Tuesday, August 17, 2010


The Marshall Islands may not be on most peoples' mental maps. But now, this Pacific archipelago, an independent, associated republic with the USA, has managed to get on August 1, 2010, its first World Heritage Site: a place with a name that'll flummox swimwear admirers everywhere, but it has nothing to do - well, it does have a relation, but not what most people think - with the diminutive, mostly female, bathing suits seen on most beaches outside the Muslim world (and there, they do exist: hidden under heavy, sink-me coverups!). I am talking about BIKINI Atoll, a piece of Pacific paradise lived by less than 200 fisherpersons and their families until 1946... when several nuke bombs fired in the next fourteen years, including the first hydrogen bomb tested in history, ripped apart segments of the 20-mile-long coral formation.

And the place has to do with Bikini Bottom, Spongebob's mythical domicile. It's the bottom of the atoll's lagoon... which makes this kiddy icon and Nickelodeon mainstay the best known "Marshallese" character in TV. (And please, while we are at this Bikini thing, no "World HER-itage" jokes please!) Anyway just for the sake of it I have presented a "swimwear" bikini, since the derivation of the name from geography to that minimal expression of textility also is, according to World Heritage official documents, part of the place's significance. Besides, the lady in the blue suit (sic) is a Puerto Rican senator (senatress?) that presides, of all things, the island's (Puerto Rico's, NOT Bikini's!!) Senatorial Committee on Tourism and Culture! Well, well, the ideal poster girl for celebrating Bikini's new heritage value...

But now sailing to a more serious tack, Bikini Atoll - whose name comes from the Marshallese words pik (surface, land) and ni (coconut tree) due to the large quantity of coconuts growing in its sandy terrain - has been included in WH thanks to two CULTURAL criteria that make this tropical place significant in world history, possibly much more than most of us would concede. One is Criterion Four, "...an outstanding example of a type of building, (...) ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history", the other is Criterion Six, "...directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary [and, mind you, sartorial!!! - my comment] works of outstanding universal significance."

On July 1, 1946, four months after the eviction of the peaceful, nature-loving Bikinians, an uranium atomic bomb exploded near the namesake island of the atoll on its east side. Nuclear test "Able" sunk several ships and in the 25th Test "Baker" - an underwater explosion - created a wild man-made tsunami beyond the wildest dreams of U.S. Navy brass. Then the radioactive lagoon was forsaken for eight years and more nuclear tests were undertaken on Enewetak (Eniwetok), 200 miles away. But the worst for Bikini was to come.

The first day of March 1954 was doubly explosive for the Americans: four heroic, militantly patriotic Puerto Ricans led by that extraordinary angel Dolores "Lolita" Lebrón (1919-2010) sauntered into the House of Representatives chambers in Washington, and peppered the ceiling with gunfire reclaiming FREEDOM! for their suffered island.

Several hours earlier, another explosive volley known as Castle Bravo vaporized a 2-mile-wide part of northwest Bikini Atoll (including two complete islands and most of a third) and sent a horrifying mushroom cloud ten miles into the air. The first and largest HYDROGEN BOMB had been tested live. The mortal ashes from the explosion reached a Japanese fishing boat whose crew, besides the enormous waves that nearly capsized their craft, was contaminated with radioactivity beyond humanly tolerable limits. Castle Bravo was 1,000 times more powerful than the dreadful Hiroshima bomb of 1945!

During the following four years, Bikini would become an eerie landscape of bunkers, cables, sunken ships, and gaping holes left by additional nuke testing. Later on, the islands were seeded with unusually straight rows of palms in anticipation of resettlement of the original Bikinians and their descendants. This never happened, and the militarily-serried ranks of palms bear witness to a frustrated return to the native land. But Bikini and its pre-1946 tranquil panoramas of palm huts, outrigger canoes, and bounties of fish, coconuts and tropical fruits, the ideal South Pacific idyll, was to be never more.

Now the designation of this atoll is, evidently to me, an in-your-face claim from a small, poor Pacific Island country to the biggest power in world history. The main importance of Bikini is above all linked to its use as the major nuclear site used for a dozen years by the U.S. Armed Forces and the way it disrupted the millenarian patterns of life of a nearly self-sufficient economy wedded to the blue sea for sustenance. And the Criterion Six associative values are powerful: mushroom clouds of the Bikinian tests were converted into icons of feared nuclear holocaust and of the latent violence between the world's greatest empires.

And the other associative value was facilitated by a Frenchman, Monsieur Louis Réard... an engineer who four days after the first Bikini test presented in Paris his daring, brief ladies' suit for sun, water and beach. His first model was a Corsican nudist dancer, Michelle Bernardini (could you imagine? her name rhymes with you know what) and his marketing genius: naming his invention (and a rather well-engineered one, I add!!!) for the remote Marshallese nuke proving ground that was making headlines everywhere from Majuro to Madrid. (He was competing with another of his countrymen who was marketing a swimsuit called the "Atom(e)" that looked like, well, a bikini...)

Bikini, now an occasional venue mostly for divers enjoying its sensational underwater world, is a palimpsest of different moments: possibly there are still some archaeological remains of the old days hidden under the soil; and the bunkers and posts of the military for observing the nuke tests are still there, so are the sunken ships (part of the lagoon bottom is a large naval junkyard), some of them of the vanquished adversaries of America, and the infrastructure and serried ranks of coconuts planted in the failed hope of resettlement. That forlorn, palimpsestic quality of Bikini, so contrary to the picture-postcard images of the "South Pacific" that so titillated straitjacketed Western men, is the contrast that shows poignantly, in this site of war and conscience, how much far away is the world from true peace.

I invite my readers to visit the Bikini Atoll site and download the World Heritage Nomination for this sensational and extremely important spot of our planet.

Even if the girls on the beaches were today frolicking and showing their ATOME-clad bodies...!!!

Saturday, March 06, 2010



Streetscape with traditional verandas in Isabel Segunda.

House in 3 Benitez Guzman Street in Isabel Segunda, now demolished and the lot is a parking for an adjacent drugstore.

Sugar warehouses in Esperanza (1979 photo), much damaged after Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

The two remaining boilers - out of five that originally existed - in the ruins of the Playa Grande Sugar Factory in Barrio Llave in the island's west end. These ruins were categorized by New York Times journalist Hugh Ryan as a must-see for history buffs.

By Jorge Ortiz Colom, R.A.
Preservation Architect/Institute of Puerto Rican Culture/Ponce, PR

Vieques's built urban and rural heritage represents a very important epoch in the economic exchanges between Puerto Rico and neighboring islands. More than the other Spanish colonies, Puerto Rico's Vieques Island, thanks to its strategic location, was a cultural and economic crossroads between the smaller French and English-ruled islands and the Spanish Caribbean world.

This is reflected in the architectural and building influences of places and structures still remaining in the “Isla Nena” soil. Some estates like Campaña (near the shooting field in Barrio Puerto Diablo) and city houses like the Delerme Anduze House, one block from the square, show great similarity with French Antillean vernacular, thus witnessing one of the cultural ingredients of this island's colonization. Other houses, more similiar to the criollo ones seen on Puerto Rico's Big Island, remind the observer that Vieques belongs to a larger milieu.

Spain's power as a stabilizer of the unsettled conditions of early 19th century Vieques is revealed in the soberly Neoclassical civic and institutional buildings it built such as the lighthouses, the town hall and the Conde de Mirasol Fortress, solidly built out of technically simple rubble masonry, just like many other utilitarian and civic structures of the Big Island. The Fortress, for years seat of government, prison, and an abandoned ruine before the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture saved it by making it a museum and center for outreach and conservation of Vieques's history and culture.

The suitably military-solid Fortress overlooks the port of Isabel Segunda; the building made out of rubble masonry and “azotea” (near-flat brick) roofs placed on bulletwood purlins, opens up to the breezes with wooden-board doors and windows within brick-reinforced openings. Though as such it is typical mid-nineteenth century Spanish institutional building, its quality impresses. The outside earth-filled battlement walls that give the place its “fortress” sobriquet, are not unassailable castle walls, rather a means to mold the shape of the hill and prepare the platform to raise the main building inside.

The town, called “Isabel Segunda” after the reigning Spanish queen at the time, is above all a collection of diverse architectural influences in a Caribbean island harbor town, the houses sporting wide verandas and frames of native woods; still proud survivors of the modern anonymity that surrounds them. Some streets leading to the harbor are wide, with the pretension of being small boulevards; they are still venues for much commercial activity. The main square is not just a place to linger: beneath it - but hardly visible after the last remodeling - there are the remains of a large rainwater cistern that was the town's major supply until more modern aqueducts were built. Facing the square you may see the institutional-neoclassical schools built up in the early 20th century (1907 and mid-1920's), but still following traditional design elements, including wide pediments, facade symmetry and classrooms on either side of their entryways.

Near the square still remain some of the more important residences of the town, a few on high brick plinths but most of them curiously hardly elevated above the street level and thus more open to the bustle outside. Hip roofs, more resistent to hurricane winds, are common and similar to those seen in neighboring islands: a frame inspired on that of the boats that navigated the interisland passages. It's much like an upturned boat hull converted in a shelter for landlubbers. The Nere Delerme house – a protected historic site – on Calle Benítez Guzmán 7 – another survivor of a modernized street – permits a peek to witness the spectacular build of such roofs.
The Delerme Anduze house in the very visible juncture of Muñoz Rivera and Antonio Mellado Streets impresses with its imposing dormered roof (again, a Franco-Antillian trait) and its veranda, now a gallery that opens into an interior commercial space. The veranda overhangs have a very elegant structural solution: large curled-at-the-end iron bars screwed to the walls and to exposed wooden beams; the ensemble has proven its worth resisting many hurricanes.

These houses alternate with simple commercial buildings in brick or concrete, with many doors opening to the street, some of them roofed over with gable or hip roofs like the houses. In Vieques's traditional buildings there is hardly any ornamental exuberance, they are as a rule austere and they tend to delight more by their excellent technical quality in the use of wood and other materials, as well as their proportions. The also strike an effective dialogue with the windy, maritime climate of the Antillean microislands, picking up the constant breezes through slats in the doors and windows and the beautiful transoms, insulating from heat with the large roof volumes, and thanks to the ceiling height directing hot air upwards, beyond the reach of the users' comfort zone.

A now-vanished house in 3 Benítez Guzmán Street, with clearly English inspiration and of a moneyed family, had a complex hip-roof geometry, ventilating dormer, and the living room was surfaced with a material known as “lincrusta”, essentially sawdust with linseed oil and resin, molded in ornamental patterns in hardened plates, the only case of using this material in a Puerto Rican house. But a house that defies time is the Smaine house in the corner of Antonio Mellado and Prudencio Quiñones streets. This protected house has a high base (used as a lower story), a perceived center-hall layout, the wooden main story sheathed in pressed metal imitating rustic stone, and an extensive ell extension – known in Puerto Rico as a “martillo” (hammer) – and the Mellado street side has a curving side stair that passes next to a cylindrical iron cistern, common in the late 19th century. This house presents a half-hipped roof similar to those in the Virgin Islands, that allows for more efficient ventilation of the roof space.

In the early 20th century, like other Puerto Rican towns, there was adopted a type of building with imported pine and concrete, with less pitched, bungalow-inspired hip roofs. At Isabel Segunda there's for example the Jaime Puig house in 65 de Infantería street – flanked by three other houses more or less its age but still more faithful to older forms. Buildings like the former “Casa Amarilla” at the corner of Muñoz Rivera and Carlos LeBrun streets follow, in concrete, the concept of the high-ceilinged shop with multiple openings to the street, at the same time presenting an interesting use of simple Doric columns and the 45-degree chamfered corner, celebrating the urban space it creates, and similar to what is seen in cities like Ponce.

Vieques's commercial and agricultural wealth was derived from the cultivation of cane, which notwithstanding the extreme shortage of permanent streams and derived irrigation problems, blanketed most fields from Punta Arenas to Puerto Diablo, establishing thus a rural heritage of sugar estates over all of the island's territory, where the product was artisanally cultivated and later exported to markets outside the Caribbean. Vieques had about a score of estates, with steam- or oxen-driven mills, and parts of the warehouses of a few exist as ruins. One of these estates of the Benitez family evolved into the large and “modern” Playa Grande ("Big Beach") sugarmill, only one of its kind in Vieques, exporter of most of the island's sugar and which hosted a settlement next to the factory, which was a sort of small town dedicated to the industrial workers of the sweet condiment.

José Ferreras Pagán, in his directory Biografía de las riquezas de Puerto Rico (“Biography of Puerto Rico's Riches”) published in 1902 (vol. 2, p. 87) indicates that this mill, formerly owned by Danish investor Matthias Hjardemaal, was sold in 1892 to Don José Benítez Guzmán, “being a small factory that increased its capacity and elements until it became a steam-powered muscovado mill.” Ferreras detailed the following components:

[a building] dedicated to the sugar factory and warehouse, residence for the director, employee housing, house for the foreman, store, and [single] workers' quarters: 5 multitubular boilers with their ovens that burn green bagasse, a Krajeuski (?) stalk cutter, 1 mill and its second grinder with their engines, 4 eliminators, 6 defecators, 6 Fletcher centrifuges, 10 decanters, 1 triple effect [evaporator], a two-bags-per-batch vacuum pan, 1 Cortada still, one electric generator [author's note: only five out of 32 non-American capital mills had this then], 30 iron tanks.

Its lands stretch for 4000 acres and other 1500 of Mr. J. Benítez Díaz, of which 3000 are suitable for cane growing, and 1500 acres are [presently] cultivated.

It produces some 15000 bags of first- and second-harvest sugar. The former Resolución estate in Barrio Punta Arena is annexed to this important factory.

Despite its atrocious dismantling in 1941, Playa Grande still presents significant remains that defy oblivion and abandonment.

The “biographer of riches” also describes the nearly vanished Santa María mill. This one had belonged to the Leguillous (buried close by) and also to the Le Bruns. Modernized in 1896, it had:

3 multitubular boilers with green-bagasse-fueled ovens, one mill and its engine, 4 defecators, 4 eliminators, 2 clarifiers, 4 filters, 1 vacuum pan, 4 centrifuges and other accesory equipment: as well as iron tanks for syrup and molasses.

Its equipment was built by the Fives-Lille company in France, and they can elaborate up to 220 bags in 12 hours.
(Ferreras, ibid. p. 88)

Ferreras Pagán describes its buildings:

A beautiful masonry factory where all the equipment is installed along with a Deroy still, the latter which stopped being used since the promulgation of the Hollander Bill [author's note: a law that taxed alcohols exported to the U.S.A.] as sales have declined: 1 one-story house for the director's residence: 4 wooden houses for employees; a brick masonry rainwater cistern, another cistern for storing water from a creek that flows south to north near the factory, drawn by a windmill-powered pump, this for the evaporators; one store, and 11 workers' quarters.

At that time Santa María controlled 2000 acres, slightly over half cultivated. It operated until the 1920's: henceforth Playa Grande was the sole grinder of Vieques cane.

It is now barely a remembrance though the form of the factory settlement still influences the present one. Parts of two walls remain. Another mill, Arkadia, existed in the northwest, in the later-military zone, and according to some archeological field studies, parts seem to remain. It also stopped in the early 20th century.

Sugar estate ruins in Vieques reflect the importance of that episode of the island's social and economic history. Some warehouse walls can be found, in some estates like Campaña in the east there is a flair for their founders' French tastes, this according to those that have documented the place, only hundreds of feet from the “death zone” of the former Navy firing range. Other ruins are more utilitarian and sober. Some estate houses remained like the fascinating (unfortunately fire-ruined) “Frenchman's House” or Mourraille estate near Esperanza, formerly a very agreeable small hotel. This one had a generous interior courtyard and very high ceilings with a center-hall plan, being the former living room the hotel's foyer. With its hip roof, belvedere overlooking a splendid vista of land and sea, concrete walls imitating undressed stone, and huge wraparound veranda on top of a high base, it was one of Vieques's memorable spots. Of other estate houses some ruins remain, the remembrances of those not entirely eliminated by Navy bulldozers.

Near the entrance to Esperanza harbor, there existed until their near-total destruction by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 the enormous walls of the Esperanza estate warehouses. The cyclopean masonry and simple proportions of this utilitarian, rectangular edifice, spoke of solidity of these walls that protected sugar during its purging and curing process. However, the passage of time and uncompatible modern repairs weakened the building, setting the stage for its loss.

In the remains of the Pacience estate in Barrio Santa María - later a part of the Santa María sugarmill previously mentioned - are the remains of the tombs of the first governor of Vieques, Théophile-Joseph-Jacques-Marie le Guillou, with massive French inspired construction and a pyramidal top, a symbol of transcendence very favored as an iconic form of European tombs. There are other vaulted tombs at its side. These are above earth – sarcophage type, also following French custom.

Much of this interesting agrarian past rots away in oblivion amidst the scrub, but notwithstanding the existence of "directives" to preserve heritage within the military installations, most estate ruins in former military lands are fragments of walls or floors, lime and earth between leaves and bushes – not to speak of the empty shell of the Puerto Ferro lighthouse, almost standing like a ruin of a vanquished enemy awaiting its Carthage-style disappearance, not by force but by age and weather. (The other lighthouse - Punta Mulas, near the town – was carefully restored in collaboration between the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture and the Municipality, and of late has been a museum though it is now closed.) Even so, the resistance of these materials come from the earth have made these walls and footings faithful defenders of the presence of the past facing the trauma of modern and destructive military “arts”. Now there's hope for this heritage's recovery in peace.

Even though there have been made archaeological reconnaissances that demonstrate that these ruins and remains, historic and Pre-Columbian alike, are a very important patrimony and a key part of the Caribbean jigsaw puzzle, Puerto Rican archaeologists had not been permitted for a long time to dig and analyze findings in military soil. This has left a gap in early Puerto Rican history, since it is known for years that Vieques was a major bridge and contact since the time of the first human migrations in this region. Puerto Ferro Man, a most significant anthropological find, remains, thus, an interesting phenomenon without (until, we hope, now) a context that explains him and his times.

Between 1978 and 1985 an American consultant group hired by the Navy made a historic resource survey in Vieques naval lands. Not informed by the knowledge or experience of our archaeologists and preservation architects, a collection of reports was made of these findings located in hills and dales of Vieques. But the lack of communication between both groups has hampered the construction of an useful interpretation of the remains. Our people had been denied for years access to a vital part of its cultural heritage, and also to the people's right to know themselves through history and its eloquent "textbook" of material culture.

Now that many of these resources are accessible there is a need to revise the condition and significance of these places since they can be venues for cultural tourism and kindred activities, now blossoming throughout many Caribbean locations in spite of many difficulties. The cultural landscapes of the long-time inaccessible areas evidence the achievements and losses of Vieques society both as a carrefour of cultures and, also, as subject to agricultural and later military latifundia. They deserve to be conserved since they define the community's personality and they may be reused for the enjoyment, education and recreation of present and future generations.


July 10, 2001, Guayama
Revised August 2002
Second revision Dec. 2004
Illustrations March 2010
Translation by the author, Mar. 5, 2010, finished in Vieques

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The View from Afar: The Other between Cliché and Change

Frequently, the heritage media are quite revealing in what they do and don't say. Knowledge of what is relevant to the others is good, but understanding has to be proportional to the reported facts. In this sense, on these postcolonial times, it is revealing what the metropolitan power has to say about the state of the art in its largest, anachronistic colony.

Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island that manages to house four million ethnically diverse people in just thirty-five hundred square miles, is one of the world's few territories that is ruled from afar without true participation in the affairs of its rulers, in this case safely ensconced in the marble pavilions of Neoclassical power on the banks of the Potomac. That very same city is the seat of the United States' main heritage preservation organization known as the National Trust (for Historic Preservation) though they seem to be taking a liking to be known rather by the brief and cutely rhyming sobriquet Preservation Nation. The Trust - or PN, if you wish - featured PR as its main article in its bimonthly magazine, Preservation. It carries the unassuming title "Guarding the Glories of San Juan".

PR has a remarkable archidiversity; if you don't think so check my article The Essence of Puerto Rican Historic Architecture located in this blog's archive!... but to many Americans Puerto Rican heritage starts and ends in Old San Juan, so the article's title is predictable. The writer, a certain Eric Wills, whose profile we don't get to know because of a New Year Resolution-obsessed editor, barely transcends this San Juanism (or, more correctly, a San Juan-plus-landmarkism) even if he talks briefly with a so-called Ponce architect about the island's second city. With him at his flat, they gloss superficially over the pork-fueled government initiative to "improve" the infrastructure there and to do a so-called "revitalization" through incentives that may be wiped out because the island's government is badly in hock, like a losing high-stakes casino gamer who has bet out his house.

Wills gets a wind of the protest over Paseo Caribe, a major controversy related to public domains along the shore and the protection of the context surrounding the San Jerónimo fortress, a built-out-on-the-water bastion which architecture is nearly unique among dozens of shore fortifications built by the Spaniards in the Americas and the Philippines. Paseo Caribe is one of these kitschy so-called mixed use developments for the rich with exclusive shops for superfluous merchandise and seven-figure apartments in the most vulgar Miami-ese tradition. PC, a case that can speak volumes - heck, complete encyclopedias - about the situation of urbanism and preservation on contested lands, is condensed into four paragraphs of a fortuitous encounter with the protest camp next to the near-finished project, an interview with the developer (something that I'd have skipped given that man's "reputation") and a generality that civic participation will be more significant in preservation policy in PR.

The most human and interesting part of the article is the interview with the Big Man of PR preservation, Mr. Ricardo Alegría. Alegría ("Happiness") is the story of a life engaged in defending heritage and memory against overwhelming odds, and his biography can tell nearly all there is to making heritage a relevant part of society. But again, enforced magazine-article brevity betrays the need to expose this charming, intense life story. Expediency takes the author to two restoration projects that supposedly mirror new directions in Boricua preservation. But one of them is a sugar estate, and scores of them have been preserved Caribbean-wide so this is not but a catch-up, join-the-club manouevre, though the restoration of a 19th-century mill with its steam engine to working condition is no mean feat that, again, gets little space.

This leaves us with the San Juan old aqueduct. Here the article high-gears it with the impressionist sketch of an early urban infrastructure project, part of those traditionally forgotten parts of collective memory. And the promise of difference entices the reader... but, alas, time's up! So, the social component of preservation that is the promise of this article, the role of preservation in identity construction and as a tool of "growth" management in a dense, tropical society, got the short shrift (again?).

Had I the chance to be interviewed by Mr. Wills, I'd have harangued him into going deep inside the island to see how the defense of landmarks and archaeology is being more and more used as a weapon to challenge misguided, harebrained "development" schemes. I'd filled the space between his ears on how heritage is progressively becoming a fundamental building block of local and Puerto Rican pride, as the standard of the cause is now brandished not by professional architects or highfalutin' academics, but by common workers, schoolteachers, househusbands/wives, artists, and people from varying walks of life. A single case like the ultimately failed attempt to save the midtown San Mateo sector in San Juan could explain in ample perspective the potential of heritage to transform not only cityscapes but also lives!

Puerto Rico is a somewhat atypical case of a subaltern society within the global order, for many years cowed into passive acceptance of cultural mores of a strong, "young", dominant world power with the wherewithal to brainwash masses of people. It can serve as an illustration that identity can be painted over, hidden, pushed into the ground, or plastic-surgeried into a denial of its former self... but it keeps coming back, and obviously with a vengeance. The endless interpretations of the lone-star-in-a-blue-triangle flag, reproduced on head and butt alike; the improvised poets that turn out decimas (a type of poem on 10-line stanzas) in multitudinary, Eisteddfod-like ceremonies; the perpetual congregation of neighbors and friends even within the hostile ambience of malls and offices; the noisy Xmas caroling with rhythmic, hand-clapping trullas and delicious bootleg rum showing up everywhere there's a party; the incredible decoration of anonymous subdivision-house facades - well, there is a veritable INSURRECTION going up in Puerto Rico, and even if it lacks the apparent seriousness of a Palestinian intifada, it is even more determined in getting its own way.

And, like it or not, historic and archaeological preservation, Boricua-style, cannot be understood outside the context of this insurrectionary climate. Those that think that Puerto Rican preservationists are genteel-gentleman-and/or-lady clubs saving symbols of a patrician world are shooting way off the mark. And this "other" keeps being a mysterious, arcane enigma to First Worlders who just shrug and live happily with their clichéd views and comforting, exceptional images of the consumer symbols of exotic travel, another byproduct of the tourism "industry"... As they'll think: "Let me sleep dreaming with my Taj Mahals, Pyramids and Temples of the Sun, let the rest of the world fix itself as it may!"

And the insurrection of the Other's identity will, sooner or later, fix itself... getting back to and over them.

Thursday, January 01, 2009


Some may ask why my homage to Cuba and a full HALF-CENTURY of Revolution has appeared first in my English language blog. It's because this Caribbean island country can show other more prosperous places how to work historic preservation as an integral part of an ongoing social project in which land uses are planned on basis of social needs (though I recognize that the money shortage and the American blockade have hamstrung Cuba's capacity to respond to the needs of its people).

When exactly fifty years ago to this day Fidel Castro proclaimed victory over the venal dictator Batista and a few days later rode triumphant into Havana's boulevards, Cuba was to witness a real sea change in its social order. An agricultural nation barely eking its way by selling underpriced sugar to Western hemisphere nations became in time a more diversified economy with import-substitution industries and a vast improvement in the quality of life of the famished peasants. The tentacles of Mob investment in the hotel and casino business were severed: Cuba was no longer to be a playground for Mafiosi and their beneficiaries. (This in my belief is why the USA's blockade and boycott of relationships with the Castro government has been so tenacious.)

Cuban cities were impoverished backwaters except for Havana, which was beginning to flood with vulgar, glitzy buildings for tourism. (Not all, though: for example, Max Borges's Tropicana club is a veritable masterpiece of poetry in reinforced concrete.) The Cuban capital was beginning to see high rise towers among the traditional scale of 2- to 5-story brick buildings built cheek-to-jowl creating an unique, dense and interesting ensemble in the Old Havana and Havana Central quarters, seat of most 19th century and older buildings.

Although scarce resources were allocated in priority to ameliorating the lot of the peasants and cane workers, who were in time introduced to previously unheard-of luxuries like running water and electricity, preservation of old Cuban cities was from the beginning of the Revolution an irreductible part of the nation's cultural policy. Little information was then available: Joaquín Weiss, an architect, had written a multivolume book on Cuban Spanish Colonial buildings, but other facts were still buried in musty archives, interred away from the gaze of historians and preservationists.

By the mid sixties, general censi had been made of Old Havana and the eastern city of Santiago, Cuba's second most important conurbation. Between the mid sixties and mid eighties a full preservation team would be implemented covering not only these two cities but also a host of other smaller cities and towns, and even rural areas like the Viñales Cultural Landscape, related to tobacco, in the western Pinar del Río province. Those two decades saw an exponential increase in interest in preserving Cuban heritage and hundreds of systematic inventories were performed all over the island. The harvest of all this process has been phenomenal: FOUR World Heritage urban areas (Havana in 1982 was the first one; also Trinidad, Cienfuegos and the most recent one, Camagüey), two cultural landscapes (Vi­ñales, and the first coffee cultural landscape in the Caribbean in the eastern mountains) and the San Pedro fort in Santiago.

Add to all this several dozen protected historic towns and thousands of other buildings over all of Cuba's geography and it's not hard to see that the country needed a specialized center for education, outreach and technical assistance. In 1980 the Cencrem (Spanish acronym for National Conservation, Preservation and Museology Center) was established in the former Santa Clara convent in Old Havana's heart. It now educates Cuban and foreign preservation professionals, and in its studios research and practice is done in benefit of local preservation agencies from the Havana City Historian's office (Old Havana's overseers) to rural archaeological studies in need of investigations over materials conservation.

The deterioration seen in many historic Cuban buildings is a veritable problem; but giant steps have been taken to mitigate its impact. Cuban preservationists are among the most knowledgeable in stabilization and mitigation techniques for old places "over the top", and their skills have been exported by way of technical assistance overseas and frequent workshops and symposia. Thus the Cuban preservation scene is possibly one of the most dynamic in Latin America, equaled maybe only by that of Mexico - a far larger and more populated country. Summing up this introduction, the Cuban Revolution, a solid half-century old today, has been also a revolution of memory and history in the service of the common good. They are the example to follow!

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A New Year's message: H&S in times of H&S - Towards hope

As the tumultuous and, to many, must-be-forgotten year of 2008 closes, heritage enthusiasts see only clouds in the new year 2009. Outside the dramatic losses of natural disasters, war and speculation, much of our significant places are just rotting away in neglect. Since heritage, at least literally, cannot be eaten, drank or used to cure illnesses; nor used to keep the social order, it is not an investment priority for those with power and funds available.

Now, this latent, insufficiently understood emotional and spiritual need is in risk of being set back or simply linger around in a limbo of "future priorities". As a resolution, if any is to be undertaken in this new year, we, the heritage enthusiasts of the world must begin crying out loud about the importance of our eternal and beloved ward of old, significant places in local and global memory. We cannot simply rest while benevolent, though misguided attempts to jump-start the economy and society can try to make old places expendable. Many solons and politicos think that newness and bigness are tantamount to happiness; they miss the picture of familiarity, pride, and roots that the presence of the past can only deliver.

The past is an essential referent; as I said four years ago in the conclusion of an essay about my home country's historic architecture,

Only now the more perceptive professionals are searching for solutions that may recover, among other elements, the lessons of the past, without a nostalgic return to what is already obsolete. But its conservation is an imperative as it gives an unavoidable reference that can be a beacon for intelligent spacemaking in the future.(my emphasis in this quote. Taken from "The Essence of Puerto Rican Historic Architecture", Axis 7 [2004], Institute of Technology, Kingston, Jamaica)

An intelligent habitat that facilitates in many possibilities the fulfillment of humankind needs to be based on accumulated intelligence that only can be gleaned through heritage. Heritage should not be idealized; it shows lessons positive and negative. It is our responsibility to sort the grain from the chaff, but we shouldn't throw away that chaff - it demonstrates an essential component of a process of decision and selection.

And, is preservation cost-ineffective? Serious study by professionals has shown that even rescuing and restoring dilapidated heritage places has a beneficial effect that outweighs nearly all the "excessive" outlays of money needed to recover them. Mr. Donovan Rypkema, a Washington preservation consultant, in fact has demonstrated that heritage conservation is almost uniformly a sound economic decision, as he passionately posits in an address delivered in Alexandria (VA), USA in May 2007. I have seen Mr. Rypkema deliver his lectures in person and he'll recover the die-hard preservationist in you!

People like him are harbingers of hope. We hope with this new year almost upon us that heritage conservation will be valued for its intrinsic and huge moral and cultural value, and allotted the essential human and monetary resources for placing it where it belongs: in the spirit and soul of all of us.

I WON'T wish you a "Happy New Year" - not in my life! Rather, as a New Year approaches, let us make it a HAPPY one. Happiness is not something that falls from above like manna or rain; it is something all of us can fabricate within us by enthusiasm and faith in our cause and our love towards others. Fighting unwaveringly for our precious heritage, we'll make tons of happiness in this and all other forthcoming years.

Friday, December 26, 2008

In memoriam of Harold Pinter: Words of Advice to the World

On Christmas Eve 2008 famed British playwright Harold Pinter (born 1930) passed away. For years his witty, critical and often passionate writings - not just drama, but also poetry and essays - have been a sharp twang of conscience to the world's often hypocritical ways. Pinter was exactly a paradigm for the engaged intellectual, the person that through his creative endeavours wanted to have his readers and viewers interact critically with the reality around them. Being this akin to the mindset that informs H&S, it is not but proper to remember one of his most important allocutions, that one made for accepting the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature.

I excerpt lightly from his acceptance speech and Nobel Lecture:

In 1958 I wrote the following:

'There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.'

I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?


I put to you that the United States is without doubt the greatest show on the road. Brutal, indifferent, scornful and ruthless it may be but it is also very clever. As a salesman it is out on its own and its most saleable commodity is self love. (...) Language is actually employed to keep thought at bay.


What has happened to our moral sensibility? Did we ever have any? What do these words mean? Do they refer to a term very rarely employed these days - conscience? A conscience to do not only with our own acts but to do with our shared responsibility in the acts of others? Is all this dead?


I know that President Bush has many extremely competent speech writers but I would like to volunteer for the job myself. I propose the following short address which he can make on television to the nation. I see him grave, hair carefully combed, serious, winning, sincere, often beguiling, sometimes employing a wry smile, curiously attractive, a man's man.

'God is good. God is great. God is good. My God is good. Bin Laden's God is bad. His is a bad God. Saddam's God was bad, except he didn't have one. He was a barbarian. We are not barbarians. We don't chop people's heads off. We believe in freedom. So does God. I am not a barbarian. I am the democratically elected leader of a freedom-loving democracy. We are a compassionate society. We give compassionate electrocution and compassionate lethal injection. We are a great nation. I am not a dictator. He is. I am not a barbarian. He is. And he is. They all are. I possess moral authority. You see this fist? This is my moral authority. And don't you forget it.'

A writer's life is a highly vulnerable, almost naked activity. We don't have to weep about that. The writer makes his choice and is stuck with it. But it is true to say that you are open to all the winds, some of them icy indeed. You are out on your own, out on a limb. You find no shelter, no protection - unless you lie - in which case of course you have constructed your own protection and, it could be argued, become a politician.


I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.

If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us - the dignity of man.

So I honor an extraordinary intellectual who, despite not being directly involved in the protection of heritage, has created a body of written and acted works that undoubtedly are part of humanity's shared path in this globe. May Mr. Pinter rest in peace, but his message cannot be left to die in a ruthless world!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Reflection: The Church of the Nativity as the Classic Palimpsest

As a Christmas Eve message, it isn't any more proper than to focus in the most famous landmark associated with this day of preparation and reflection. In more than one sense, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (Palestine) is significant in today's convoluted preservation scene. It illustrates vehemently the process of the Palimpsest: it has been "written" repeatedly over time, built, unbuilt, rebuilt; its current shape may be far from classic canons of order, hierarchy or overall symmetry, but it mirrors the evolution of our view of Christ's Nativity as Christianity's most sacred moment. It is fitting that the landmark that sits upon the site of Jesus's natal manger cries change and gradual transformation all over its facades and interior spaces. The Church reflects properly the history of religion and the way that the Christianized West has seen this basic moment of birth and regeneration, shared with many other unrelated faiths and central to the theologies of all of them.

Colonnades and plain volumes, rich iconostases and simple walls, galleries and passages, spaces with no seeming human logic (but the divine logic is evident!) are all evidence of this monument's rich history. It is a truly collective product of humanity in its quest for trascendence and linking with the world of the sacred!

The most important place of worship tonight should an example of collaboration and tolerance, as it is maintained by the Eastern Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem along with the Franciscan Roman Catholic religious order and the Armenian Church. All operate in a difficult protocol, that is above all a cry for a consensus that makes collaboration between the faiths a necessity, no matter how much intolerance they display against each other, here and elsewhere. This temple has also been in the possesion of Moslems previously.

The Church is, sadly, in the World Monuments Fund's 2008 One Hundred Endangered Monuments List. The WMF aptly comments that this monument to human and divine collaboration is endangered by the current Israel-Palestine conflict. This intractable war over the so-called Holy Land, the venue of Biblical events that have shaped our worldview, has repeatedly threatened this place scarcely five miles (8 km) from the Sacred City of Jerusalem, holy to three competing faiths - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - that somehow hardly tolerate each other. We should view the Church of the Nativity, more than for its deceptively simple and erratic architecture, as a symbol of humanity in seemingly perpetual conflict, contradiction and change; even so searching for the beacon of peace, and a yearning for a better world.

With this message, I wish the best of holidays to all my H&S readers.
Jorge Ortiz Colom, owner of the H&S (Heritage and Society) blog