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.