Brutalism and beauty in Puerto Rico

The beautiful Puerto Rican island of Vieques used to be best known as a testing ground for US missiles. Nowadays, it’s become a testing ground for cutting-edge concrete architecture instead

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, January 2016)

When music-industry executive Simon Baeyertz first came to Vieques in 2005, it was love at first sight. “It was instant – this beautifully shaped island with two little mountains on it, where you can lie in the sea and not see a man-made structure. It had this rugged beauty that really took me by surprise.”

Vieques, just off Puerto Rico’s main island, had been a bombing range and testing ground for the US Navy until 2003, when the Navy withdrew and much of the island was designated a National Wildlife Refuge. Its controversial past had, perhaps ironically, helped the island of 8,000 people become one of the Caribbean’s better-kept secrets.

The next time he came back, New Zealand-born Baeyertz had quit his job working with the likes of Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails and The White Stripes, and was looking to build a hotel. “It was a case of wanting out – I didn’t want to be a 50-year-old in a New York club surrounded by 20-somethings – but I also didn’t know how to do anything else. I thought to myself: I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels, why not try to backwards-engineer one? And I couldn’t think of anywhere I’d rather be than Vieques.”

So six years ago, he bought a modest site including a three-bedroom house in the village of Esperanza, and commissioned Puerto Rico architect Nathaniel Fuster to design a hotel “basically on the back of a napkin”. The idea was a curved, punctured concrete structure, inspired by coral, revolving around an open social space in the mould of an Ian Schrager hotel.

“I had absolutely no idea how big the project would become, or how complicated,” says Baeyertz. “I was this guy from the music industry who’d only ever built a sandcastle before. Suddenly, I was trying to figure out the mechanics of this incredibly complex cantilevered building, being built on a tiny footprint with a water table two metres down, that had to withstand hurricanes and salty air. Often I thought: what the hell am I doing?”

But in 2014, after almost five years and US$10 million (NOK87.3m), the 22-room El Blok opened to rave reviews – Travel + Leisure called it “easily the most stylish new hotel in the Caribbean” – and its restaurant, run by Puerto Rican culinary star Jose Enrique, has become the buzziest spot on the island.

Baeyertz wasn’t the first incomer to fall in love with Vieques and create a game-changing hotel. Canadian architect John Hix first came to the island in 1985 to escape the Canadian winter, and soon bought a plot of land to start experimenting with what he calls “Zen architecture”. Hix had lived in a greenhouse while teaching at Cambridge in the late 1960s, and it had informed an obsession with experimental and self-sustaining buildings.

He may have been inspired by a greenhouse, but his 19-room Hix Island House has no windows. There’s also no air-conditioning in the series of concrete structures set in 1.2 hectares of wildlife, where you shower outside and sleep with the Caribbean wind blowing through your room. Casa Solaris, its main building, is the first guest house in the Caribbean to be completely solar-powered.

Hix, who first built a three-room, triangular guest house here in 1990,  has designed similar houses across Vieques, as well as the Bahamas and St Lucia, all of them air con-free – and while their concrete forms are visually striking, he insists that form always followed function in their design. “It was about reacting to the landscape and climate of the island,” says Hix, who isn’t comfortable with terms like Brutalism or Minimalism. “I want people to feel like they’re in nature, and a million miles from their urban or suburban existence. Personally, I never wanted to travel to an exotic place and then live in an air-conditioned box.”

Unlike the buzzy, sociable El Blok, a stay at the Hix Island House is about silence and solitude – even if the two do share a similar design language. “They’re very different hotels,” says Baeyertz, whose first trip to Vieques was to stay at the Hix Island House. “But John inspired us with his bold use of concrete, as well as the sustainability of his buildings.”

With a hip W Retreat just down the road from El Blok, Vieques has quietly become a destination for design buffs as well as nature lovers coming to see the famous bioluminescent bay. “I think something has happened here,” says Baeyertz. “It might be a coincidence, but if it is then it’s a very happy one.”

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