October 19th, 2009

The Past, in Architecture

In the past fifteen years, Costa Rica has witnessed the same kind of building boom that has affected many other parts of the world, often with depressing results. In Costa Rica, new construction has encroached upon the jungle at the beach and carved its way into the country’s lush, green mountainsides. Some animals and birds have lost their homes, and air quality has suffered. But new construction might also have had another often-ignored effect on the emotional landscape of building occupants. Brand-new buildings have changed the relationship people once had to architecture in Costa Rica.

Throughout most of the last century, construction happened only gradually in Costa Rica. Building materials were expensive, and construction itself took a great deal of time. People built both houses and commercial buildings solidly and with little expectation of tearing them down to rebuild. When a new business or an organization needed a building for its headquarters, few ever considered the construction of a brand-new building. Instead, almost all moved into existing buildings–mostly houses–and adapted them to their particular needs. Schools, religious groups, cultural groups and small businesses almost always used old houses for their activities, and members and clients were accustomed to the idea of conducting business and activities in former residences.

This architectural repurposing was, of course, very economical, but it had an interesting emotional component as well. Users of the adapted buildings felt a connection to their former occupants and sensed the organic continuity of the architectural space. Schoolchildren often attended classes in former kitchens, reading and doing math problems with the reassuring awareness that someone once washed vegetables and cooked the rice and beans in that same room. Students in a repurposed school library or science lab could make out the former entrances to grand living rooms or graceful halls where former occupants once had parties or gazed out onto private gardens. Office workers grew accustomed to the awkwardness of bathrooms and closets in every room and enjoyed the unexpected interior patios that once illuminated the bedrooms of their houses-turned-offices.

Even when they weren’t consciously aware of doing so, users of repurposed buildings shaped their movements and their activities to the spaces and architectural arrangements of the people who occupied these buildings before them. New uses and altered internal configurations could never obliterate the sense that the new occupants were standing at the same windows, walking through the same hallways and enjoying the same plays of interior light that the previous occupants once knew. Users of these old buildings could always feel the traces of movement and activity of the people who came before them. Architecture retained a sense of the recent past, of a history that had only recently slipped away, leaving behind built traces and hints of itself.

As in all modernizing countries, Costa Rica now needs a great deal of new construction. Old houses often get torn down to make way for sleek offices and other commercial spaces with highly specific architectural needs. But lovers of Costa Rica’s past can still visit some of the old houses and feel the memories of those who passed through them.

Read about repurposing and inadvertent recycling in Costa Rica.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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October 11th, 2009

Columbus Day Complexity

Costa Ricans, like Americans, have historically celebrated Columbus Day on October 12. Originally, the subtext of those celebrations was that Christopher Columbus (known as Cristóbal Colón) had brought civilization to previously barbarian lands. People in Costa Rica commemorated the introduction of the Spanish language and of European customs into their land after Columbus’s 1502 arrival in what later became the port of Limón.

In later years, however, many Latin Americans rethought the meaning of Columbus’s “discovery” and began to mourn the destruction of the native cultures and languages that flourished before the Spaniards’ conquest of the New World. Antonio Casa, a Mexican philosopher, declared in 1918 that Mexico ought to celebrate the “Mexican mestizo race,” and not Christopher Columbus, on October 12. The mestizo race–”la raza”–was created through the intermarriage of the Spanish conquerors and the indigenous population. According to Casa, the people of Mexico should celebrate their own mixed heritage, the result of the Spaniards’ intervention in Mexico’s original culture. Other Latin Americans adopted this idea of celebrating La Raza, and October 12 became El Día de la Raza, a celebration of the mestizo race. Christopher Columbus ceased to be the civilizing hero of Latin America and became the enemy of the area’s original peoples.

As in Mexico, Costa Rica changed its Columbus Day celebration to honor El Día de la Raza. On October 12, Costa Ricans now celebrate their indigenous culture and the contributions of precolombian society to present-day Costa Rica, and not just the glory of the Spaniards’ arrival. The celebrations honor the Spanish-indigenous intermingling and the racial mixtures that contribute to Costa Rica today. (However, Costa Rica never had a significant indigenous population, and some might argue that there has been little indigenous influence in the country.)

Among certain academic circles in Costa Rica, there has been yet another shift in the Columbus Day/Día de la Raza story. For various intellectuals, El Día de la Raza has given way to a still newer conception of race and culture in Costa Rica. Some now encourage the country to adopt El Día de la Cultura, a yet-more-universal celebration of global culture, on October 12. This new holiday supposedly recognizes the Spanish influence in the country, the indigenous response to the Spanish arrival, and also the interrelationship of many different cultures that make Costa Rica what it is today. In particular, El Día de la Cultura is meant to honor the African influence on Costa Rican culture. Some scholars, like Mauricio Meléndez Obando, argue that Costa Rica has long downplayed the importance of African race and culture in its history. They believe that the slave trade and an African presence shaped Costa Rica to a far greater extent than most realize. Persuasive though their arguments are, these academics have not convinced most Costa Ricans, who still celebrate El Día de la Raza on October 12.

As notions of race and culture become more complicated and multi-dimensional, Costa Rica’s celebrations of Christopher Columbus have become increasingly layered and segmented and, perhaps, ever more interesting. In some form or other, Costa Ricans will always celebrate their heritage and their culture on October 12.

Read more about Antonio Casa and El Día de la Raza in Mexico.

Read Mauricio Meléndez Obando’s thoughts about El Día de la Cultura in Costa Rica.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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October 5th, 2009

The Blue-and-White Mystery

One of Costa Rica’s most prevalent and iconic symbols is the traditional house, or “casa típica.” Visitors to Costa Rica will see houses of this type on hundreds of postcards, in paintings, and in historically accurate reconstructions of actual buildings. The house looks the same in almost every representation; it has a red tile roof, square openings for windows, whitewashed adobe (or bahareque) walls, and a bright blue band of paint at the base of those walls. This blue band is the most remarkable feature on these houses. Interestingly, the reason behind the blue-and-white color combination—and the blue band, in particular—is not entirely clear. People have developed various theories to explain the blue, and all seem equally valid.

Some people say that the blue-and-white decorating scheme is merely an homage to Costa Rica itself. Because the traditional houses all had red-tile roofs, their owners decided to paint the walls blue and white. Thus, their houses were red, white and blue, the colors of the Costa Rican flag.

Some believe that when these types of houses were built, blue and white were simply the cheapest paint colors available. The paint protected the houses’ adobe walls, and people merely used the most economical colors they could find. Of course, this explanation does not take into account the particular design of the houses. Why is the blue at the base of the walls?

Other people argue that the blue at the base of the walls serves a functional purpose. When houses of this type were popular, Costa Rica was a rural country, and the houses stood on either dirt or grass. During the long rainy season, water poured off the roofs of the houses and pounded into the ground, splashing mud onto the walls. If the walls had been painted white all the way to the ground, their bases would have been mud-spattered and dirty throughout the rainy season. The blue paint served to protect the walls from mud spots and to disguise any dirt. Of course, one might wonder why people chose blue paint, instead of brown.

Still other people agree with the rain theory but have a different idea about causation. They believe that houses were all painted white at first and that they all developed a rain-induced band of caked-on mud at their bases. The brown band was so familiar-looking that people began to appreciate its aesthetic beauty. The color-block look became popular and desirable. With the idea of replicating this banded look, people began to paint the bases of their outdoor walls, settling on blue as a color that would not continually remind them of mud and as a particularly snappy pairing with white.

Although the reason behind the blue-and-white combination on Costa Rica’s traditional houses may be unclear, the houses are clearly charming and fun to see.

Please let us know if you have heard any other theories about the painted design of traditional Costa Rican houses.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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