Caribe HiltonFrom an architecture designed to repel nomads, to one whose aim is to attract them…

I was staying last week in San Juan’s Caribe Hilton. (I know, it’s a tough job; but someone has to do it.) At first sight the Hilton is just another hotel like so many others. But in part precisely for that reason, it turns out that this is an important piece of Caribbean architecture, and of “tropical modernism.”

According to Enrique Vivoni-Farage’s “The Architecture of Power”, the designs presented by US architects for this 1949 building were in Spanish Renaissance Revival style, in line with Conrad Hilton’s own desires. But all three Puerto Rican submissions to the competition were in International Style, inspired rather by the Modern Movement.

As Periferia puts it, the values the winning design promoted were modernity and efficiency, over “the curious and the picturesque.” This fit much better with the spirit of “Operation Bootstrap,” the economic and political program by which Puerto Rico would be propelled into industrial modernity.

bar at Caribe Hilton
Apparently, the hotel’s original bar was quite a striking example of postwar modernist styling. Now, after a recent extensive refit, its aesthetic is much blander, much less hard-edged. As James Russell observes, today the neighbouring Normandie, designed in 1939 Art Deco imitation of a cruise liner, has in fact the much more interesting interior.

Back at the Hilton, a touch of the exotic has been returned with the presence of two caged parrots in the lobby, opposite the check-in desk–though sometimes, it appears, these birds are allowed to sit on top of their cages, rather than simply within them.

Perhaps this is an emblem of the false freedom that Vivoni-Farage reads in the Hilton’s modernism. He sees the choice of the International Style as an illusory decolonization, in which culture stands in for politics. The rejection of Spanish Renaissance style

gave the Puerto Ricans an illusion of “freedom” instead of truly liberating them from a colonial situation. Architecture served as a palliative, where the Modern was synonymous with freedom and the good life.

By contrast, it is the opposite that is usually said of the rest of Latin America: that formal political independence in the 1820s has never really been backed by true cultural autonomy.

Meanwhile, and via The Morning News (full article here), some suitably modern guests of the Caribe Hilton, from 1959:

Caribe Hilton Guests


What would the architecture of the Caribbean be without the pirates from whom the Spanish Empire constantly sought defence and protection?

The Spaniards constructed an elaborate system of fortifications across the Caribbean basin: from Veracruz, from which the fleet carrying Mexican silver would sail; to Panama and Nombre de Dios, through which Peruvian and Philippine treasure was routed; on to Havana, where the fleets converged; and San Juan, Puerto Rico, which Philip II called “the key to the Indies.”

map of Spanish Caribbean forts
The walled city of San Juan, and the El Morro fort that guards its harbour, are particularly impressive. The first defences were constructed in the sixteenth century, and helped repel Drake’s 1595 attack. Three years later, another English privateer, the Earl of Cumberland, took the fort by attacking overland rather than from the sea, but this expedition was defeated eventually as his men succumbed to dysentery. The Spaniards then rebuilt El Morro stronger than ever, and saw off a Dutch attack in 1625. Further building continued for another 150 years, producing massive walls and further forts all around the island on which Old San Juan sits.

El Morro was subject to US bombardment during the war of 1898, but the Americans subsequently themselves rebuilt parts of the site in World War II pillbox fashion, turning it into a lookout now against the possibility of German U-Boats advancing across the Atlantic.

El Morro fort
But although the prodigious engineering that went into this edifice is ascribed to the Irish-born Colonel Thomas O’Daly, surely this architecture of counter-insurgency should also be credited at least in part to the nomadic pirates against whom it was arrayed?