Henry Klumb: Two Buildings, One Idea

The seed for this post was originally a discussion on the architecture of Henry Klumb* sponsored by the Preservation Committee of Puerto Rico’s Architects and Landscape Architects Association (CAAPPR) and docomomo_puerto rico (the local chapter of the International Organization for the Documentation and Conservation of Modern Movement) that I proudly presided at the time.

As expected, I have slightly edited the text.

On March 29 (2015) opened the exhibition Latin America in Construction: Architecture (from) 1955 (to) 1980 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It celebrated the 60th anniversary of the exhibition that MoMA organized in 1955 about Latin American architecture built by 1945. At that time, the architectural production of a decade was presented and in representation of modern architecture in Puerto Rico, two works were exhibited: the Caribe Hilton Hotel by Toro y Ferrer Arquitectos and the Sanctuary of San Martín de Porres by Henry Klumb.

In the later exhibition, although it included architecture produced in a span of a quarter of a century, only one work from Puerto Rico was selected; Henry Klumb’s intervention of a traditional nineteenth-century hacienda in Río Piedras.**

In the assembly of a large-scale exhibition like this one, omissions are understandable, especially since including a whole sampling of works and figures from multiple countries is most certainly not an easy task. The problem — or rather what bothers me to this day — which is what somehow happened with the works chosen to represent Puerto Rican modern architecture 60 years ago — is that MoMA seems to perpetuate the promotion of IMAGES before IDEAS.

To reduce the architectural production of a quarter of a century in Puerto Rico to one surrounded by exuberant nature, or open to natural ventilation is to limit architectural ideas to mere tropical iconography. Whether or not intentional, it is somewhat offensive that peers do not acknowledge architectural sophistication in the Antillean Region.***

In the 1955 exhibition, its curator, Henry Russell Hitchcock, chose to describe the Sanctuary of San Martín de Porres — when comparing it to the ecclesiastical work of Oscar Niemeyer — as lacking dramatic spatial effects, just for the simple fact that its scale is not as monumental as the work of the Brazilian architect.

Referring to the diagonally arranged piers employed by Klumb at San Martín as light deflectors — dazzled perhaps by the fact that the chapel is open to natural ventilation — Hitchcock wasted the opportunity to recognize the spatial idea behind the structural elements.

With the piers, as designed and built, Klumb recognized the religious commitment of the Order of Preachers, also known as the Dominican Order, to amplify and promote the spread of the gospel.

If the first Dominican churches in the New World resorted to monumentality to carry over the word of God, at San Martín, Klumb used the angled walls dramatize the diffusion of the Dominican ecclesiastical message.

More importantly, it surprises that despite the fact that the 2015 exhibition had the support of the Architecture and Construction Archive of the School of Architecture of the University of Puerto Rico (AACUPR in Spanish), curators wasted the opportunity to include a more representative work. Henry Klumb’s Dominican Friars Convent built in 1958 in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, would have proved a better example.A work in which the late architect, 10 years after having conceived San Martín de Porres, had enough time to rethink and mature the spatial ideas and architectural details he would rehearse in Cataño.

The following analytical drawings further illustrate the point.

Abstract axonometric animation on the evolution of the spatial ideas at play at the Sanctuary to San Martín de Porres the Dominican Convent.

The photographs and sketches above illustrate how the diagonally arranged piers provide a dual spatial experience. On both buildings, while attending mass (looking at the altar) the angled piers become a solid plane that frames our attention towards the liturgical event. In contrast, looking away from the altar the piers become a transparent plane that allows the interior space to extend beyond its built boundaries.

In contrast to the tight suburban lot where Klumb had to erect the sanctuary, the site at the convent was larger. Therefore, the spatial quality achieved at San Martín, aided by the hanging plants and low concrete walls, was further expanded at the Dominican residence, not only at the church space, but throughout the complex.

At the time of the lecture on this subject (in 2015) many of those present at the event did not know the Dominican Seminary. And that should have made us think, that while we recognized the omissions of the exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art, we also needed to reconsider ours locally. MoMA’s omissions are justified because any exhibition constitutes an act of summarizing. And anyone that summarizes, at the same time undoes and, as result, remakes history.

Notes:

* Henry Klumb, was a German architect born in 1905. He emigrated in 1927 to the United States to become an apprentice at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin North in Wisconsin. After five years, he left Taliesin and worked briefly with Louis I. Kahn and Louis Metzinger, forming the Cooperative Planners firm in Philadelphia during the period of the Great Depression. In 1944 he was invited by Rexford Tugwell (Governor of Puerto Rico at the time) to work as design consultant at the Public Works Design Committee. A few years later, he established the Office of Henry Klumb in San Juan from where he designed all types of private and public projects all over the Island.

** The exhibition catalog included a black and white photograph (right image at the second illustration above) of La Parroquia Nuestra Señora del Carmen in Cataño, Puerto Rico designed by Henry Klumb in 1959. For an earlier post on Casa Klumb, please refer to: https://wp.me/p1hCI1-a2

*** Despite the myopia with which MoMA decided to carry out the exhibition, Dr. Enrique Vivoni (former director and founder of the Architecture and Construction Archive of the School of Architecture at University of Puerto Rico; entity that preserves the historical documents of myriad architectural firms of the Island) clarified in the commented bibliography section that he was asked to produce for the exhibition catalog, the existence of an analytical/critical tradition of architecture in Puerto Rico.

Our critique of MoMA’s short sightedness has also been diagnosed by others. For example, on the introduction of Aalto and America, Stanford Anderson calls-out MoMA’s myopia when they organized the Finnish architect’s Cenntenial Exhibition and “…gave spare attention to Aalto’s relationship with America, which is all the more surprising for the fact that New York, and indeed the Museum itself, figured largely in Aalto’s experience of America.”

from sketch to space, part one

Until last year (2017), while working at Jorge Rigau, FAIA -Arquitectos PSC (jorgerigau.com), I collaborated in the restoration of San José Church in Old San Juan, the second oldest church in the New World. Originally built by the Dominican Order, its construction began in 1532, and spanned until mid-19th Century, with several restoration efforts undertaken during the 20th Century.

As an overseer of the conservation effort under the Patronato de Monumentos de San Juan, I recorded minute details of existing conditions, as well as restoration techniques, and on-site solutions and recommendations.

Customarily, architecture projects rely heavily on construction plans; and while historic preservation endeavors are not exempt of including such drawings, on-site sketches and recording field notes tend to have greater weight. First, because surprises abound; second, since — more often than not — complex tasks need to be translated to workers; and finally, because preservation is mainly about restoring traditions, and on-site instructions — I strongly believe — is one of them.

In this post and a series following, I’ll illustrate how some of those graphic instructions aided at the restoration of myriad elements throughout San José.

While assessing a structural fracture at the Virgen del Rosario Chapel a wall niche or hornacina was discovered behind cement plaster. In what seemed like an attempt to address the structural crack (or change in liturgical aesthetics), the niche had been sealed off from view.

Throughout time, a series of earthquakes affecting Old San Juan had structurally compromised the church and several openings had been repaired. Even if well-intentioned, most too often this repairs where performed with incompatible or feeble means and methods.

Notwithstanding, vestiges of the original niche were still visible under the improvised enclosures. Therefore, we opted for reconstructing the niche, albeit ensuring an appropriate structural reinforcement of the fractured wall above. The sketch above illustrates our response; restoring the original half-round niche and providing a half-dome to structurally stabilize the damaged lintel, allowing the safe distribution of gravitational forces towards the reinforced brick masonry base.

The photo below shows a bricklayer erecting the masonry base that supported the half-dome. The voids between the brick masonry of the new niche and the uneven surfaces of the rubble masonry wall were carefully filled in with a compatible mortar in order to provide a solid substructure. The subsequent images show the finished hornacina within the space.*

* We decided just to include our sketches, photos of the process and images of the finished product. But in Puerto Rico, for far too long, traditional means and methods of construction like brick, stone or rubble masonry, had been lost. During the mid-20th Century, disguised as a way to withstand hurricanes, traditional construction including wood had been replaced by reinforced concrete (and eventually steel) construction.

Needless to say, throughout the restoration process of San José workers encountered multiple difficulties. Regardless of their avid skills, many initially lacked the discipline to deal with the minute details pertaining traditional construction; careful selection of materials; consistency of mortar mix production; and most importantly, the need for erecting work ensuring geometrical precision in order to withstand the effects of gravity.

Workers quickly learned the fact that masonry construction is not as forgiving (not to say malleable) as reinforced concrete; therefore there were many failed-starts. Fortunately, in all instances, workers’ pride for their craft and perseverance worked in our favor. The finished product not only ended as imagined, but it also performs as intended.

Casa Vives, Ponce, Puerto Rico

A few years ago my wife Claudia Rosa-López and I led a group of students from Polytechnic University in documenting this house. With their set of drawings they earned a Third Place award at Peterson Prize, sponsored by the Historic American Building Survey of National Park Service. Today, the students’ drawings can be accessed at the Library of Congress site through this link: https://www.loc.gov/item/pr1528/

Built about 1860 and designed by French immigrant architect Juan Bertoli Calderoni, Casa Vives in Ponce, Puerto Rico is an outstanding example of a 19th-century Puerto Rican urban residence with commercial spaces on the ground floor and residential spaces above.

Casa Klumb

The Klumb house, previously known as el Rancho Cody, was acquired by Henry Klumb in 1947. The house belonged to José Ramón Latimer and his wife Esther C. Cody who rented out rooms. In 1949 Klumb remodel the structure which was a traditional pitched-roof wood structure raised from the terrain with a surrounding balcony that opened directly towards the outside.

The intervention instead of consisting of additions to the original layout was more about subtraction as if adhering to Mies’ “less is more” predicament. Klumb eliminated — almost entirely — the enclosing walls to allow continuity between the public spaces of the house and the veranda. Thus, the living room (in the front) and the dinning room (at the back) — maintaining the original layout — were left completely open. The bedrooms remained partially enclosed and large operable pivoting windows allowed for privacy while allowing cross ventilation and when opened visual and physical connection with the balcony.

Klumb, his wife Else and their two children Peter and Richard lived in the house until 1984 when Klumb and Else died as a result of a car accident.

After their death, the house was acquired by the University of Puerto Rico in 1986, but was left abandoned to its current state of deterioration. In 1997 it was included as a Regional Monument in the National Register of Historic Places and in 2012 it was elevated to the status of National Monument by the same entity. In 2014 the house was included in the World Monuments Watch and in March Comité Casa Klumb was created to aid at the restoration of the structure.

Here are a few drawings I made during a visit to the Casa Klumb organized by the committee as part of a series of activities aimed at raising awareness of the house condition and its future restoration.

IMG_1791.JPG The living room

IMG_1792.JPG The dining room

IMG_1790.JPG The dining room table

IMG_1789.JPG floor plan and axon

sketching por la isla: tren urbano

Here are some sketches I made on our last tour sketching por la isla. This time we decided to draw from the “Tren Urbano” (San Juan’s only metro line).

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inside the train car; the curved buildings of el monte housing complex (where I live); tunnel entrance; san juan’s courthouse façade detail; and grab bar detail.

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rum testing laboratories’ building at san juan’s botanical gardens; and escalators atrium at centro medicos’ station.

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covered platform at cupey station.

sketching por la isla: yauco y san germán

Estos son algunos bocetos que realicé el pasado sábado mientras acompañaba a Jorge Rigau y su curso de Historia del Caribe.
Here are some sketches I did last Saturday on a trip with Jorge Rigau’s course on History of Caribbean Architecture.

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Condición urbana (parque/plaza) en Yauco; diagrama espacial de la residencia Franceschi (tipo sala-pasillo-comedor) y alzado parcial de la Villa Ange del arquitecto Pedro Méndez.

20120201-000428.jpgFachada frontal de la Ermita de Porta Coeli y un diagrama de la condición urbana (parque/plaza) en San Germán.

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Diagrama espacial de la Residencia Acosta y Forés (tipo A-B-A), perspectiva del mediopunto en la sala y un detalle de los estarcidos del área del comedor.

20120201-000552.jpgDiagrama espacial de la Residencia Ortíz Perichi y una perspectiva de la Residencia Vélez del arquitecto Henry Klumb.

convento de las carmelitas, thomas s. marvel

Designed in 1976 by Thomas S. Marvel, the Carmelite Sisters’ Convent in Trujillo Alto is often considered one of the best examples of early brutalism in Puerto Rico. It is troubling how closely it was modeled to resemble Le Corbusier’s convent of La Tourette. However, its proportions lack the mathematical correctness and spatial aspirations of the French masterpiece.

In truth, the similarities lie only within the use itself, the materials employed and its siting. The Convento de las Carmelitas rests on top of a small hill in a somewhat pastoral setting. Exposed concrete or “betón brut” was the main construction material employed.

There is no way to access the main cloister unless one becomes a Carmelite Sister (or a robber, as one of the sisters told us). The only spaces that welcome visitors are the refractory and the chapel which can be accessed through an entrance courtyard. Here’s a view of that space looking towards the main gate, the belfry and the chapel’s entrance. I have also included an interior photograph of the chapel to illustrate the lack of proportions and poor spatial qualities.

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