Architecture in Puerto Rico has evolved from the simplest structures made of wood and thatch to monumental buildings of glass and steel. Architecture, of course, is an indispensable and constant part of our reality, providing the stage where we carry out our daily lives. Although architectural forms and building technologies have changed, architecture has always sought to satisfy the needs of the society it shelters. A long list of architects and designers have left their mark in the buildings and public works of the island. Their work has helped to transform and preserve our cities and towns, establishing urban patterns and making our dreams of a better life a reality.
Upon their arrival on our island's shores, the Europeans noticed that the settlements of the indigenous people were constructed of perishable materials. They perceived that this was an indication of the natives' backwardness and limited knowledge. The Europeans viewed these inhabitants as comparable to the first humans in the Garden of Eden. Chronicles of the period documented images of these structures by means of engravings, which Europeanized these simple structures by presenting them in regular shapes, rounded or rectangular, which added a hint of classical Greek architecture (considered to be the origin of architecture during that period in European history) to these rudimentary huts.
The archeological reconstruction of some of these villages and the interpretative comparisons of findings in other Caribbean communities have facilitated our understanding of how the Tainos lived in Puerto Rico. The circular arrangement of their villages, or yucayeques, has been reconfigured with the courtyard, or batey, in the middle and the huts and family houses, known as bohíos and caneyes, surrounding it. The areas paved with stone were rebuilt as ceremonial centers.
The first European settlements in Boriquén must have amazed the "natives." In Caparra, the main structures were built of stone, following construction techniques that were vastly different from those employed at that time on the island. Even though stones were employed as religious objects in ceremonial parks, the use of stone blocks in construction was unknown. Laying solid foundations in the ground and using hard to find materials with a high level of craftsmanship were completely new concepts. Likewise, dividing the interior of the buildings into separate rooms according to function was in stark contrast to the way things were done on the island. There is no indication that the "natives" mimicked the construction systems or the space divisions of the newcomers, however, it seems that the knowledge of those first inhabitants did impact the colonizing culture. In his Historia Geográfica, Civil y Natural de la Isla de San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico (Geographic, Civil and Natural History of the Island of Saint John the Baptist of Puerto Rico), Fr. Iñigo Abbad y Lasierra describes how the Europeans copied indigenous building techniques, raising the structure with wooden posts and beams, and fashioning walls and roofs from perishable and easily obtainable materials. This construction method prevailed as a form of "marginal architecture" until well into the 20th century.
As the colonial power became firmly established in Puerto Rico, architecture acquired a European look. Living on the island changed the colonizers` approach to building, since they needed to take into account the weather as well as military circumstances. Spanish settlements were arranged along the traditional grid, with areas organized to accommodate public spaces, government buildings, as well as religious, military, commercial, and residential structures. Puerto Rico, the new outpost of the Spanish crown, was protected by imposingly thick and strong walls.
The increase in population within these protective walls meant that space was at a premium and thus buildings were often quite narrow, requiring the use of interior courtyards as a source of light and ventilation for rooms. This scheme was also well suited for defending and protecting both streets and structures.
Commercial and public spaces were generally located on the first floor, while residences occupied the higher floors, where they were protected by the vestibule, stairway and courtyard. The residence of Puerto Rico's Captain General, built near the mouth of the bay, was heavily protected by walls with round towers. Seen from the sea, it resembled a fortress, but from the city it seemed more like a palace; thus the dual name: La Fortaleza (The Fortress) and the Palacio Santa Catalina. Churches also offered the city a form of protection, with bell towers functioning as sentinel posts from which possible dangers could be readily detected, whether from land or sea.
These defenses were essential given San Juan's status as an important military post with the Empire's domain conceived as "both the key and door to the West Indies." (Adolfo de Hostos, Historia de San Juan: Ciudad Murada, 1983). Therefore, the city required continued capital investments for improvements.
The city featured a system of defense works, which were completed in the 18th century with the construction of the defensive walls and majestic castles created by Thomas O'Daly. Almost immediately after completion, the fortifications proved their effectiveness in repelling the invading forces of the British commanded by Abercromby in 1797. These fortresses eventually became so invincible that it was not until one-hundred years later that they at last succumbed to a foreign invasion during the Spanish-American War. The monumental and protective image of the walls thus served their desired effect for many years.
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