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Brewing architecture in the land of coffee

Notes from Clifford A. Pearson Senior Editor


The coffee processing plant in 1932, sixty-three years before the architecture students would move in.

Opening a new architecture school is a leap of faith. It takes a lot of guts on the part of a founder, as well as deep reserves of patience, vision, tact, and obstinance (not to mention a willful disregard for obstacles and an ability to take a few hard knocks). So it was when Álvaro Rojas, AIA, returned to his native Costa Rica after two decades in the United States, and started the Universidad del Diseño in 1993.

Costa Rica would not seem to be the first place one would think of launching a new school of architecture. It’s a beautiful country with a long and mostly peaceful history of democracy (its 1949 constitution dismantled the army and in 1987 its president, Oscar Arias, won the Nobel Peace Prize). But it doesn’t have much of an architectural or urban tradition. Ever since its Spanish colonizers realized there was little gold hidden in its volcanic mountains, Costa Rica has been a rural backwater run by the wealthy owners of its famed coffee plantations. The capital, San José, was little more than coffee-growing land before the 20th century, and has none of the glorious architecture found in other Latin American cities such as Mexico City or Cuzco. “No Artificial Ingredients” is Costa Rica’s current advertising slogan, rightfully plugging the country’s beautiful coasts on both the Pacific and the Caribbean, its lush rainforests, and well-maintained national parks. Tourists come to this land to see its flora and fauna, not its buildings.


The building in 1995 when purchased by the Universidad del Diseņo (left) and today (above).

Although mindful of the country’s shortcomings, Rojas saw an opportunity. In the early 1990s, Costa Rica had only four architecture schools and none were offering much in the way of innovative education. Frustrated by an insular architectural scene, Rojas decided to shake things up. He bought an old coffee-processing plant on the outskirts of San José and converted it into a rambling, open place to learn. He brought in teachers from the United States, Europe, and Latin America, and stocked the staff with psychologists, sociologists, linguists, and philosophers, in addition to design professionals. He attracted students from around Central and Latin America and challenged them to look at architecture as “global” and “holistic” and “sustainable.”


The building in 1995 before being converted into the school (left) and today (above).

Some of Costa Rica’s architectural power brokers were less than thrilled about such an upstart institution and Rojas has had to fight hard to carve out a niche for his school. But the Universidad del Diseño now has about 100 students and a faculty of 45 mostly part time professors. It offers a 5-and-a-half-year professional degree in architecture and is in the process of establishing a masters of environmental design program. Curiously, things are beginning to change in Costa Rica. For example, since 1993, six other schools of architecture have opened, a remarkable blossoming of educational alternatives in a country with just 4.3 million people.

I got a quick introduction to the Universidad del Diseño by participating in its second Mundaneum, an international show-and-tell fest held at the end of June. Most of the people in the audience were students at the university or from Panamanian schools of architecture. Very few practicing architects from Costa Rica took the time to attend any of the presentations or discussions—a lingering sign of suspicion on the part of the country’s architectural establishment.

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A last-minute addition to the conference lineup of speakers was the President of Costa Rica, Miguel Angel Rodriguez, who required no secret service agents and came with a sensible entourage of two associates. The story I heard was that Rojas had been quoted recently in the newspaper criticizing the government’s lack of a policy on sustainable design. Instead of striking back, the president decided to win over a critic by paying a visit (and presumably getting some good press). President Rodriguez congratulated the school on its second-place showing in a recent international design competition for students and spoke vaguely and briefly of “the possibility of new expressions of the Latin American spirit.” Nothing brilliant. But how often does the president of any country show up at an architectural event?

The conference’s regularly scheduled speakers were a solid collection of practitioners and academics, including Stanley Saitowitz from San Francisco, Carmen Pinós and Alberto Estévez from Barcelona, Oliver Lang from Vancouver, Jorge Liernur from Buenos Aires, Vedran Mimica from Amsterdam, Roberto Villalobos and Victor Cañas from San José, Hector Vigliecca from São Paulo, Juvenal Baracco from Lima, Shane Murray from Melbourne, Amanda Reeser and Ashley Schafer from New York, and David Guthrie from Houston.

A few hightlights included: Murray from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, who spoke of “the radically local” and “mediated globalism,” while showing examples of the sometimes quirky way Australian architects are appropriating ideas from abroad and reinterpreting them in their own, Down Under way. Villalobos from San José, who challenged attendees to examine the role of architects in society. Mimica from the Berlage Institute, who explained how his school likes to “shake and shock” students with new ideas. And Guthrie, who spoke of visual editing and how he tries to express in his work what’s behind the surface.

The overall impression I took away from the Mundaneum was of unexpected connections. During one session, for example, I realized I was in a small central American country listening to Lang, who was raised in Germany, has his practice in Vancouver, and teaches in Chile.

I have seen the future and it’s borderless.

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