Page C1.2 . 08 August 2012   
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    An International Style-inspired concrete cuboid on the water, the building featured windows in a sawtooth array, providing all 400 rooms with an ocean view. The $7 million hotel, which opened in 1949, captured not just the island's attention but the world's, becoming a glitzy tourist destination.

    The hotel's success brought international recognition to the firm, later known as Toro Ferrer, and they soon were invited to design more hotels, government buildings, and other projects. They had a second hit with their ocean-inspired Hotel La Concha, built in 1958.

    It too was inspired by International Style simplicity, but displayed truly tropical accents, such as a street-side facade of white brise-soleil, and a beach-side restaurant that was shaped like a sea shell and sitting in a shallow reflecting pool. This feature made La Concha a truly unique masterpiece on the sea.

    Other tropicalismo touches included an open-air lobby with a large spiral staircase, garden pockets, and constant breezes from the water, cool marble floors throughout, and curvy pools with adjacent waterfalls.

    When La Concha opened to the public, its success was immediate, both with tourists and architecture critics. Unfortunately, however, disinvestment followed; hoteliers claimed losses, and decades of neglect followed. By the 1990s, the hotel was shuttered and abandoned.


    In 1997, a developer proposed its demolition so the site could be used for a new oceanfront hotel. The suggestion revived interest in La Concha — local architects and preservationists were outraged at the demolition proposal. "It was the first time conservation was an issue in the media," remembers Luz Marie Rodríguez, an archivist at the Architecture and Construction Archives at the University of Puerto Rico. They protested as the demolition began and secured then-mayor Sila M. Calderon's support in time to save most of the hotel. It then sat for another five years.

    This story has a happy ending, though. In 2002, Renaissance Hotels bought La Concha and began extensive renovations. Today, the hotel is a prototypical haven for tourists seeking a resort with tropical, mid-century flair. Its appeal sells an image that, if utilized en masse, could help save more buildings of its era, said Rodríguez.

    "I don't think that we have used tourism enough as a hook for conservation here. When you see the propaganda that the office of tourism does for Puerto Rico, what you see of architecture in San Juan is Spanish Colonial Revival, not modern architecture. But people like that."

    While Toro Ferrer y Torregrosa's designs excelled in the realm of tourism, they had mixed results in the realm of government. Their 1955 Puerto Rico Supreme Court building in San Juan is heralded as a triumph of tropicalismo: though simple in its rectangular shape, a rear glass wall's transparency magnificently boasts a spiral staircase to the street and also looms over a reflecting pool. Inside, the structure has been described as "light and airy," and has an unusual circular courtroom.

    Two structures they designed nearby, however, are not as beloved: a pair of matching, modern glass annex buildings, that the firm created to flank the territory's Capitol building, are threatened with demolition every time election season brings in a new crop of legislators because their stark style, further highlighted by the Neoclassical design of the Capitol building itself, is disliked by many, according to Rodríguez.

    "I saw a televised session once where the legislators were talking about how they needed to move on the demolition of the buildings before they reached the 50 year mark," and therefore could be eligible for landmark-status and protection, she said. "Many of the Modernist buildings in Puerto Rico were built for the government, so the state is the administrator, and unless people see the buildings' historic value ... they won't be maintained."

    The solution to this problem, she asserts, is education. "We need the public to understand the value of Modernist architecture and why it might be a patrimonial asset," she said. "With education, I think the conservation and reuse of modern buildings would get easier."

    Toro Ferrer y Torregrosa pioneered the tropicalismo movement, along with a few other influential individuals — the person that the three young architects admired most was not a Puerto Rican at all, but a German transplant named Henry Klumb. Klumb, who studied under Frank Lloyd Wright at Talesin, but later moved to Puerto Rico for government design contracts and fell in love with the island, evolved the idea of tropicalismo from a national-identity issue to one of sustainable living.

    Looking back, Rodríguez said, Klumb was Puerto Rico's first environmentalist, the first green architect. "He believed we should live in the open," she said, "and 'design with what there is.'"

    His own personal house, known as Casa Klumb, was a manifesto of sorts; his personal version of tropicalismo realized. Fashioned from a 19th-century hacienda, Casa Klumb's only walls were at the home's core, used to form one bedroom and an office (rooms that, despite having walls, were still outfitted with pivoting doors to keep air circulating throughout the whole house).

    The rest of the house was totally open, with only a roof to protect it from the elements and a carefully landscaped wall of 60-to-100-foot-tall (18-to-30-meter-tall) palms and plants to provide visual privacy. Its organic principals ran even through the home's furnishings, most of which Klumb designed and built himself.

    Casa Klumb's furniture included hammocks hanging from rafters, built-in furniture (a la Wright), and chairs, benches, and tables made of native woods and rope. The front parlor was separate from the house altogether — butterfly chairs surrounded a coffee table at the foot of a small pond in the yard that fronts the home.   >>>

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    ArchWeek Image

    Hotel La Concha comprises several structures, including an eleven-story hotel-room tower and other structures, arranged around a courtyard. At the street, the hotel presents a multistory screened, barrel-vaulted colonnade that unifies several separate structures and forms a screen for the courtyard.
    Photo: Danielle Del Sol Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Shaded breezeways and thermally massive materials, such as concrete and stone, are a key features of Tropicalismo. A breezeway of Hotel La Concha is shown.
    Photo: Danielle Del Sol Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    The most dramatic architectural feature of Hotel La Concha is a curvaceous cast-in-place concrete restaurant pavilion that rests atop a one-story base on the ocean side of the hotel's large tower block.
    Photo: Jon Rendell Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Shaped like half of a large seashell, the restaurant pavilion offers guests views of the beach and ocean beyond.
    Synthesized Image: Jon Rendell Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    The seashell pavilion stands in a shallow pool of water, enhancing the visual connection with the sea.
    Photo: Jon Rendell Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Toro Ferrer y Torregosa also designed the Caribe Hilton Hotel (1949), an 11-story hotel, which, like Hotel La Concha, was built of cast-in-place concrete.
    Photo: Flickr user vxla Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    This period photograph of the Caribe Hilton Hotel shows the building's sawtooth array of windows.
    Photo: Courtesy Colección Jesús T. Piñero Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    The Caribe Hilton building stands on the opposite side of the Laguna del Condado from Hotel La Concha.
    Photo: Danielle Del Sol Extra Large Image


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