Published on: June 12, 2015
I’ve flown over Puerto Rico countless times between Miami and home, whether it was during my summers spent in Florida or after I had moved there. This time, the plane I boarded would not fly me over the island but take me there.
The island of Puerto Rico is geographically and culturally a part of the Caribbean, but administratively belongs to the United States of America. It seems to enjoy the best of both worlds because of this fact with delicious island food and effective governance.
As part of the tropics, Puerto Rico was laid out hundreds of years ago before air conditioning was even thought of and has what one would think of as forward thinking architecture for that time. Designs address the ever hot and very sunny conditions and the continuous movement of fresh air.
The streets of the historical city of Old San Juan are tall and narrow allowing the facades of the buildings to fold down and provide shade for the activities that spill outwards into the public realm of the street, where liming happens.
The architecture tells of the island’s colonial past.
Two and three story Spanish townhouses that are a few hundred years old line the narrow streets. Their first floors used for retail or commerce while their second and third stories; residences or guest houses. Built in a time before electricity and air conditioning existed, a time I cannot bring myself to imagine, the townhouses were designed to allow for passive ventilation.
While some of the townhouses have been retrofitted with ac and have been turned into cozy restaurant or bars. Many also have inner courtyards that open upwards, allowing air to sweep through in nonstop motion and provide a more intimate setting.
Tourists, like myself, get to enjoy the pre-AC experience if they so choose. But the effectiveness of passive ventilation makes the design student in me question why we ever moved away from this practical and energy efficient form of design.
The townhouses painted in bright colors give their residents a sense of ownership and individuality in a dense city where the structures are tightly packed wall to wall. Many homes come with their own little secluded courtyard spaces unbeknownst to the passerby. They appear to be a smaller and more private version of the plazas scattered throughout the city of Old San Juan.
The city plazas relate to the way the Spanish crown laid out their colonial cities back when Christopher Columbus was sailing around the region and conquering the new world on behalf of the Spanish nobility. Each city plaza has a church and government buildings – and the combination of these three, along with whatever statue was erected in each plaza serve as way finders or landmarks throughout one’s walk around the city. A city that does not require a car if one intends to spend their entire trip there.
Plazas are a huge part of the public realm in a culture where it is customary for activities to happen outdoors in the public eye. Stores of all varieties and services encircle the plazas providing space for pop-up markets featuring local delicacies and artistic knick-knacks in a city that is already dotted by local artwork. There are permanent sculptures and statues of important historical figures in plazas, murals on building walls and underpass’ embankments, and small decorative and wearable artwork made by local artisans. Old San Juan also has its own characteristic sounds like the national frog’s nocturnal croak, the people milling out and about in the public spaces, the occasional musician in the plaza or street corner, the wheels of cars over the colonial blue-grey brick streets, tropical birds squawking as they fly overhead, the waves “schlopping” against the beach and shore, and of course the sounds of Spanish to an English speaker.
As for the food, the local cuisine is divine!
In the last five years I’ve grown accustomed to store bought lemonade. Here, I got to run into CVS for the contact lens solution I forgot to pack, with a freshly made star-fruit juice in hand – truly the best mix of first world and the Caribbean. As an “island girl,” – what I’m known as in the US thanks to my singsong accent despite not actually coming from an island, I love my rum! Puerto Rico proved to be the perfect place to enjoy my favorite rum cocktail – mojitos – with a Caribbean twist, flavored with Caribbean fruits like tamarind. My favorite dish was mofongo, the most eaten dish on my 7 day stay. It is a volcano made of seasoned plantains with your choice of fried meat erupting from the centre like lava. Most certainly a dish I would highly recommend if one should ever visit and one definitely should!
Whether it’s the delicious food that calls you, or touring the historical city of old San Juan, Puerto Rico is definitely an island paradise with beautiful beaches and it’s where I would rather be.
Writing & Photography: Michelle Andrea Ford
Architect and Writer from Guyana, currently living and working in Tampa Florida