Beyond Buildings


Exotic Vernacular: Hacienda Buena Vista in Puerto Rico

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The vernacular still has much to teach us. It can show us how human beings can work with an existing landscape and climate to create forms that clearly distinguish themselves as artifice, but that work with the land. I was reminded of this recently when I found myself, on a side trip from on of those conferences in which you sit in windowless rooms under fluorescent light while the landscape around you is beautiful, at one of the more obscure historic houses in the country, deep in the mountains of Puerto Rico.

Hacienda Buena Vista [], a former coffee plantation built starting in 1833, used the force of water and water alone to power the machines that washed, husked, and roasted the coffee, as well as to drive a corn mill. Built into the side of a steep and lushly forested hill, it disports itself around a channel that diverts water from a nearby waterfall before letting the water return to its course down to the Caribbean Sea. Restored to within an inch of its life starting in 1986, it is today a place where visitors can learn both about the social and economic history of the island and about the nature that pushes in around all the structures.

Hacienda Buena Vista exterior. Photo courtesy Wikimedia.

What made the Hacienda especially interesting to me was the intersection between mechanical forms, disciplined version of nature, and domestic enclosures. The first part of this intersection consists of geometric objects that always seem too big for their setting, as their gears, wheels, and shafts rise up through cramped spaces, rotate beyond the edges of the shed that house them, and ram through the ground, creating a sense of vertigo as they use and guide the water on its downward course. They also fragment the structures, breaking them open and letting you see each part in distinction.

Nature is everywhere around you at the Hacienda, but so is what humans—and, in particular, those who worked for the original owner, Don Salvado Vives—did with that setting. The channel leading down from the waterfall bends with the hill, burrows into it, pops up into little caves that allow for cleaning, runs through buildings, and shoot out an arm to provide water for the main house, turning into a round pond centering the main compound. It is the evident organizing principle for all the structures you see, and just happens to by that token place these buildings in a twisting and turning composition that accentuates the geography, while providing a visible line to connect the separate pieces.

Photo by author.


The main house, the slave quarters, and the various mill and coffee-grinding buildings are rectangle with spreading roofs, designed to shelter inhabitants and equipment from the sun while letting the rains slide off easily. Inside the main house, a small courtyard on the second floor promotes the flow of air and alleviates the pressure when hurricanes blow through. The proportions of the rooms is perfect, based on centuries of honing down the type so that the living and dining rooms in particular have an uncanny grace. The simple device of painting the walls in different colors breaks down the walls’ expanse. The colors create compositions that draw your eye from one room to the other, while framing the equally pared-down furniture in red, green, brown, and blue.

Hacienda Buena Vista interior. Photo by author.

J.B. Jackson, the great American landscape historian, was adamant that true vernacular was a structure of the land, one that could dissolve into it completely, such as a mud hut. These structures are different. They are evidence of human ingenuity, building blocks of a technological society whose basic forms never had a chance to develop to the point where you could no longer comprehend them (the mill fell into disuse in the early part of the 20th century).

Back when this restoration first started, we had just rediscovered what we called the vernacular. Architects such as Charles Moore and Robert Venturi reminded us of the strength of these structures, drawing our attention to both their visual power and their logical construction. They asked us to consider the sense of rightness, clarity, and simplicity they presented. Unfortunately, too many architects looked at the forms, without listening to that message. Perhaps it takes an exotic set of buildings in a far-away location such as this to remind us that design should work with the land and with technology, should be simple and clear, and should help us inhabit, use and understand our landscape.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.