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Elements to Bear in Mind about Ponce Architecture

Elements to Bear in Mind about Ponce Architecture

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Published by Jorge Ortiz Colom
An illustrated text that explains the interesting characteristics of the city of Ponce (Puerto Rico) and the main principles of its historic architecture.
An illustrated text that explains the interesting characteristics of the city of Ponce (Puerto Rico) and the main principles of its historic architecture.

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categoriesTopics, Art & Design
Published by: Jorge Ortiz Colom on Mar 15, 2012
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03/15/2012

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Elements to bear in mind on Ponce architecture 
 Jorge Ortiz Colom, Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, Ponce office / November 2007
P
ONCE
S BUILT FORM
– city and buildings - reflect multiculturalism and an open, progressive view of the world. This is particularly important in the mixture of vernacular and cultivated forms and details andthe blending of local and imported materials. Ponce was Puerto Rico’s commercial center for theimportant export industry of semi-processed agricultural products: dry coffee beans (shipped raw orroasted) and brown or muscovado sugar.It is climatically appropriate, with a use of low-temperature-burned brick masonry and wood, bothnative mostly in structure and imported in sheathing.The use of balconies and enclosed galleries, highceilings with an airspace between it and the (generallytin) roofs and the design of doors and windows are allspecific responses to a hot, semidry climate at a time of lack of easily tappable energy sources.
Representative buildings and types
Ponce architecture is characterized by elements like:
 
Vernacular predominance between 1825approx. to 1900, using mostly local wood, mampostería or brick, generally rectangular or L-shapes, high hip or side gable roofs (the latter with distinct ventilating grilles in wood slats). Thisstyle continued as a subordinate tendency up to ca. 1920. Usually the interior is 3 rooms widewith a central living space flanked by bedrooms, or 2 wide with one side for public space and theother one for bedrooms. Some of these are “absorbed” great houses of estates that were cultivatedhard up against the town.
 
Cultured tradition by several known architects and engineers, in many cases designing upon the vernacular interior schemes. Neoclassical was the prevalent language and its exuberance isevident for example in Manuel Doménech’s Carlos Armstrong House (1899). Some designers likeengineer Blas Silva and architect Alfredo Wiechers however develop alternate plan distributions.Wiechers was greatly influenced by Catalan
modernisme
(many wealthy residents of the city were infact of Catalan origin), and other architects also used
modernista
-inspired detailing specially infaçades, balconies and
mediopuntos
(ornamental interior screens subdividing the main living space).This type of building prevailed between 1880 and 1920 in the more central locations.
 
Pattern-book plans using American models and inspiration in bungalows and Anglo-Americanarts and crafts details. Usually built in imported wood and concrete. Some are visible inresidential sectors of downtown and others in sections like the Mariani residential subdivision(inner suburb) southwest of downtown. This was prevalent between 1920-1950.
 
Art Deco and Art Moderne in many areas used in all genera of building. Simultaneous use of Spanish Revival mostly for residential. (1930-1960)
 
Monumental traditions, mostly neoclassical, for the significant buildings in town. As Ponce grew,many stylistic traditions were tried. There is no stylistic uniformity in Ponce comparable with thatof San Juan and its overriding colonial-neoclassical theme.
Vernacular gingerbread house in thenorthern part of the city center
 
2
Spatial traits:
Though the houses define street walls withgreat effect, they are in fact detached andparty walls between interior spaces are rareunlike the case of Old San Juan. The mostcommon spatial distribution in older“Creole” houses (up to 1920) is access fromthe street by a wide façade-length verandato a central living room. This center-hallorganization, probably derived from vernacular European origins was modifiedfor the tropics. This hall became a largeliving space, often two with a more privateand familiar one on the back (knownusually as the
antesala
or anteroom becauseit used to be the access in 2-storyhouses once the horizontal throw of the stairs was factored in). Theseliving rooms were separated first by awall and later on by a sometimesexuberant wooden partition known asa
mediopunto
(“halfway point”), madewith different details of lathed,molded, or jig sawed pieces,sometimes also hiding cupboards andother storage. Flanking on one orboth sides, enfilade, the bedrooms,normally interconnected among themselves for more privacy. Thesehad no built-in closets: clothing wasstored in so-called
roperos
, i.e. cabinetswith perches for hanging clothesinside. Ceilings were very high to allow hot air to move up outside the comfort zone of occupants.Narrower houses will be two rooms wide with one side dedicated to bedrooms and the other to publicliving spaces. Two-room width houses are arranged on the lot to attempt to orient the bedrooms to theeast. This reduces solar gain on them so they’re fresher in the evenings and also helps by using the earlysunlight as a means to wake up the residents. There were several “twin” (duplex) houses too.Most of these houses will have an utilitarian extension to the back known as a
martillo
or “hammer”, wherein many cases the kitchen, pantry, servants’ quarters, laundry and other working spaces of the house arelocated, conveniently placed next to the rear yard. Rear yards in houses are in most cases utilitarian, andthey normally house herb gardens, fruit trees, clotheslines and implements. Few are conceived asornamental and decorative though some have been converted to the latter functions after renovations.Later houses have a decisive influence of Anglo-American pattern books and bungalow forms possiblybrought from the Lesser Antilles. They may be either asymmetrical or rectangular in plan. Many willhave center aisles with rooms on either side; these aisles would connect the living space with dining and
Mediopunto type partition in former beach house (ca.1915) moved to the La Alhambra inner suburb later
 
Criollo house in brick and wood-metal roof behind parapet:the two center doors on balcony open to the living space
 
 
3
kitchen oriented to the back of the house. These houses of the1890-1940 period would coexist with architect-designedmodels, though even the latter would respect in many cases vernacular floor plan organization and others – like many byAlfredo Wiechers and some houses by Blas Silva – wouldorganize the spaces around a longitudinal circulation spacerunning through the rear of the house.The presence of substantial verandas (
balcones
 ) is a commondenominator of Ponce’s domestic landscape making it presentin the city. Essential to the
balcón
's success is its relation andtransition to inside space. The
balcón
on criollo houses is aboveall a living space, occupable for extended periods. Its regularand rhythmic composition reinforced the symmetry of traditional center-hall houses, and on one-story versions, itwas part of a spatial sequence from the public to the intimate,culminating in the sala or main living room. On upper stories,
balcones
were widened - they were no longer mere lookouts likethe Mediterranean-style galleries that exist in Old San Juan,but usable platforms where life could go on with a view to theworld beneath. In Ponce, these works of architectural art werebuilt with molded/lathed hardwood, cast iron (sometimes imported) or brick or concrete pillars, with ashed roof covering. Trim could be cast iron, molded or jig sawed wood; often fancily decorative.In any case, the separation between verandas and interiors was effected with double doors with operableshutter panels, which could be placed in several positions to control visibility and ventilation, substituting the more elementary plank doors used beforehand. Operable shutters were incorporated inside thepanels, and the postigo (a small hinged panel covering the shutters) retained to access them. Doors werealmost always set in pairs and small panes of glass for lighting, or additional holes for ventilation, or both,were incorporated. In many cases, they now ornamented facades. Transoms on top of these doors took ondecorative qualities - there were versions inoperable glass, wood slats, and fancy jigsawed fretwork. Galleries to the side andrear patios were also ample, and a particularcharacteristic of the ones in Ponce is thepresence of fixed wooden louvers to controlthe region’s intense sunlight. (In many othertowns even in the South these galleries to theback were open.)The public/private transition expressed by verandas (balcones), with its clear outsidewall articulation, would survive theintroduction of reinforced concrete,standardized North American softwood andeven the importation of new architecturalstyles like Art Deco/Moderne and SpanishRevival between 1925 and 1950. Concretesolutions timidly realized the new forms of plastic expression that this material could render. In most earlycases, brick was retranslated into the new material: adding new details such as decorative glass mosaic
Gallery with fixed wood louvers inmartillo (ell) extension of house
 
Balcony details with operable transom, slats ondouble doors and shiplap facing of front walls
 

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