My first encounter with Puerto Rico - before I ever agreed to come live here for a while - was old San Juan - an architectural gem - courtesy of the Spanish.
I had hoped that the whole island would be like that, would have the visual charm of Spanish cities and villages. Yet as soon as I steered the wheels of my car outside Old San Juan I have seen mostly construction monstrosities: tasteless, concrete bunkers, heavy, shabbily built, "decorated" with garish colors.
This is particularly true on the so called low end: in housing developments where - horrifyingly overpriced -concrete bunkers are put so tightly together, that they look like ghettos, not like places in which people would want to live. And yet, as hard it is to believe, some locals want, and some locals do.
Now drive through any typical Puerto Rican village and all you'll see a variety of architectural monstrosities:
Even when local developers make an attempt at modernity, it all feels terribly uinspiring and falls flat. (And I am not even commenting on the floor plan here, just on the outside look).
Surely, it gets better in a higher price range, say over half a million dollars?
Yes and no: there are some villas in that price range which are tasteful, not garish, especially if they are modern, but even here architectural monstrosities abound:
If you bought that house, for a cool half million, would you feel a PRIDE of ownership or a SHAME of it????
Now, I wonder, WHY that overwhelming ugliness of houses on a beautiful island, with good architectural heritage: both Spanish and Caribbean? What caused - and causes - this reigning ugliness????
Surely it can't be that Puerto Ricans, as a nation, totally lack taste?
There are great Puerto Rican painters, with terrific taste, but where is a Puerto Rican Gaudi?
And no, the ugliness of Puerto Rican dwellings it is not a fault of the dominant construction material: concrete. Cocrete does not need to be ugly, does not need to be dull. It does not limit design options. On the contrary: it can be airy, whimsical, beautiful! And it is inexpensive.
Just look at the top two pictures to see what - with a dose of fantasy - can be done with concrete: quickly, inexpensively, sustainable, environmentally friendly and .... as far away from the crude yet tastelessly overdecorated (with garish concrete "gingerbread" ornaments, so beloved in Puerto Rico, for example) Puerto Rican bunkers of single family homes.
There is a social profit organization called Architecture for Humanity and their motto is: "building a more sustainable future using the power of design". (Check what they designed for Kathrina devastated, poor Biloxi!) Puerto Rico, more than perhaps any other place in the world, needs its own chapter, needs Architecture for Puerto Rico, before the remaining natural beauty of the island will be completely destroyed by the ugliness of its housing!