Designing and Building in The Tropics

Tradition and Avant-Garde

Traditional architecture and the avant-garde tendency are usually thought of as two opposed extremes. Because we are accustomed to defining tradition as something fixed, immovable, and the avant-garde position as what is progressive, we relate traditional architecture to a specific, pre-existing style and avant-garde architecture to the use of new technologies.

When tradition plays a part in contemporary architecture it is most frequently as an aesthetic consideration in which the most obvious element is the use of some style from the past.  At the other end of the spectrum is the avant-garde tendency, where the latest technology is the means architects use to achieve novel forms of expression.

Both of these perceptions are limited. Not only are they presented to us as two extremes of one thing, opposed to one another, but also as excluding one another. An architecture that follows a given style cannot be avant-garde because it makes use of compositional rules derived from the past; it is backward-looking and dependent on various forms of counterfeit to create the look of a bygone era. It is this tendency which, starting in the 1970s, has gained momentum as an option and has now become the universally accepted norm, with examples of buildings that show considerable ingenuity in the way tradition has been interpreted. The result, however, is a proliferation of architectural styles lacking in cogent ideas and which, in addition, have ended by debasing the very cultural values on which traditional architecture depends.

Even when embarking on a purely technological or structural appreciation of a building, it is the outward effect produced by the use of new materials and construction techniques which dictates to what extent the resulting architecture is “avant-garde”. The architecture centred on technology which was at the forefront in the 1980s was called Hi-Tech. It was then followed in the 1990s by “showcase” architecture, where the emphasis was on displaying technological advances in various ways. In both cases, but more obviously in the 1990s, architectural space was overtaken by the use of this space to display big advertising logos, giant monitors, strobe images, or by the use of several materials at once to achieve various finishes, with multicoloured neon tubes, and the like, alongside music, speeches, advertisements, voices, sounds and smells, all thrown together in a chaos of superficial sensation.  If Hi-Tech architecture was the expression of innovation in construction, then the architecture of the 1990s simply abandoned the idea of architectural space and replaced it with mere technological and commercial exhibitionism.

These two extremes of definition - traditional and avant-garde - have given rise to enormous confusion in contemporary architecture, since they are freely used as yardsticks to distinguish between various architectural forms, or as a means of marking the limits of one or the other tendency, as either retro or technological. The architects representing each tendency portray themselves as two irreconcilable factions competing for first place, and, in competing for the support of the journals in each case, have succeeded in impoverishing the whole field of critical architectural debate.

On the one hand the retro or traditional tendency attempts to eulogize its expression of the architecture of the past, weighing it down by direct, subjective allusions that are supposed to awaken in the spectator a feeling of aesthetic “belonging”. By repeating stylistic motifs such as cornices, turrets, cowls, niches, embrasures, exposed brickwork, and others, the architects of retro try to reproduce a past that is in reality dead and gone. To achieve this they employ structural deceptions such as imitating the materials used in previous eras with present-day materials, for example making beams, cornices, balustrades, out of polyurethane to simulate wood or concrete, stone or brick. In other words it is an architecture of pretence.

The architecture centred on technology, by way of contrast, has become an expression of the way new materials can be used to accord with the idea of progress. The architects of this tendency are motivated by a fundamental desire to be the mouthpiece of innovation, of the latest fashion, to be the first ones to popularize it. This attitude leads to the creation of an architecture embodying technological innovation which can only be put into practice in those countries that possess the latest technology and the resources to finance it in their buildings.  For example, in most countries of the world it would not be practicable to use 3 m x 6 m plate-glass sections mounted in high-resistance stainless steel frames, or to use thin sheets of titanium as exterior cladding, since this would be beyond both the country’s technological capacity and the financial resources available. Underlying this technology-centred architecture is the desire to channel its structural capabilities and organization in a way which demonstrates its real possibilities. There is a wish to startle people, to excite admiration. Strangely, however, the capacity of these new styles of architecture to startle is short-lived, since in reality the latest generation of a product stops being the latest almost from the minute it sees the light of day, because it will be supplanted by a more efficient and even newer generation of the same product.

An extreme paradox contemporary architecture is wrestling with, is that on one hand - the architecture of pretence, aspiring to recreate past glories and, on the other, an architecture that is attempting to establish its position by means of feats of technological daring. The present appears to be becoming detached from both, the previous eras and the future.

These considerations - questions of tradition versus avant-garde tendencies, based solely on the form taken by their expression - have resulted in a conception of architecture which is at the same time limited and dualistic, and hence have led to an impoverishment of contemporary architecture, an impoverishment which has manifested itself in a tendency to perceive architecture in terms of its aesthetic image alone, leaving to one side any considerations of practical life common to all contemporary societies, such as shelter, or a cohesive social and economic, environmental and ecological environment. It is a preoccupation which, above all, has made us forget that architecture is the rational creation of a structural form intended to help us live more in touch with the essence of poetry. Any dualistic interpretation cannot fail to have a limiting and impoverishing effect on life, on the individual, and on society as a whole.

So will it be possible to make tradition evolve, or to conceive of an avant-garde architecture without technology, or will this mean we end up with a complete intellectual contradiction?

If tradition is having an origin, or roots, in past eras, as well as the action of transmitting this tradition, then it also implies the assimilation of the successive lessons society teaches us as individuals. If we consider tradition in those terms we are including in it a dynamic element which, when it is left out, limits tradition to a purely custodial role with regard to the past, excluding the possibility of evolution.

Similarly, in the last few decades of the twentieth century the avant-garde position has reduced itself to the mere application of the latest technology and the use of novel materials, thus excluding the possibility of a non-technological interpretation of this position. If we say that the word “avant-garde”, in the broadest sense, means to move ahead of the majority in any activity in which progress is implicit, then it should be possible to consider other forms of architecture as avant-garde that are not centred on technological advances.

So we have two opposite tendencies regarded as irreconcilable according to architectural criticism. One looks to the past, attempting to imitate the reality it finds there, while the other is probing the future in its attempts to create effects. As things stand at present, both tendencies reveal a lack of concern for the people, for their real situation, because they are in effect trapped between the past familiar to them and a future about which they have some intuitions but of which they are mainly ignorant. In such a situation the architecture which is suitable for us as people, in other words contemporary architecture, has not reached any comprehensive decision yet as the course it should take.

If we could broaden the scope of the traditional tendency by adding to it some force or current which would develop and evolve as it incorporated and assimilated lessons from the past, enriching it by introducing the concept of a progression from one stage to the next, we could then rely on a new meaning of avant-garde to resolve the doubt still inherent in our present situation.

Such a conception of avant-garde, which starts with tradition and forces it along the road of evolution, is particularly compatible with those regional architectures which have been able to integrate the notion of progress into their values without abandoning a balanced interrelation between the architecture and the environment in which it is placed. Nevertheless they are these regional architectures which are being forgotten, or shelved, because they are considered as not relevant to either of the two extreme tendencies so much the forefront of our attention today. This neglect has led to a lack of interest in looking at the dynamic relationship that exists between the past and the present, and the way this could serve as a base for the future. We are forgetting or ignoring architectural traditions that are rich in content and stored knowledge, and implicitly the bearers of cultural content, given that they have found the right harmony between:  a- the necessities of living, b-  the environment, c-  material resources, and d-  ideas on the use of space.

If we study traditional architectures, using the four criteria mentioned as guidelines, we will be in a position to formulate serious propositions as to the direction contemporary architecture should take, one where cultural continuity and adaptability take pride of place. We will probably then be able to resolve the problem of denial of present and future which is at the heart of our present situation, and which has produced a vacuum in which very few real propositions exist.

The challenge will then be to call on both tendencies - the traditional and the avant-garde - to create a true contemporary architecture. 

Experience of Tropical Living
The Spanish word vivencias is used to describe those experiences which are everyday and yet permanent, those which both form and express our personalities. In the tropics the vivencias that have the most power and character are those which arise from the relation created between man and his surroundings, rather than those that arise from man’s metaphysical introspection.

In tropical latitudes people live out their relationships with the environment in a particular way. Living in a benevolent climate, but where coolness is a sought-after relief, the body becomes sensitive to slight changes of temperature and humidity. If someone wants to rest he or she will move their chair to take advantage of any breeze, until the most favourable spot has been found. This constant search for breeze and shade means that there is no a unique place in the house set aside for social meetings. This close relationship of dependency between people and the natural elements has given them a fund of natural wisdom which, as their surroundings become more artificial, has gradually disappeared.

The modern city is planned using a methodology which is becoming more and more detached from the limitations imposed on it by climate and the environment. The examples we have of uncontrolled urban expansion, both horizontally and vertically, are a testimony to the complete absence of consideration given to these aspects. This is particularly regrettable in tropical latitudes, given that it is precisely here that the benefits the climate offers could be exploited in a more profitable way. Here, urban planning has disregarded the existence of such things as the winds and rains of the tropics, the tropical sun, the brightness, the vegetation, the dust, the shadow, the local topography. In some cases, this was because it was thought that an urban environment could be created artificially by squandering available resources, while in other cases not enough attention was paid to the natural environment, because the aim was not to create a culturally acceptable urban environment but simply to create housing and infrastructure.

The use of artificial microclimates to create comfortable living conditions is indispensable in areas where extreme conditions prevail, and can be considered necessary if one is to populate certain areas of the planet, but its application has been much more widespread than necessary. Much of today’s architecture makes wasteful and undisciplined use of these artificial microclimates. Two of the consequences of this, apart from the deterioration of the environment, are the loss of the knowledge handed down by the local populations on how to create habitable urban space which uses its natural resources properly, and also the appearance of a population which becomes increasingly demanding and less tolerant in matters concerning comfort.  This has led to a reassessment of their vivencias, and to a redefinition of architectural space, especially  architectural space seen in relation to the exterior of buildings.

Bearing in mind that the tropical belt of the planet has a climate where there are just two seasons, without low temperatures, life is possible throughout the whole year in covered, but open constructions. If there is one thing that characterises life in the tropics, it is the ability to live in close contact with the exterior environment and enjoy the sensation of openness and closeness to nature this brings. Having this experience, and having the in-built knowledge necessary to make use of the resources of the environment, are the things which have given man in the tropics a particular sensibility that qualifies tropicality as an authentic mode of existence.

Over centuries, tropical regions have undergone a process of racial and cultural hybridisation which has evolved in the direction of ways of life which are unique. The many racial and cultural blends that have resulted from this hybridisation have finally created a new reality that differs from its original components. This mestizo culture is no longer native. It has transcended itself by the fresh contributions made to it over time and has gone on to become a genuine alternative to the previously existing cultural strands.  

By focusing our minds on these vivencias we will be able to place tropical architecture inside human experience, rather than in the realms of rhetoric, a notable characteristic of populations that live tied closely to their natural surroundings. A deeper analysis of this characteristic leads us eventually to summarise our conclusions in one phrase: man in the tropics says ‘I am here, therefore I am’.

This relationship between vivencias and surroundings was obvious to both vernacular and to popular architecture, just as it was for colonial architecture in the tropics, which, although it was conceived in Europe, started by taking account of the environmental conditions of the area, especially those which might affect life for the Europeans that have been transplanted to these latitudes.

Colonial architecture recognised the special requirements imposed by its new situation by creating appropriate structures and a new cultural context for the recently discovered regions. The result was an architecture which was a fitting expression of an environmental syncretism striving to achieve a harmony between climate, culture, and architecture. Spanish architecture in America, Dutch architecture in Asia, and Victorian architecture, which, at a later date, was spread right around the world, are examples of this environmental syncretism. The world is dotted with buildings that are examples of this harmony, which communicate the intentions of a design that is not attempting to follow an academic trend, or other, nor attempting to live up to some stance tending towards the rhetorical.

If these designs have an explainable origin then this must be sought by reflecting on the vivencias themselves, and on the relation of these to the environment. Usually we are looking at a series of utilitarian designs whose main objective was to serve the needs of a particular way of living.

The challenge for contemporary architecture is, therefore, to create buildings which, using the vivencias of the tropics as the basis for their design, are contemporary, and at the same time represent a viable alternative. It is important that human behaviour is interpreted fully, and that the architecture so created is adapted to the context in which it stands, to take root in that society.

Habitability and Bioclimatic Architecture

The central plateau of Costa Rica, where almost all the buildings I have designed are located, possesses specific climatic conditions which determine the architecture of the area.

To achieve an acceptable level of habitability and comfort here one needs to make full use of the given environmental conditions as resources when designing a building. The problems of excess rainwater disposal, air-cooling, decreasing relative humidity levels must all be taken into account, as well as that of reducing excessive glare from the sun.

Although it is true that all these factors affecting habitability can be dealt with, aided by technology, it is more economical and less polluting to deal with them through the design itself, taking advantage of physical laws. The challenge for a truly bio-climatic architecture is to incorporate these laws as the bases of design and as the starting point of an architectonic style.

For instance, one only has to increase the velocity of an air current to lower its temperature, or create shade on the exterior surfaces of buildings or cool down ceiling and roof surfaces to reduce solar radiation, or create cross-ventilation to dehumidify the interiors, or use eaves, canopies and sunscreens to create semidarkness in the interiors, which not only refreshes the body but rests the eyes as well.

It is widely recognised nowadays that the misuse of technologies that have high levels of energy consumption leads to the depletion of natural resources, and has also created an internationalist architectural style whose most absurd representative example must be the sheer glass tower where a constant interior temperature of +22 to +24oC is maintained, although the outside temperature may be +33 to +38oC in summer, and perhaps -10 to -20oC  in winter. Only a sheet of plate-glass separates the exterior and interior temperatures from one another, and, no matter how efficient the insulation, a high level of energy consumption will always be necessary to maintain the thermal difference. For the architects it is easier simply to hand the problem over to electrical and mechanical engineers rather than attempt to find solutions by designing buildings adapted to the environment.

Just as it is possible to find satisfactory solutions to the problem of thermal control it is also possible to apply bio-climatic design concepts to other problems affecting habitability. To cool down buildings naturally the most economic method is to lower the temperature of the air before it enters, using water or vegetation, and also by speeding up the air velocity when it enters the building using some method that makes use of differences of air pressure. These could be forms of monitors that capture the air circulating on roof surfaces and introduce it into the interior of the building, accelerating it in the process, and then expel it upwards. At the same time this flow of air around the roof surfaces draws in the air entering via the windows and removes it through the opposite end of the monitor.

Wide eaves, canopies and sunshades will always reduce the amount of light penetrating the interior, which means it is important to compensate for this loss by creating apertures in the roof that will allow light to enter. As is known, in the Northern Hemisphere light coming from the north is the most consistent, making smaller contrasts of light and shadow, compared to light coming from a southerly direction. This makes its use ideal for achieving an even illumination throughout interior spaces.

Direct overhead natural lighting in the core of buildings is very efficient, but does have the drawback of introducing heat at the same time, especially in tropical latitudes. In these cases it is particularly interesting to see how the desired level of illumination can be attained whilst at the same time filtering the sunís rays to reduce irradiation, which has the effect of lowering the inside temperature. If circumstances require, various devices may be employed simultaneously to do this. Past experience has demonstrated that with the use of certain devices an inside illumination of 800 lux, against an exterior value of >5000 lux, could be achieved, and an interior temperature of 26.6oC when the external temperature registered 33.4oC. Humidity readings in the same example were 62% inside and 74% outside. (These readings are averages for the month of March, during the dry season, at San José, Costa Rica.)

Tectonics and Architecture

Early in my professional career I opted for an architecture in which local tectonic considerations played a major role. This decision followed from the quality and ready availability of construction materials like concrete blocks and bricks in Costa Rica. These, because of their low cost, represent the modern alternative to the stone or sun-dried adobe construction prevalent in former times.  The existence of a labour force of skilled and well-qualified craftsmen also makes it possible to work with blocks or bricks at a reasonable cost and with few unforeseen overheads.

Combining in a wall, blocks and bricks creatively, in their natural look, as small construction modules, and in a complex way more typical of an architecture of materials than of civil engineering, buildings can be created that show marked tectonic features. The rough-hewn texture of the finished building is ridged and furrowed in a way which highlights differences of light and shade, creating a perpetual interplay between the two.

While bricks and blocks are certainly no technical novelty - in many countries they continue as the most basic elements in building - the fact that they have the properties of insulation, durability and anti-seismic capability, coupled with low maintenance requirements, makes them ideal building materials for our time, and for building in countries where the climate makes insulation and careful, constant upkeep necessary. Stone and brick, left exposed, need almost no maintenance. By using water- and dust-repellents they will resist the passage of time, and the aesthetic effect created accentuates in a natural way their appearance and their unique properties. 

The preference for walls constructed in stone blocks or brick, avoiding boring or drilling, is not only a response to the craftsmans desire to express his skill in creating an essay in masonry or brickwork, but also simplifies the construction itself. On one side you have the closed wall sections, and on the other the open, transparent ones. The reliance on structure-bearing walls to give a building its chosen form also influences this preference.

Light, inspirational metallic structural elements wrought in plant-like forms provide a good foil to the opaque massiveness of masonry. The result is an attractive contrast between the solid, robust stonework and the gracefulness and brilliance of the metal used. Then glass, another of the materials used freely, adds its transparency, its polished sheen and brilliance to this contrast, as well as reflections.

Such a contrast is part of the language of tectonics in architecture. In the case of these buildings, the rough opaqueness of the stonework is set off by the graceful brilliance and reflections of the metal and glass. By contrasting two materials with opposed qualities one highlights their appearance. The visual properties of simple materials are enhanced.

Considering that the precipitation of this region plays such an important part in determining its architecture, serious attention has to be paid to the roof when designing a building if catastrophic interior flooding is to be avoided. In tropical architecture the crucial element is the roof. Its size, its presence, and its expressive strength make it the centrepoint of this architecture.

Starting with the normal pyramidal roof, or with a Dutch roof, both of which function without being too daring, and give a feeling of protection and symmetry, stability, or certainty, other more interesting alternatives have been looked for.

In these latitudes there are various additional functions carried by the roof: illumination, ventilation, shading from the sun, insulation, apart of course, from its prime function, which is to create protection from the sun and rain. The roof may rest on its supporting walls, or it may float above them; it can give direction to the interior space, and at the same time stamp its character on the building.

The roof and the double roof, eaves and floating eaves, canopies and monitors, ventilators and latticework are all design elements which are used to fulfil all the functions expected of roofing in the tropics with its high rainfall and powerful sunlight.

Using corrugated iron sheeting for roofs and walls allows for a light, open treatment of space that is ideal for the conditions in which architecture functions in the tropics. And, together with metal structural elements, it adds colour to the building.

A contrast can also be created between the earthy, opaque tones of stone and brickwork and the brilliant, polished colour of the metal used. This range of shiny colours is inspired by the deep blue of gingers, by the hues of yellow lantanas and bromelias, all forming a contrast with the surrounding greenery, and with the sky.

Although the internationalisation of the economy has given us more variety in the range of available construction materials, there are few from abroad which can compete with local ones in either price or quality. It is a reality for us that we are still forced to rely on a limited variety of materials for construction; nevertheless this has led us to design buildings that maximise the constructive and aesthetic possibilities of the materials we have, so as to make them attractive enough to compete with imported materials, bearing in mind that these imported materials are better suited to the creation of substitute styles than to real architecture. Because of transport costs it is the synthetic materials which are imported in quantity, and, as we know, it is these which favour imitation, especially when using them for walls and roofs.

Space and Shade

Throughout the history of architecture we see projects where the use of light and space was the essential preoccupation of the architect. Theories have been painstakingly elaborated on its use as one of the chief characteristics in a given architectural design, where light penetrating an empty space becomes the key to sculpting this dark area through rays of light shining through cracks, or openings.  Light is here being treated as a material. But it should be made clear that in architecture light can only be treated as a material element when it makes its appearance simultaneously with its opposite - shadow. Light and shadow by themselves, separated, create no references, just as one needs a cloud in the sky in order to define a limit to the sky. So it is when they act in concert that they become of interest for architecture, because then they can be an instrument used to model architectural space.

In the tropics it is particularly interesting to conceive architectonic space by emphasising the way shadow is treated, rather than light, because in these latitudes it is the shade, shadow, which ëlightensí life, which unites and motivates vivencias, since the intensity and excessive heat associated with light make it uncomfortable. In tropical regions it is better to protect oneself from too much light, and this is why in the architectural projects being discussed light is treated only as something that invades the space enclosed by the building. In this case it is shadow that acts as the defining element in interior space.

When architecture in the tropics abandons walls and opts for transparent surfaces this changes the effect of space. We move from an interior, shut off from the exterior, to a situation where one can appreciate both interior and exterior at the same time. Both become equally significant - one dominated by light and the other by semidarkness.

Under these circumstances it is advisable to create a design where transparent surfaces use shade as an integrated part of their function, creating a sequence of shaded and semishaded spaces between the interior and the exterior. The transparency of the walls, or having no walls at all, creates a counterpoint to the empty space beneath the roof. The space constructed is tensioned outwards towards the exterior, but at the same time it is contained within the whole of the empty space covered by the roof, so that there is no ambiguity about its function - to provide protection from the elements. It is the opposite of the space created by Mies van der Rohe, which is an open, naturally lit interior, that gradually shades off towards the exterior, between the flat slabs that form the roof and the floor. Mies van der Rohe’s space receives light laterally, using the roof simply as a cover.

In my designs the roof is transformed into a focal point; it becomes part of the definition of interior space. It doesnít merely provide cover, rather it defines the character of the space beneath. By splitting the roof up into a multiplicity of slopes and angles, and into various segments, one can achieve very precise results when shaping the way the light penetrates, allowing the different, separated segments to be either bathed in light or shadow, according to wish.

Space remains defined by the roof, which for its part does not exist, as normally, merely as a counterpart to the open sky, which means all the dynamics inherent in its inclined planes can be expressed and then developed in the design. The wealth of possibilities offered by the space designed in this way comes from this conjunction of inclined planes with transparent surfaces and reflections, all bathed in a semidarkness penetrated by shafts of light and contained by walls that allow light to enter through them.

The reflections create new visual perspectives of the building itself, or of its immediate surroundings, which again enrich oneís perception of space by saturating it with virtual images, seen simultaneously with real ones. Such an extraordinary vivencia, these multiple, coinciding visions of a given space, fill the space with a wealth of subtle detail.

This conception of a space designed around shadow effects and transparent surfaces, alternating on different planes, and interrupted by reflections and brief flashes of brightness, has its limits defined by this play of shadow, semishadow, and brightness. The challenge for the architect is to lend reality to something as tenuous as a shadow effect and to cause it to occur on different planes until he has reached a particular architectonic style-language. He is attempting to make a virtual reality into a material one, in order for perception of this reality to become the defining characteristic of the space.

In some of the buildings shown here one moves from an exterior which is naturally brightly lit to a space in shadow, and from there to an interior which is in semishadow. In other words the progression from a greater amount of light to a lesser amount is intentionally interrupted.

Space is here perceived via an appreciation of these shadow effects of varying intensity that can be glimpsed as one passes through the building. The course taken by the sun during the day lends an ever-changing variety to these shadow effects. Oneís perception of the space itself is constantly being changed, giving it a variety that is heightened by the appearance of occasional flashes of brightness.

Such an architectural style can be seen to be completely devoid of all pretensions to formality, completely without pomp or pretence. Rather it is a celebration of the delicate effect of shadow, highlighting this effect as one of the most typical characteristics of tropical space.

This type of architectural design could be described as informal, not because it is not orderly, but because it does not aspire to any static or symmetrical form, or to any one interpretation, and also because the limits marked out by this design are sometimes vertical planes created by light or shadow, in other words shaded or lit areas. It is a design where space simultaneously protects from the elements and opens itself to the exterior; it is light, and at the same time darkness. It focuses the surrounding landscape and at the same time imposes reflections of another visual perspective on it: a space that brings together alternative perceptions of the space itself and its surroundings. It is an attempt to create a space which joins together all the possibilities of a given environment, whilst at the same time putting these possibilities into a defined order.

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