Page C1.1 . 23 June 2004                     
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    Postcard from San Salvador

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    San Salvador presents a study of contrasts. Photography by Matt Bridgestock.

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    Dear ArchitectureWeek,

    I am writing from San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, the smallest Central American nation. Its fragmented city layout illustrates the contrasts and extremes that are common in Central American life today.

    The center, the traditional heart of the Latino city, is a seething mass of people: eating, drinking, buying, and selling. Shops and market stalls crowd the streets; buses and taxis toot their way slowly through the crowds; the noise, smells, and heat overwhelm the senses. Crumbling concrete blocks are the backdrop to this scene, with the occasional decaying but elegant building punctuating the street.

    It seems the only well maintained building is the central church. Its bright geometric patches of color are as intense as the street scene below. The vibrancy is intoxicating and, though the poverty can disturb, you are totally immersed in life.

    Just a short distance away is what moneyed San Salvadorians claim is the future, a new part of town built outside the dirty, dangerous center, sprouting shopping malls, franchises, and drive-throughs. The contrast is stark. In the suburb, affluence is flaunted, the buildings are new, the shops are expensive, and the cafes are for the fashionable. The buildings may be "better" than those downtown, sporting more color and sexy materials, but the suburb has lost the intensity and the diversity that are the magic ingredients giving downtown its character and sense of place.

    As a microcosm of Central American culture, the contrast leaves you wondering: which should be the future, the plastic and flashy or the hectic and intoxicating?

    On the road in El Salvador,
    Matt Bridgestock
    Designer and Chartered Planner

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