Puerto Rican Architects in New York
The Moors settled, lived and thrived in southern Spain for 700 years. Puerto Ricans have settled, lived, and thrived in New York City for almost 100 years now. With 600 more years to go, the expressions and contributions of this transported culture are likely to become even more prominent.
Architects often make the invisible visible. At times economic, social, and political forces, which are often felt but hardly seen, are given precise concrete form by architects.
The early documented green shoots of Puerto Rican architects in New York City date to the 1960s during and as a parallel development to the Civil Rights Movement. Puerto Rican architects Carlos Quintanilla, Luis Aponte-Pares and Lee Borrero pioneered a grass-roots organization with ties to East Harlem/El Barrio that became known as the Real Great Society (See Luis Aponte-Pares’ essay of 1999 in Latino Social Movements journal). Sanchez & Figueroa, a now dissolved Puerto Rican architectural firm, worked on projects in the Bronx.
It usually takes two or three generations for a society (or a community of recent settlers) to begin to acquire the economic and political wherewithal to hire its own architects (first come the doctors and the lawyers) to build from scratch, or even to renovate the built environment that already was built before their arrival. This point of inflection may have been reached by the mid-1970s in Manhattan. It appears that the first major building co-designed by a Latino architect was the twin-towered housing complex known as Schomburg Plaza (1975) on Fifth Avenue and Duke Ellington Circle (see New York 1960 by Robert A.M. Stern, et. al.) Colombian-born architect David Castro-Blanco, the founder of Castro-Blanco Piscioneri & Feder in Manhattan, teamed up with Gruzen & Partners architects to design what metaphorically became the gateway for all the other Latino architects that followed.
What is well documented and known is the presence and influence of Argentine architects who settled professionally in New York following educational paths or fleeing political repression in Argentina starting in the mid-1970s. The spectrum of practices was, and remains, wide—from the high rises by Cesar Pelli to houses by Susana Torre; from the theoretical treatises of Diana Agrest and Mario Gandelsonas to the unbuilt urban scheme of Lincoln West by Rafael Viñoly, to mention but a few. And, of course, there are many other Latino architects who have settled in New York with their own practices. There is also the occasional architect from Latin America commissioned to do a project in New York City, or who set up a small satellite presence in the city in order to gain a toe hold in a hyper-competitive environment. What is different with the Puerto Rican architects is the enormity of the population residing in the city of Puerto Rican heritage that may commission them. Greater New York accounts for the largest number of Puerto Ricans outside the island. It is often said, even by the elected Mayors of New York City, that Puerto Rico is the sixth Borough of the city—after Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, Staten Island and Manhattan—or conversely that the city is Puerto Rico’s largest town with 1.5 million Puerto Ricans in the metropolitan region. There are no comparables with other Latinos in the Northeast.
A critical mass may have been reached. New York is now Latinotopia—a city increasingly being designed and shaped by Latino architects, many of them Puerto Ricans. If the public in New York City is 30% Latino (going on to 50%), then public space should rightfully be designed by Latino architects as well. In 1998, when the seminal exhibition Dream Houses: Three Latino Constructions opened in New York at the Hostos Center for the Arts and Culture, the New York Times reported six architectural firms founded by Puerto Ricans. Five years later the number increased to eight firms. Today there are twelve. If this rate continues there will be 25 architectural practices headed by Puerto Ricans in New York City by 2015.
Much of this history remains to be written. In the interest of advancing an understanding, here is a photographic essay with recent projects by established firms in New York City founded by Puerto Rican architects. The practices range from solo practitioners to full fledged medium-sized firms with projects all over the United States and, of course, Puerto Rico. If any pattern is discernible it is a commitment to modern forms and buildable constructs—from single family private homes to multi-story residential buildings. Modernity is perhaps the influence they all acquired via Puerto Rico—an island where the Modern Movement took root. This architecture history is waiting to be written. In the meantime, we can enjoy its visual presence.
That Puerto Rican architects are flourishing in the most global of global cities is a sign that the future holds a new manifest destiny. As the Cuba-born and Puerto Rico-educated conceptual artist Felix Gonzalez Torres once expressed in a large outdoor billboard in Chelsea—where he had later settled in New York City—with a stark graphic design in white letters on a black background: It’s Just A Matter of Time.
Antoni Bernat is an architecture and cultural critic based in Barcelona, Spain. He writes for the daily newspaper La Vanguardia and the architecture journal Quaderns.
Warren James curated the article and photos in this section. Born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, he was educated at Cornell University (B. Arch.) and at Columbia University (M.S. Arch.). He also studied at Harvard and at the Ecole Speciale d’Architecture in Paris.
After collaborating with Robert A.M. Stern in New York and Ricardo Bofill in Barcelona he founded Warren A. James Architects + Planners, in 1988, in Manhattan. Current projects include designs for housing and expansions for Columbia University, Lincoln Center, and Museo de Arte de Caguas in Puerto Rico. His architectural drawings are in the permanent collection of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, and the Centre Canadien d’Architecture in Montreal. He wishes to thank Jorge Silvetti for inspiring Architecture.