August 13, 2001
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. Its
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 doesnt 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 Ricas current advertising
slogan, rightfully plugging the countrys 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.
Although mindful of the countrys 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.
Some of Costa Ricas 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 discussionsa lingering sign of
suspicion on the part of the countrys architectural
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
governments 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 conferences 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
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 whats behind the
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 its borderless.