest wing and large outdoor living area around a pool, and a tangle of garden at the beach's edge, is an imprecise mix of colors, textures and styles.

The clean, blocky volumes say high Modernist; the muted green and ochre paint scheme suggests Spanish colonial; the tiny punched openings in the guest wing are vaguely Arab. The wave-patterned patio paving is a traditional Puerto Rican technique called arcamása, a chunky mix of concrete, smashed clay roof tiles and bits of broken glass typically used to pave outdoor plazas. It is also a nod to the wavy patterns of the seaside promenade in Rio de Janeiro of the Brazilian landscape master Roberto Burle-Marx.

This mix of multiple, unspecific influences is the kind of synthesis that Mr. Fúster finds so compelling about building in the Caribbean.

M S. ROSSI'S brand of Puerto Rican architecture tailors traditional island materials to bold yet serene contemporary forms. An airy house she is completing for a nature-loving couple in Caguas, a 45-minute drive from San Juan, commands an amazing perch on the crest of a lushly landscaped hill.

Though the sophisticated forms and spaces are contemporary, Ms. Rossi gave the house an earthy sensibility with many native materials. The doors and windows are capa prieta, a local hardwood.

The entry facade is a curving swath of gorgeous reddish-orange laja, a slate quarried from tawny hillsides of the north coast.

Ms. Rossi and her collaborator, Brígida Hogan, 28, who is Puerto Rican-born and Columbia University-trained, sublet a tiny corner of Toro-Ferrer's new offices, a loftlike storefront space in San Juan's Santurce district, a five-minute walk from the beach at Ocean Park.

Do they find it difficult to practice architecture, a profession with an alarming dearth of women, in a macho Latin American context? Not at all, Ms. Rossi said. "Often, people's first impressions of me are harsh," she said. "Contractors have referred to me as 'esa muchacha,' a desultory 'that girl.' There is definitely strong male chauvinism in Puerto Rico.

"At the same time, women have always held important positions here, as judges, even mayor of San Juan. And there are a lot of female architects in Puerto Rico, most of them practicing on their own. As a woman, you just have to prove yourself a bit more here."

Because of their geographic isolation, Puerto Ricans tend to look abroad for design trends.

For instance, they are starting to catch the midcentury-modern craze sweeping the globe. Like fans of the sleek Richard Neutra houses in the Hollywood Hills, savvy vintage home shoppers in San Juan are jockeying for status-symbol houses designed by the German-born architect Henry Klumb, a modern master of the 1950's and 60's.

Jorge Rigau, dean of the architecture school at the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico, cautions against the casual collecting of midcentury design as just a passing fad. "Every age has its particular stylistic trend," he said.

He appreciates the work of young firms but sees it as a first step in improving the island's overall quality of design. "It's tremendously positive to see good work, but I still don't see significant changes here," he said.

Mr. Rigau seems resentful that there aren't more good buildings going up in his homeland, but even in New York, where some of the leading architects practice, there are few opportunities to do serious architecture -- and plenty of bad buildings.

Will Mr. Toro, Ms. Rossi or Mr. Fúster turn out to be Puerto Rico's Frank Gehry or Richard Meier? It is worth pointing out that titans like Charles Gwathmey and Mr. Meier started out building small beach houses on the East End of Long Island, and have matured into the architects of the Guggenheim addition and the Getty.

Mr. Toro and Mr. Ferrer have already moved into larger, more important civic projects, including working with local artists on San Juan's ambitious new public art program, whose goal is to beautify the city with new urban parks and large-scale sculptures. And like those New York architects building for New York clients, Mr. Toro and Mr. Ferrer have the home-team advantage.

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